Traumatic Brain Injuries in Veterans vs. Athletes

When an NFL player is concussed and suffers brain trauma on the field of play, we cringe, we mourn. We make Blockbusters about the scandalous effects of CTE  (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) on the largest sports franchise in our country. Waves of national news, documentaries, and medical journals come out with findings. Carpool moms, sideline parents and coaches around the country all discuss the issue with downcast eyes. Are you going to let your child play football? What's going to happen to this sport we crave each fall?

The battles we crave in sports are playing out on the sidelines of our consciousness in war with very real consequences. But we are asleep at the collective remote. 

Over 339,000* warriors are returning from the fields of battle in the Global War on Terrorism with traumatic brain injuries (TBI's) that are largely undiscussed. Another silent group of possibly hundreds of thousands more live with the damage of TBI's without even being diagnosed. 

I'm guessing that when you see a football player take a hard hit to the head you used to go "OHHHHHH!" with enthusiasm, but now some part of you hushes and wonders what just happened to his brain. So we've put concussion protocols in place to make us feel better, we take him out of the game to recover. If we could watch the moment a soldier's brain ripples inside the skull from the explosive blasts of combat each day, we would wrinkle in horror. We would realize there are no protocols in battle to save them from these effects. There's no replacement player to take over. If no limbs were lost or obvious wounds are visible, this warrior stays in the field only to come out with confusing, lifelong problems. And this is not a game.

These Veterans could be helped and treated better if our Military, medical establishments, and citizens started paying more attention. 60 Minutes has caught on with a good documentary outlining CTE in combat Veterans, which is a start. But it's far from enough.

THE MAIN ISSUE:

With war, it's easy to miss brain trauma because the symptoms look like psychological stress from combat. I'm not a doctor, and I respect that PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is diagnosable. I see it year-round in our CAMO camps. However, if a diagnosis based on symptoms is made without actually looking at the brain, the possible brain injury is totally missed. The treatment for wounded Veterans often includes a cocktail of synthetic drugs to mask symptoms, which does nothing to help the brain heal and might cause more damage than good. 

Brain scans can help diagnose physical trauma to the brain tissue, changing the process of care significantly. Someone healing from a diagnosed brain injury can receive treatments like speech and vestibular therapy, nutrition for brain health, breath protocols, sleep therapy, hormone support* and more. Without the right diagnosis, we are left with warriors getting synthetic meds thrown at them like darts, some of which are known to create suicidal tendencies. Misdiagnosis and overmedication together are shameful at best, criminal at least.

WHO MY TEACHERS ARE:

Brian, my husband, is an international rugby commentator for NBC, ESPN and the Pac 12 network. He knows the issues with concussions from play first hand as a former player for the USA National Rugby team. He's written articles, attends to his brain health avidly and is helping friends and family members deal with the consequences of their own concussive pasts. In his field, the topic of CTE is never far from the lips of colleagues, players, coaches, and fans. Brian's direct relationship to brain injuries in athletics informs my opinions along with my year-round work in holistic health for Veterans.

A dear friend and colleague I work with is a Retired Green Beret recovering from a blast-induced TBI. He's teaching me about his experience of living with an invisible injury that has been hard to get recognition of, let alone adequate care for. He and his wife have navigated the maze of conventional care to advocate for the diagnostic tools he needed to then fight for options beyond drugs and talk therapy. If he had followed the path most Veterans are lead down without a fight, he would likely be years behind on his recovery and dosed on drugs. As it is, he's bouncing back using an integrative medical approach and he's helping others understand their options and get better diagnostics and care.

Getting close to him and other Veterans and Military families makes my heart ache for the way our country navigates war and for the people who suffer directly from it (all of us, eventually). As a privileged citizen in a country where you volunteer to serve, Veterans were 'others' for most of my life. Suffering was 'other'. I've taken a small amount of my time to listen and learn from our Warriors to learn more and I want more of us to do the same.

THE MAIN MESSAGE:

If you are like I was, a citizen hardly touched by our current wars overseas, wondering what to cook for dinner during the game, it's time to pay attention. We are all connected. We are going to have to deal with the health of this country together. It might just hit the wallet for now; realizing the effects of our collective health on our taxes, health care, and medical options. But it will go beyond that. A culture who doesn't respect, hear and heal its warriors is on the decline. 

The Military backbone that has kept us safe, warm, dry, fed and in relative luxury is not something that happens by accident. It comes from the population. Our population. Who is going to serve you on the front lines when those coming back from war are dying every day at home due to lack of proper diagnosis, overmedication, addiction, and neglect? Who is going to sign up for a thankless job where coming home permanently and invisibly damaged gets you a spot on the couch without meaningful work or the purple heart you deserve** while watching a documentary about some football player receiving accolades for his bravery?

Further, our medical system gets reinforced if unchallenged. What services are you going to hope for if you suffer a TBI from a car accident, or from sports? How many medications are you willing to pour into your body without someone actually looking at the organ that is causing problems? We have to advocate to look inside the brains of those with brain-based symptoms to see if trauma is the cause. 

Imagine a country where carpool moms, coaches, parents, teachers, and people of all backgrounds have a caring, connected eye on wounded Veterans like we do on our injured athletes. Imagine the way we were as a country in World War II. Moms saving paper clips to send as metal for ships and airplanes. We need that kind of attention and rally now to lift up our injured Veterans at the edges of our social consciousness, regardless of how you feel about the wars. If we were educated about blast trauma and TBI symptoms, Veterans suffering from depression, anxiety, outbursts, chronic insomnia, and other uncomfortable symptoms synonymous with TBI's would be cared for instead of shamed, medicated and isolated. 

Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, suggestions, and insights. I'm learning and open to what you think, feel and know about this topic.

With hope,
Emily

 

The CAMO program stands for Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities. Challenge Aspen is a 4 Star 501c3. Join me in creating targetted wellness training for Veterans and their families by giving generously here. Please mark "Military" or "Wellness for Veterans" in the comment box. We are sharing resources with our participants to direct them towards leading-edge therapies and support.

*visit Warrior Angels Foundation to learn the stats and current research, along with some leading-edge solutions to combat-related Traumatic Brain Injury.

**visit NPR here to learn more about the discrepancies around lack of purple hearts awarded to deserving wounded Veterans with TBI's