The U.S. Military Was Sending Concussed Soldiers Back To War

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While the U.S. military has recently lept into traumatic brain injury research and awareness in the wake of the massive numbers of soldiers returning home with TBI, they haven’t always been so proactive.

Until very recently, traumatic brain injury has been completely neglected by armed forces health experts as an invisible, and therefore unimportant, injury. At the height of the Iraq War, the standard procedure for “minor” TBI or other head injuries suffered from IEDs was to send the soldier back out to war as soon as possible. For the NFL’s diagnosed concussions, this would mean a week. For the military, it meant return to action the same day, or soon after.

60 Minutes did a piece on concussion in American Veterans on Sunday which highlights just how recently the United States military was ignoring TBI as a serious health risk, and the effects of these policies which are still plaguing veterans today.

To draw a parallel back to the NFL’s concussion issue, both groups are dealing with a widespread issue of individuals returning to action well before they are healed. Here, the motivations are slightly different however. While some NFL players will say their reason for brushing off injury is to help the team, the more honest answers come down to ego, and career or financial stability. In the military, the strength of the team seems to be a much more legitimate reason, especially when a commanding officer is injured but still responsible for the lives of numerous other soldiers. In their minds, taking a day off could mean the deaths of their comrades.

The widespread nature of this way of thinking became evident in 2008, when Dr. David Hovda, head of UCLA’s Brain Injury Research Center, tried to emphasize the severity of even mild concussions. According to ThinkProgress, he was told it was “bad medicine” to keep soldiers out of the field following a concussion, because of the stigma it would entail, and the damage to squad moral and unity.

The military eventually sided with Dr. Hovda a year later, marking the beginning of the military’s increasing involvement in brain injury research and treatment, but that move came close to the end of the Afghanistan war, when the damage had already been done to hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Roughly 20 percent of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered brain injuries by January 2009.

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