A person smiling for the camera description automatically generated news from Iraq that more than 30 U.S. service members were injured during an Iranian missile attack more than two weeks earlier brings home a sad and dramatic lesson about Traumatic Brain Injury – or TBI – one of the most devastating but least visible scars of battle.
The fact that so many cases of TBI were not immediately apparent nor reported until well after the Jan. 8 attack should come as no surprise. Unlike most other combat wounds, TBI is too often a “hidden” injury, with no telling signs or outward symptoms. In this instance, we can be grateful that our service members who were targeted in the attack were quickly screened and diagnosed for treatment.
Sadly, that’s not always been the case. In the course of combat in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones, many thousands of U.S. service members have sustained TBIs. Many have since returned home, where as veterans they suffer to this day from the scars of battle. In fact, from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts alone, nearly 450,000 combat veterans came back suffering from TBI, the aftermath of an improvised explosive device, rocket-propelled grenade or artillery barrage. Nearly 300,000 struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, a form of brain injury associated with trauma.
Unlike an outward war wound, the physical and psychological damage of a TBI is buried deep inside each victim, lurking as a dark disturbance of the brain, often causing blurred vision, memory and processing issues, depression and the dreadful feeling that a once-vigorous brain is running off its tracks. I know, because I’ve been there, and my injury was relatively inconsequential compared to our military members and veterans. There is, after all, nothing “mild” about a mild traumatic brain injury.
From my dual perspective of having treated TBI patients while also having lived with those dark days and nights of depression, I know just how challenging it can be. Yet, unlike our young veterans with the “invisible wound of war,” my colleagues believed my disability in speech despite the fact that I looked relatively normal on the “outside.” Our military members are the most fit members of our society, and they have a culture of pressing on so that identifying their disability is so much more difficult. Even without a loss of consciousness, brain damage may occur. But fortunately, I have also seen the remarkable strength and resilience of so many veterans who, with proper treatment and support, have found a way to thrive with fulfilling, productive lives – careers, families, community involvement – despite their TBI symptoms.
Veterans stories of TBI recovery and Post Traumatic Growth motivate me daily. It takes hard work, resilience and perseverance to recover, but it is worth the efforts. The other side of the coin can be devastating. Left undiagnosed and untreated, brain-injured veterans will too often find their only relief in alcohol or with a dangerous overdependence on prescription drugs. Far worse, they may turn to addictive opiates, entering a downward spiral that can lead to unemployment, homelessness, imprisonment and early death. For far too many, suicide becomes the only way to stop the inner pain and chaos of a battered brain.
These heroes cannot be forgotten or denied the opportunity to receive a proper diagnosis or treatment for TBI. That is why I founded the Resurrecting Lives Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to advocating that combat veterans with TBI receive expert medical care, rehabilitation and community support services they need for a successful return to civilian life. Along with my colleague members of the Resurrecting Lives board, I am committed to achieving those goals.
I want others to share that commitment as well. Know the symptoms of TBI: headache, blurred vision,difficulty with bright lights, ringing in the ears, excessive tiredness, memory loss or poor concentration. As a friend, family member or coworker of a veteran, you may not see these signs outwardly, but often you are aware of someone wearing sunglasses inside or avoiding loud areas as a tip off that TBI may be an issue. If you’re a combat veteran yourself, the symptoms of TBI should not be ignored. Whenever these symptoms appear, the answer is clear. Seek medical help for yourself or your loved one as soon as possible, because with proper treatment TBI can be managed and recovery occurs.
We must never miss an opportunity to thank the millions of American men and women who have served in our military. We all should reflect on the skills, leadership and vitality they’ve brought back to their communities with their return to civilian life. And we must also remember those who came home from the battlefield with invisible injuries that may be devastating if ignored. We can’t forget our debt to any of our veterans, but for those still fighting with the scars of battle, your attention and concern can be more than a “thank you” — it can be a lifesaver.
Dr. Chrisanne Gordon, author of “Turn the Lights On!,” is an Ohio physician who has personally struggled to recover from a brain injury, an experience that inspired her to create the Resurrecting Lives Foundation to help military veterans recover from TBI.