Soldiers Sent Back Into Combat After Concussion Suffer Consequences Years Later

(Credit: Tyler Hicks, via Scientific American)

A report aired on 60 Minutes on Sunday shed light on the under-reported threat combat soldiers faced when sent back out into the theater with a concussion, a decision that has had long-lasting repercussions on American veterans.

For years, concussions have been an invisible and therefore neglected injury within the armed services. At the height of the Iraq War, the standard operating procedure was to have soldiers who had sustained head injuries from the explosion of IEDs or other trauma to go back out into the field soon thereafter. In doing so, these soldiers — suffering from symptoms including severe aches, double vision, and nausea — were put at risk of suffering a second concussion before the first had healed, an event that heightens the chance of permanent brain damage.

Maj. Ben Richards, a retired Army veteran, was one of the soldiers sent back out after a concussion who has now been diagnosed with brain injury. “If I could trade traumatic brain injury for a single-leg amputation, I’d probably do that in a second,” he told 60 Minutes, underscoring the difference between visible injuries and those hidden inside the brain. Before his new diagnosis, Richards was told he instead had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “If you have PTSD and you are not improving through counseling, then it’s your fault,” Richards said of the stigma that still accompanies such a diagnosis. “It was my fault that I wasn’t getting better.”

Watch the full segment here:

Dr. David Hovda, head of UCLA’s Brain Injury Research Center, tried to explain the severity of even mild concussions on soldiers to the Pentagon in 2008. Instead, he was told it was “bad medicine” to keep soldiers out of the field to rest after a concussion, with an assembled team of Army doctors claiming that, because of the stigma that would entail, allowing for rest before being sent back out would make soldiers worse. Gen. Peter Chiarrelli — then the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, now an advocate for mental health in the military — chose to side with Dr. Hovda in 2009 anyway, issuing an order saying that all forces who suffered concussions would be pulled from combat until their recovery.

Despite Chiarrelli’s decision, the numbers still aren’t good for veterans. 357,000 veterans — or about 20 percent of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan — have experienced a traumatic brain injury as of January 2009. Despite that, only 46 percent of those who experienced a mild traumatic brain injury were screened for a concussion. At its peak in 2011, the Department of Defense reported 16 new concussions were inflicted per day.

Last year, the NFL donated $30 million to study concussions, in partnership with the U.S. military. Efforts are also under way to raise some $90 million to construct more brain injury centers along the lines of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, the military’s most advanced brain injury evaluation center. Nine additional centers would enable the military to care for 9,000 brain injuries per year, the amount of new injuries officials expect as the war in Afghanistan winds down.