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Army Stiffs Brain-Injured Soldiers On Purple Hearts: Report

Sep 9, 2010

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Reported by

Frank James

The U.S. Army is one of the nation's most remarkable institutions when it comes to facing change on a large-scale.

It remade itself from a Cold War force meant to fight big wars with set piece battles in Europe to one that fights smaller wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was a leader in the biggest social transformation in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century, racial integration.

So it seems at odds with the Army's proven ability to embrace change that many commanders are still denying Purple Hearts to soldiers with combat-related concussions and other brain injuries because, in their view, they don't rate Purple Hearts, the military's prestigious award for injuries incurred in combat.

But an investigative report by ProPublica T. Christian Miller and NPR's Daniel Zwerdling indicates that's the case. Many senior officers apparently haven't quite made the transition in their thinking that brain injuries just aren't serious enough to merit the Purple Heart.

Many brain injuries would arguably be more serious than a missing leg or arm since they can more comprehensively affect the quality of life of a soldier or veteran much more than a limb amputation.

But there are evidently many senior officers who don't share that view.

An excerpt from the web story that complements their report on Morning Edition:

The Army twice denied a Purple Heart for Sgt. Nathan Scheller, though the aftereffects from two roadside explosions in Iraq have left him with lasting cognitive problems, according to the Army's own records.

The 29-year-old former tank commander navigated an M1A1 Abrams through Baghdad's urban battlefield of bomb-strewn highways and sniper-filled alleys. Now he gets lost driving familiar routes around his home. An honor student in high school, he can no longer concentrate enough to read the adventure novels he once loved.

"I don't see how somebody else can tell me that I don't deserve one," Scheller said of the Purple Heart. "I may not have wounds on the outside. But I have wounds on the inside."

The denials of Purple Hearts reflect a broader skepticism within the military over the severity of mild traumatic brain injury, often described as one of the signature wounds of the conflicts, according to interviews, documents and internal emails obtained by NPR and ProPublica.

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