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Military Mental Health Probe Widens After NPR-ProPublica Report

by T. Christian Miller, ProPublica, and Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
Jun 11, 2010

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T. Christian Miller, ProPublica, and Daniel Zwerdling, NPR

Responding to an investigation by ProPublica and NPR, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Friday that he would expand a hearing on soldier suicides to include a more extensive discussion of the military's handling of traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder.

"The recent NPR and ProPublica reports on the military's diagnosis, treatment, and tracking of traumatic brain injuries are concerning," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said in a prepared statement.

NPR and ProPublica reported this week that the military was failing to diagnose soldiers with so-called mild traumatic brain injuries. Such injuries, also called concussions, are typically difficult to detect but can cause lasting mental and physical difficulties.

Unpublished military studies and interviews with medical officials suggest there could be tens of thousands of soldiers suffering undiagnosed traumatic brain injuries, which have been called one of the wars' signature wounds. When soldiers were diagnosed, many received little or no treatment, even at large bases such as Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

Official military statistics say 115,000 soldiers have suffered a mild traumatic brain injury since the wars began. But in interviews, top Army medical officials acknowledged that those figures understate the true number.

Civilian studies suggest up to 15 percent of people with mild traumatic brain injuries experience lingering problems with memory, concentration, sleep and balance problems.

"While the Department of Defense and the military services have made progress toward increasing knowledge about and awareness of the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of traumatic brain injuries, there is still a good deal to learn, both in the military and civilian medical environments," Levin said in his statement.

Levin's spokeswoman said the hearing will take place later this month, though the date has not been finalized. It will look at the complex web of illnesses that have afflicted troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the role those disorders play in soldier suicides. The issue has been a growing concern in the military.

Soldiers with traumatic brain injury often also suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a debilitating psychological wound. Those who survive roadside blasts can suffer both a brain injury and PTSD, which can be triggered by the terror of the event.

"Traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress, and suicide are all related issues, at times making diagnosis difficult," Levin said in his statement.

Army officials said they have been working to improve their systems to diagnose soldiers. They said soldiers with brain injuries have received appropriate treatment.

In an interview earlier this week, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, said the military took traumatic brain injuries "extremely seriously."

Chiarelli, who has worked to raise awareness about the severity of so-called invisible wounds such as mild traumatic brain injury and PTSD, said medical officials must diagnose and treat a complicated mix of illnesses.

"It's time we realize that TBI and PTSD are real injuries," Chiarelli told "Talk of the Nation" host Neal Conan. "We've got to ensure our soldiers get the care that they need."

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