Brain Injury in the Military: A Long Road Home

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Rose Collins, Ph.D. of the Veteran’s Administration Polytrauma Rehabilitation Team at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center spoke at the Iowa Brain Injury Conference on March 17, 2006 in Des Moines. Her compelling presentation addressed the needs of individuals with traumatic brain injury and other injuries who are entering into polytrauma rehabilitation on their long journey from the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan to their homes and families.

The incidence rate for traumatic brain injury in our soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan well exceeds twice the rate of occurrence for Americans in civilian life. These young soldiers can survive due to highly trained military medics, forward positioned surgical teams, combat support hospitals and military medical centers, (Landstuhl in Germany) before their return to a military treatment facility in the U.S.,(Walter Reed) and then on to one of the TBI Polytrauma Centers. Dr. Collins reported that 40% of the Blast Injury survivors at Walter Reed sustained a TBI vs the historical TBI rate of 20% in combat survivors.

Dr. Collins’ patients are young men and women with severe brain injuries, amputations, burns, visual and hearing impairments, combat stress and other psychological issues. In her presentation she described the rehabilitation process for one such soldier and closed her talk with a video made by the soldier in which he spoke about himself, his injuries, recovery and future.

I was struck by the volumes of suffering experienced by our soldiers returning to the U.S. with severe injuries. The soldier in the video shown at Dr. Collins’ presentation apologized for his disabling conditions, his drooling, his blindness, hearing and mobility problems. I thought I should be apologizing to him.

I have worked in brain injury rehabilitation for over thirty years and have seen and worked with many individuals who have survived a severe brain injury. Dr. Collins’ presentation highlighted for me, and for most of the audience, those issues in brain injury rehabilitation that we don’t get to see in our civilian practices. The impact of severity, multi-system trauma, family and adjustment to disability are furthered by the issues of returning home from their military jobs and roles to a long process of rehabilitation and to an unknown future.

Our injured soldiers straddle two cultures: the military and the civilian communities to which they will return as disabled individuals. No matter what our political views are, these young people require our expertise, resources and support. We owe that to them, now and forever.

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