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Nothing Is too Good for Our Boys: Yeah, Right!

06/10/2010 12:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After decades of observation since my four years in the U.S. Navy I generally believe that when it comes to U.S. military personnel, both active duty and veterans, that while most people are happy to talk about the sacrifices of military personnel it is, in the end, mostly talk.

After the obligatory commentary about the nation's heroes and the rhetoric about their "heroic sacrifice" most people operate on the out of sight, out of mind principle. Of course, every now and then a scandal comes along to remind people how reality doesn't live up to rhetoric.

In early 2007 we had the scandal resulting from a series of allegations of unsatisfactory conditions and management at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

The New York Times reported April 24 that Fort Carson's Warrior Transition Battalion, a special unit created to provide closely managed care for soldiers with physical wounds and severe psychological trauma, is far from being a restful sanctuary. "For many soldiers, they have become warehouses of despair, where damaged men and women are kept out of sight, fed a diet of powerful prescription pills and treated harshly by noncommissioned officers. Because of their wounds, soldiers in Warrior Transition Units are particularly vulnerable to depression and addiction, but many soldiers from Fort Carson's unit say their treatment there has made their suffering worse."

And now, once again, the cycle continues. As Karl Marx argued, history repeats itself "occurring first as tragedy, the second time as farce." The latest example are the stunning findings that "The military medical system is failing to diagnose brain injuries in troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom receive little or no treatment for lingering health problems," according to an investigation by National Public Radio and ProPublica.

So-called mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) has been called one of the wars' signature wounds. Shock waves from roadside bombs can ripple through soldiers' brains, causing damage that sometimes leaves no visible scars but may cause lasting mental and physical harm.

It was bad enough, as ProPublica and NPR previously reported, that in the past the military has failed to diagnose brain injuries in troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is far worse that now even soldiers who are diagnosed with such injuries often do not receive the treatment they need.

Most specialists say it is critical for patients who show lingering effects from head trauma to get intensive therapy as soon as possible. In the civilian world, such therapy is increasingly seen as the best way to minimize permanent damage, helping to retrain the mind to compensate for deficits.

Yet brain-injured soldiers at Fort Bliss have had to wait weeks and sometimes months just to get appointments with doctors, medical records show. Many have received far less therapy than is typical at well-regarded civilian clinics. In some instances, Fort Bliss medical officers have suggested that the soldiers are malingerers or that the main root of their cognitive problems is psychological.

Among the NPR/ProPublica findings:

  • From the battlefield to the home front, the military's doctors and screening systems routinely miss brain trauma in soldiers. One of its tests fails to catch as many as 40 percent of concussions, a recent unpublished study concluded. A second exam, on which the Pentagon has spent millions, yields results that top medical officials call about as reliable as a coin flip.
  • Even when military doctors diagnose head injuries, that information often doesn't make it into soldiers' permanent medical files. Handheld medical devices designed to transmit data have failed in the austere terrain of the war zones. Paper records from Iraq and Afghanistan have been lost, burned or abandoned in warehouses, officials say, when no one knew where to ship them.
  • Without diagnosis and official documentation, soldiers with head wounds have had to battle for appropriate treatment. Some received psychotropic drugs instead of rehabilitative therapy that could help retrain their brains. Others say they have received no treatment at all, or have been branded as malingerers.

It all seems dreadfully familiar. There is the usual ritualistic outrage on the part of the public and Congress and pundits; denials and lame explanations by the military, calls for action, investigations, and recommendations for improvement.

One wonders where all the usual rightwing and neoconservative suspects are, who are happy to pelt one with endless papers on the need to send U.S. military personnel off to war, when it comes to giving the slightest damn about caring for the wounded. Where is the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Center for Security Policy, Committee on the Present Danger, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Hoover Institution, and National Interest, to name a few? Oh, I forgot; they're too busy advocating an attack on Iran to give a crap.