On this Veterans Day, let’s take some time to consider the signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts--Traumatic brain injury. TBI is one of the invisible wounds of war and the signature injury for our service members who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 430,000 U.S. service members were diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury from 2000 to 2020. And the number is probably higher, because this statistic fails to account for the many more service members who were not diagnosed, because their injury was not properly recognized during combat, when the service member returned to their base, or because a service member minimized or hid his or her symptoms.
Service members can sustain a TBI during day-to-day activities, such as vehicle crashes, falls, or during training exercises. They can also suffer a traumatic brain injury including penetrating head injuries or concussions in combat operations or caused by blasts.
The brain trauma suffered by our service members can lead to cognitive, medical, and behavioral issues that must be recognized and timely addressed.
Veterans suffering from TBI may have difficulty with relationships.
Veterans experiencing TBI can find it difficult to connect or find satisfying intimacy in a relationship due to persistent negative emotions, memory loss, irritability and aggression.
Veterans may suffer from mood swings or personality changes caused by brain trauma. In some head injuries, the service member can develop drastic personality changes along with mood swings due to constant irritability from the pain and stress of the injury.
Depression is frequently found following a traumatic brain injury.
Often, those who suffer from TBI develop depression or impulsivity control issues as they feel like they are no longer the same person they once were before the head injury that caused the TBI.
The emotional and behavioral issues faced by service members caused by their traumatic brain injury can lead to a less than honorable discharge or a bad-paper discharge.
This discharge prevents veterans from getting federal and state veterans benefits including health care and GI Bill benefits.
There are now appeal procedures in place to prove that the aberrant behavior was caused by a traumatic brain injury and restore benefits to these service members.
The National Defense Authorization Act requires discharge review boards to give "liberal" consideration for upgrades to veterans who could show they had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) while in uniform. But, despite the law, the process is cumbersome and subject to lengthy delays. More attention must be given and veterans must be offered the assistance they need to contest these wrongful discharges.
Post discharge, veterans may be facing criminal prosecution for conduct related to their brain injury. Justice requires these cases be adjudicated in special veteran tribunals where the unique mental health challenges related to military service and post service behavior can be dealt with in ways other than incarceration or other forms of punishment.
Educational programs and the latest TBI information must be provided to all service members, veterans, families, and caregivers and TBI outreach must take place in all VA facilities.
A traumatic brain injury can last a lifetime and our returning service members must be afforded proper accommodations, care, and treatment when a brain injury happens.
So, on this Veterans Day, let’s not forget the needs of our veterans suffering with a traumatic brain injury.