When we began investigating Traumatic Brain Injury in our troops, it sounded a lot like the highly-publicized controversy over NFL concussions. So why has there been so little public discussion about our troops? As it turns out, the military science could have important applications to civilian life.
Just before this year’s Super Bowl 52, the National Football League released figures on how many concussions had been reported during the season: 291—a number on the rise. It got a lot of news coverage. Concern over sports concussions is prompting change at every level down to pee-wee leagues. But the number of NFL concussions is dwarfed by the lesser-publicized problem of Traumatic Brain Injury from concussions in the military, estimated at well beyond 22-thousand per year.
Sharyl: To look at what's happening with the NFL attention on concussions and the military attention on concussions. What are your observations about that?
Dr. Brody: I've been involved directly in both of them.
Dr. David Brody is a lead researcher of Traumatic Brain Injury in the military.
Dr. Brody: Before I came here, I was at Washington University in St. Louis. I was the director of one of the retired player care programs for National Football League players. I saw quite a few retired NFL players in my clinic and took care of them as my patients. There are a lot of similarities between the retired players and the military service members. But there's also some substantial differences. Sports concussions occur in basically a friendly environment. No one's shooting at you. The guy next to you didn't get blown up and lose both legs. The guy on the other side of you didn't get killed. The combination of injury and the stress of war is completely different. And worse.
By definition, war is chaos. But the military is moving quickly to limit exposure on the field of fire they can control: Training.
Dave Hall: I'm sure I got it as much from training, because the type of equipment that we use is going to give it to you.
Dave Hall is a former Navy SEAL who continued to serve even after he almost lost his leg in a 2004 explosion in Iraq. He also believes he suffers from Traumatic Brain Injury.
Dave Hall: My friends, my peers that have it, I think you almost have to fall off the edge and survive it. Otherwise, it's so insidious, it's like being gassed in your sleep. You don't really know that that's what it is that's encroaching on your life.
The head the Naval Special Warfare Command is addressing the growing concerns by calling for a list of changes including: Limiting and monitoring explosive training, identifying and treating Traumatic Brain Injuries earlier, and what would be one of the most important initiatives: baseline screening. That means establishing the health of the soldier’s brain on the front end to have something to compare it to later.
Dave Hall: I just think monitoring it is one thing. Getting a baseline of people that are coming in and seeing, okay, where was the place where they diverged?
Hall says addressing the issue head on is necessary to keep the U.S. military strong.
Hall: Ultimately, I think the force is going to hit a point where the word gets out there to these young men. There's so many young men that are super fit that want to be SEALs because we're like legend in popular culture right now. When that shifts to, 'Hey, you know that's a really bad career path, you're probably going to come in, your brain's not going to be right, and if you start acting a little bit squirrely, the leadership is probably going to throw you out with a characterization that you can't probably even get a job washing cars in a parking lot. '
The science and solutions are a work in progress. But something that could ultimately help civilians, too.
Dr. Brody: Why does this matter to you? This matters to you because if you have a son or a daughter has concussion after a soccer game or football or car accident or a fall or assault we need to be able to detect it so that we can treat it appropriately in the future. Just as in all of history, war has led to advances in trauma care. We hope that this technology we’re learning about to visualize the invisible wounds of war in Iraq and Afghanistan will translate to improve concussion care for everyone, of you and your families.
Dave Hall sees Ryan Larkin as a hero—he’s the Navy SEAL who tried to flag the problem, ultimately took his own life, and donated his brain to Traumatic Brain Injury research.
Hall: Looking at the whole thing now, you go, “Oh my god, this guy had the moral courage to say, ‘Hey, I have a problem.’” And I think a lot of it was because he saw it happening to his peers as well and thought, "Well, if you're not going to say something, I will. And then maybe we'll all get helped.”
Sharyl: Ryan served his country honorably. He was a brave, young man. It almost strikes me as if he was killed in action.
Frank Larkin: He was. He just didn't die right away.
For more information about Ryan Larkin - and his sacrifice - watch Ryan's Story Part 1.