US Troop TBI treatment funding cut by half

ABC has a rather unsettling story about a drastic reduction in funds for treatment of soldier closed-head injuries, also known as traumatic brain injury (TBI):

George Zitnay, a Charlottesville brain injury expert who is a co-founder of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, told ABC News earlier this year that traumatic brain injury is the “signature injury of the war on terrorism.”

That’s because of the proliferation of roadside bombs in Iraq and improved body armor that shields troops from lethal wounds but can do nothing about the violent jolts to even helmeted heads that can damage the brain as it bounces off the inside of the skull.

As a result, more troops are surviving injuries suffered in Iraq than in previous wars, but more troops are surviving with permanent injuries. According to Pentagon data reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, only about 10 percent of wounds in Iraq are lethal — less than half the rate in the first Persian Gulf War, Vietnam and Korea each, and a full one-third of the rate in World War II.

By one estimate, as many as 10 percent of all troops in Iraq and up to 20 percent of front-line infantry suffer concussions during combat tours.

The shift in injury is tragic, but one would think that this would lead to increases in funding for research and treatment for brain injuries. Further complicating the risk is the fact that soldiers may already suffer from concussions without realizing it and therefore significantly increase their chance of brain damage by exposing themselves to additional blasts.

U.S. troops in Iraq are exposed to hundreds of bombings each month. “We’ve seen patients who have had three deployments and have had some (head) injury on every single one,” [neuropsychologist] Drake says.

The damage from multiple concussions can be irreversible. “Repeated concussions can be quite serious and even lethal,” says Air Force Maj. Gerald Grant, a neurosurgeon who treated troops in Iraq.

Thus, it is hard to understand why funds are being drastically reduced so much at a time of so much need. Spending restraints on treating the injuries of soldiers? Is this a result of Bush administration tax cuts?

A professor of emergency medicine, Stuart Hoffman, calls on Americans to help reverse this decision:

At least 18,000 troops have been wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan to date. Some reports suggest that up to 60 percent of those casualties (as many as 10,000) involve some degree of brain injury. These figures do not include civilian contractors or members of the news media who have suffered brain injuries.

There are signs our government is heading down the same road it followed during the Vietnam War — denying the magnitude of the brain injury problem and thereby depriving soldiers the treatment they need.

[…]

To deal with the influx of brain-injured soldiers returning from combat, these centers requested that their 2007 fiscal year budget be increased from $14 million to $19 million, a paltry sum compared to the billions a month we are spending on the wars. Instead of granting the requested increase, the budget proposed by President Bush and rubber-stamped by both houses of congress eliminates the program.

Citizens of this country should demand answers to these questions:

• Why does the White House want to kill this program, and why is Congress going along?

• Are Bush administration officials embarrassed by the numbers of brain-injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan?

• Do they believe that if data collection is stopped, the problem will vanish?

• What will happen to brain-injured troops when they no longer have access to these services?

Military discipline prohibits our troops from speaking for themselves. We must speak for them.

Call, write or e-mail your U.S. senators and representatives. Tell them you are outraged by the decision to eliminate the Defense and Veteran Brain Injury Centers from the 2007 fiscal year budget. Those who repeatedly admonish us to “support our troops” should be willing to do so themselves.

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