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Local Marines fight brain injury stigma with a 100-mile run

Soldiers and training personnel take part in an exercise in a smoke-filled room at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The exercise, held in a room that simulates combat conditions, helps brain-injured soldiers readjust to life on the battlefield before possibly being sent back to battle. (AP File photo)

Other military wives told Sarah her husband might be “different” when he returned from Iraq a few years ago after serving as an X-ray technician out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“No one could figure out why he was exhausted and why he was having gushing nosebleeds,” she says.

Beyond the physical changes, he had nightmares. During the day, he experienced extreme mood changes and he sometimes took out his anger on her.

“He genuinely does not remember throwing me up against a wall. At one point we were having an argument and he spit on me. He’s never done that ever. Literally spit on me,” she says. “Deep down I knew something was wrong, so I didn’t want to give up.”

Several years after being injured in Iraq, Sarah’s husband finally discovered what was wrong.

“Diagnosis ICD9 code, 854.0 Traumatic Brain Injury. 310.2 Post-Concussion Syndrome,” she told me as she showed me his medical records about a year ago. He was just beginning treatment then for an incident in 2007 when a mortar went off near him.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is often called the signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It occurs when a sudden trauma or head injury disrupts the function of the brain.

“This has been a problem coming out of every war we ever fought in. We can go back and document that this was the largest problem after World War II, but we didn’t talk about it as much,” says retired General Pete Chiarelli, former Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army.

Chiarelli is now CEO of One Mind for Research, a Seattle nonprofit dedicated to curing brain diseases, including TBI and PTSD.

“Research in this area is 40 to 50 years behind where we are with the rest of the human body,” he says.

Medical technology has advanced tremendously over the past few decades, but he says the process of diagnosing a soldier – or anyone else – for brain injuries and emotional trauma is antiquated.

“Seventeen questions are asked to an individual. Based on the score that they receive, a qualified psychiatrist or psychologist will give them a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress or not,” he says. “That’s just no way to diagnose a problem.”

TBI is particularly difficult to detect in cases that are mild and don’t have an obvious or known cause.

“These are real, no kidding injuries. They’re no different than a broken bone or the heart injury someone has,” Chiarelli says.

A lack of funding for brain research is only part of the problem, he sees for troops coming back from multiple tours of duty.

There’s still a stigma in the military that prevents some of them from wanting to talk about, or seek help for, any injury involving the brain.

That’s reinforced by a case like the murders involving JBLM Staff Sgt. Robert Bales who will be sentenced this month for killing 16 Afghan civilians in March of 2012.

Many of the victims were women and children and he couldn’t explain why he did it. His attorney has offered some explanations including PTSD.

Bales told a military judge, “There’s not a good reason in the world for why I did the horrible things I did.”

“The bad thing about talking about TBI and Post Traumatic Stress as much as we do now is we leave the impression in people’s minds that everyone who goes to Iraq or Afghanistan has these problems,” Chiarelli says. “The vast majority of them do not.”

More military personnel are becoming vocal about the kinds of injuries that affect tens of thousands of soldiers, and millions of Americans who suffer from brain injuries and PTSD following accidents.

This weekend Marines from Always Brothers will run 100 miles from Seattle to Orting and back to raise money for research on brain diseases and injuries experienced by veterans.

A group of Marines and civilians will depart Leschi at 6 a.m., Aug. 10, and run through Mercer Island, Renton, Maple Valley, and Enumclaw before stopping at the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs Soldiers Home in Orting.

The runners will continue along the outskirts of Puyallup and on through Sumner, Auburn, Kent, Tukwila, South Park and West Seattle, where they will be joined by a police escort as they cross the West Seattle Bridge and finish at CenturyLink Field on Sunday morning.

“What we’re seeing is a connection now between Traumatic Brain Injury, Post Traumatic Stress, Alzheimer’s, dementia, Lou Gehrig’s or ALS, Parkinson’s Disease and some people thing MS and possibly autism,” Chiarelli says.

“We’ve got to break down those silos, get researchers to start talking with one another and try to propel our understanding of the thing that makes us who we are – the brain.”


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