WAVY-TV, Norfolk, VA Nov 28, 2006
Reported by: Les Smith
Preventing brain injuries in war - why standard-issue helmets weren't enough

We have all seen--and many of us personally know--people injured in the Iraq war.

What you may not know is there's been a debate over whether our troops have the right equipment to protect them.

Specifically, their helmets.

This war is unlike any our country has ever faced.

We all know when we send our kids off to play football or ride their bike they wear a helmet. But what kind? And how much protection does it provide? In a war zone, those are life and death questions.
Improvised explosive device - I.E.D - Has become part of our language of war.

Insurgents are placing them on roadways in Iraq to kill and injure Americans.

More troops are surviving battle injuries than ever before.

But military doctors say, because of I.E.D's,  more American troops are suffering traumatic brain injuries .

As early as 2003 army doctors at Walter Reed Medical Center determined the standard helmet issued to troops "-doesn't provide much protection from concussion injuries because it is not well padded," according to Dr. Laurie Ryan

And  "-it is not designed to absorb impact," according to Dr. Louis French

In a bomb blast the brain is literally sloshed around inside the skull.

Following the Walter Reed study,  the army issued its troops new helmets, with padding to protect against brain injuries. It's a concept as simple as the one football teams use to protect players.

 "The hard surface can injure the skull and the brain. So not only do you want to have the hard surface protecting the brain, but you need to have the hard surface itself insulated from the skull and the brain," said Dr Paul Aravich, a professor at EVMS.

Despite the Walter Reed study, the Marine Corps refused to issue new helmets. The Marines top procurement officer told Congress this past June that there was not enough evidence to justify helmets with padding.

It wasn't just the Marine leadership. Marines in baghdad said the same thing. But stateside, many doctors were convinced.

There are four VA medical centers in the country treating our troops returning home with this kind of injury. One of them is the McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond. Inside these walls doctors are seeing first hand the troops returning home with traumatic brain injury

"Traumatic brain injury is the signature injury of this war," said Dr. Shane McNamee. He's Medical Director of Polytrauma at McGuire. He says 62 percent of the troops injured in Iraq suffered traumatic brain injury.  But that doesn't tell the whole story.

"What we're actually more concerned about is the individuals who suffer one, two, five, six, ten mild brain injuries who are going undiagnosed," he said.

Paul Blais of Hampton suffered traumatic brain injury in the attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia ten years ago. Today he watches as others begin to face the difficulties he knows so well.

"I do have bad feelings and sentiments for them because i know how very, very hard it's going to be," he told us.

How many soliders are returning from Iraq with traumatic brain injury?  The Pentagon won't release the numbers, claiming it would put troops at risk.

Nearly three years after the first Walter Reed study, the Marines reversed course. Just last month the Marines issued an order making padded helmets mandatory, and admitted a mistake.

Brigadier General John Kelly said: "It was an error. The sling system was not a very good system".

Paul Blase, now unemployed and on disability, has learned to live with his brain injury. Now many other returning veterans will have to.

"The problems for the brain injured survivor do not end when they are discharged from the hospital. In many ways the problems of the brain injured survivor are just beginning when they are discharged from the hospital," said Dr Aravich.

Many Americans have been frustrated that the government didn't move faster to provide upgraded helmets to our troops. So they did it themselves. A grassroots effort that began with the family of a retired Navy doctor, went to Congress and Hollywood with great success.


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