Tragically, it has come to light that over 20,000 of our young soldiers are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injury or TBI. Some cases are quite severe, while others show only minor symptoms.
Often there are clear indicators that are misunderstood. Victims sometimes cry or become angry for no reason, suffer major depression or sleep through most of the day. Anything from your eyesight to your memory can be permanently affected. You may not remember your mom visiting yesterday or what you said to your child minutes ago.
All or many of these symptoms could be mistaken for physiological stress, but cannot be cured with common medication because there has been direct injury to the brain not the psyche. Further, it can take several years to even begin to see long-term affects of TBI.
I know, because I had a brother-in-law who suffered from severe traumatic brain injury. He was not a soldier in Iraq, but an American who spent his life doing all the right things like paying taxes and planning for his family, just like many of our soldiers. He, like our soldiers, was brave. He could not go to war because he battled instead a brain malformation that left him often incapacitated and unable to work or care for his six-month-old son. In an effort to survive, he underwent 15 hours in surgery only to awake five months later with severe TBI.
TBI is not usually caused by surgery; most notably it is a result of car accidents. There are also many cases in the U.S. that occur because of gunshot wounds and, since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers are retuning with brain injury due to IEDs (improvised explosive devise).
Many of us are in the process of learning about TBI due to war. I learned firsthand by spending two heartbreaking years with my sister watching as her husband's muscles contracted mercilessly causing tremendous pain, no drug worked to ease it. I watched as his personality changed daily, as he drifted from one reality to another. He could only be fed by a tube and often drifted off to sleep in mid sentence. (Note, I'm only telling the publishable things here).
I learned more about brain injury than anyone should have to or need to know. More importantly, I learned how our system of care is letting all these victims and their families down.
Much like the military, hospitals, our TBI centers need resources, too. TBI, no matter how slight or severe, makes for difficult recovery. There is treatment, but all too often there is no cure. Rehabilitation can be extensive and often a lifelong process. It is extremely expensive as well. Some victims can live with severe trauma for many years.
In order to get care for long-term or severe TBI, patients are usually supported by Medicare, which most often does not include enough money for any type of rehabilitation. Insurance companies typically bow out after a short time saying they can no longer pay due to "no progress." Medicare is for the poor, so families who cannot afford the high prices of rehabilitation centers unwillingly become impoverished to get their patient basic care.
I am saddened that it has taken thousands of injuries to bring attention this injury. I can only hope that these young soldiers are not struggling in vain and that their struggle can encourage support of change in our understanding and care of TBI.
Fortunately Congressmen James C. Greenwood (R-PA) and Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ) have chosen to respond. They should be applauded for starting a Congressional Brain Injury Task Force. Through this initiative the members are fighting for funding to take care of our injured soldiers partially through Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill and also the Defense Authorization Bill.
According to the Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA) "The bills will provide $9.455 million for the HRSA Federal TBI program, over the total $8.910 million allocated last year. Likewise, the bill includes $5.960 million in funding for CDC TBI programs, an increase from approximately $5.3 million last year. Also of key importance, the bill includes $900,000 in additional funding for the TBI Model Systems of Care program, which BIAA fought hard for this year, in order to prevent this important research program from being downsized."
Congress will reconvene in December after a two-week Thanksgiving recess and "it is expected that Democratic leaders will pursue a compromise multi-bill "omnibus" appropriations package that would split the difference between the White House and Congressional budget proposals. Such an omnibus bill is expected to include a cut of $3.5 billion in funding from the recently passed Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill."
Without this money our soldiers will not get the care they need nor will the families get support, which I might add, is priceless.
Now, it is our responsibility to persuade all of our representatives to support the allocations to fund programs for TBI. It is imperative that these individuals get the required care. They, after all, volunteered to fight in these wars. In turn, their sacrifice may also enable us to become more aware of what we all must do to take care of other Americans who are suffering from the same affliction. Otherwise, the incentive for continuing the tradition of "a hard-working American" for a prosperous America becomes obsolete -- leaving both civilians and soldiers alone.