Concussions From Combat: Exposing Hidden Wounds of War

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) – A nationwide research project investigating military concussions says the problem is far more widespread than the Department of Defense has estimated. The head of the study says service members have been exposed to repeated concussions, both in combat and in training, and he is appealing to veterans to participate.

The Chronic Effects of Neurotrauma Consortium (CENC) combines more than 30 university research hospitals and Veterans Administration Medical Centers. Its goal is to find novel treatments for military concussion.

Marine sergeant Eddie Wright was a gunner on the back of a Humvee in Fallujah in 2004, when the vehicle took a direct hit from an RPG. “It's a miracle that I'm alive. I was exposed to a blast from maybe two feet away.”

Wright lost the lower half of both arms and had serious damage to his leg, but with a prosthesis and strong determination, he says he can handle that. It’s the after-effects of concussion that have him surrounded – even now, 12 years later. Strain on his marriage, an inability to focus, irritability, anger. Some of his fellow marines survived the war, but lost the battle.

Eddie Wright

“It's a serious issue,” Wright told 10 On Your Side. “I'm passionate about it, because I know Marines who have died. They killed themselves, because they couldn't fix themselves, and they just weren't right in the head.”

Dr. David Cifu wants to help Wright and others like him. He's based at VCU Medical Center and the Richmond VA Medical Center and runs CENC. Cifu says Army and Marine infantry are especially at risk, but members of any branch of the military are at risk.

Cifu describes how concussions have a cumulative effect. “When you're getting repeated concussions, getting them close to each other, getting them without even being aware, when you're getting another one before the last one has fully healed.”

Even training can put service members at risk. “Jumping into water and hitting something, things blowing up in the water, airborne paratrooping, rappelling down rocks” are all examples Cifu gave of ways in which service members can sustain concussions while training.

Cifu says duty to mission and unit can keep service members from realizing they've even had a concussion. “All of them were blown up. So they all didn't feel so well. So they all said ‘yeah, that was wild and we didn't feel well.’ If we tested them they would have all had concussions.”

Cifu says CENC has screened over a million veterans so far. About 200,000 or 20 percent, still had lingering symptoms of repeated concussions. He’s reaching out to any and all veterans to help his team find better treatments. CENC would like to evaluate “anybody that's felt dazed, confused, saw stars, or were woozy while in battle.”

Here’s where Cifu says the problem is greater than the Pentagon might believe. He says about 2.6 million troops were deployed since 2000. The Department of Defense estimates 350,000 sustained concussions. But Cifu says many go unreported, and based on CENC’s data so far, he says it's probably greater than half a million vets with concussions.

Department of Defense Estimates

Wright has this message to other military with brain injury: “Don't give up, we're in this together. We got this. We need to just start talking about it. Talk about it.”

Wright says had he been serving in Vietnam he never would have survived, because triage treatment for blast victims is so much better now. He says we can expect to see more and more veterans like him - the ones who survived horrific injuries but are haunted by concussion.

The research consortium encourages veterans who might have been exposed to any sort of concussion to volunteer for the study. Cifu says the more veterans CENC can evaluate, the quicker it can find the next breakthroughs in treating military concussions.

National Center for PTSD Resources

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