Invisible wounds of war
May 5, 2013
Tens of thousands of servicemen and women are dealing with lasting brain damage as the Pentagon scrambles to treat these invisible wounds. David Martin reports.
We all learned a lot in recent years about the dangers of head injuries from contact sports like football. We now know that a hard hit can cause brain damage that only becomes apparent after an athlete's playing days are over. Football is violent, no doubt, but it's nothing compared to war. And just as the National Football League has struggled to come to grips with head injuries so has the military - but on a much vaster scale.
An estimated quarter million servicemen and women have suffered concussions over the past decade of war. Tens of thousands -- no one knows the precise number -- are dealing with lasting brain damage. The Pentagon, which did not recognize the problem until the war in Iraq was almost over, is now scrambling to treat these invisible wounds. And soldiers suffering from them sometimes end up wishing they had a wound people could see.
Ben Richards: If I could trade traumatic brain injury for a single-leg amputation I'd probably do that in a second.
You heard that right -- retired Army Major Ben Richards would rather endure the disfigurement and disability of losing a limb than live with the aftershocks of the concussions he suffered in Iraq. The first one happened on Mother's Day 2007 when his armored vehicle was rammed by a suicide car bomber.
Ben Richards: Everyone that was in the vehicle, walked away with a pretty significant concussion. My head hurt for about a week. I was nauseated for a week. Literally couldn't see straight.
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In the early 60's I was only 4 when I was pushed off a slide at a drive-in movie. The slide was very high and I was not allowed to be on it without one of my brothers. Somehow I got away from them and got to the top. Without sitting on a lap, I was afraid and didn't know what to do. I was trying to figure out how to get down when a kid behind me gave me a push. He pushed me over the side and I fell head first onto concrete. My oldest brother found me lifeless on the ground. He thought I was dead. He carried me to my parents and by then I opened my eyes. They rushed me to the hospital.
My scull was cracked and I had a concussion. The nurse at the hospital read the X-ray wrong and didn't see the crack. She told my parents to take me home.
The next morning my left eyelid was swollen so much I couldn't open it. My parents rushed me to a different hospital. Another X-ray showed the crack and I spent a week in the hospital.
The swelling in my eyelid went away and I looked like there was nothing wrong with me on the outside, but on the inside, my brain was not working right.
Back then they didn't know what kind of damage could be done to brains. When I had a hard time remembering things and issues with my speech, no one connected the change to the injury.
There are still problems I face but I get around them. I can't spell as well as I should. Top that off with being from Massachusetts and learning to spell using phoenix when we pronounce many words in a unique way. Now there is spell check for the words that won't come together. I am usually astonished to discover there is an "r" in many words I hear often. Pretty great when you consider how much I write. I cannot remember the rules of grammar, so I write the way I talk. I believe the message means more than rules even though I know it drives some people crazy.
I can remember important things, like what is in the Bible but I cannot remember chapter and verse. I have to use BibleGateway to find what I need to reference.
It is like my brain has a filing cabinet. The top drawer is for what I need to remember right now. The next drawer is for what I need for a long time. The rest has to go into the shredder and is forgotten about.
Most of the time I learn things pretty fast but as soon as I no longer need to know something it is almost as if I never knew it.
When you have TBI, you adapt. You learn to fix what is broken in your head by playing tricks and using tools to help you do what you have to do. For the rest I have one piece of advice. What you can't fix, chill out and do what is important. Stop being so hard on yourself. It is frustrating and you may think you are not "smart" but you are still just as smart as you were before you "broke your head" the way I did.
Take lots of notes on things you need to remember. Use a calendar with large enough spaces to write on. If you can't remember something let someone know and tell them something smart-ass like one of your connections is fried. That will usually get you a laugh so if they want to be hard on you, they just got disarmed by your charm.
If you make a big deal out of it or get angry with yourself, it will make people feel uncomfortable around you. If you are having a really bad day with your memory, try to talk as little as possible because on those bad days it is almost as if your brain is trying to work things out. Those are the days when I don't write very much at all.