Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff, has served in the U.S. military for nearly 40 years.
Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff, has served in the U.S. military for nearly 40 years. Alastair Grant/AP
In an interview on NPR's Talk of The Nation on Wednesday, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff to the Army, defended the military's treatment of troops that suffered mild traumatic brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We are taking this extremely seriously," Chiarelli said, responding to the findings of an NPR and ProPublica investigation which found the military is failing to diagnose soldiers with so-called mild traumatic brain injuries. "There's no reason for us not to try to diagnose it."
Mild traumatic brain injuries, which are frequently caused by roadside blasts, leave no visible scars, but can cause lingering mental and physical damage. Officially, military figures show that about 115,000 soldiers have suffered mild traumatic brain injury since 2002. But we talked to military doctors and reviewed unpublished studies that suggest far more soldiers could have sustained such wounds. While most recover quickly, estimates suggest that between 5 to 15 percent go on to develop lingering cognitive problems.
In his interview, Chiarelli said that the military had diagnosed thousands of soldiers with traumatic brain injuries, also called TBIs. But he said it was a mistake to focus solely on TBIs, since many soldiers are also suffering from post traumatic stress, or PTS, a debilitating psychological wound that can be caused by the intense terror of being involved in a roadside blast.
ProPublica is a nonprofit investigative news organization.
Based on dozens of interviews and access to previously unreleased military studies, documents and e-mails, NPR and ProPublica have found that from the battlefield to the homefront the military's doctors and screening systems routinely miss brain trauma in soldiers. As a result, soldiers haven't been getting treatment.
Part 1: The military medical system is failing to diagnose brain injuries in troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Part 2: Even when traumatic brain injury is diagnosed, many soldiers have to fight for adequate treatment.
Many soldiers suffer from both conditions at the same time, making it important to treat the symptoms, whatever the cause. He said the military was diagnosing and treating soldiers suffering from both wounds, which he described as the signature injuries of the wars.
"It's time we realize that TBI and PTS are real injuries," Chiarelli told Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan. "We've got to ensure our soldiers get the care that they need."
Chiarelli noted that the military is planning to implement a policy where soldiers exposed to nearby blasts will be evaluated by two separate tests to determine whether they have suffered a concussion before being returned to the battlefield. He said that doctors have advised him that soldiers at most risk of developing long term problems suffer from multiple mild traumatic brain injuries, which are also called concussions.
"If either one of the exams in that 24-hour period indicates the individual had a concussion, they are pulled out of the fight until the concussion has an opportunity to heal," Chiarelli said. "The key here is not to have that second concussion while the brain has not recovered from the first."
But the NPR and ProPublica investigation found major problems with the two primary screening systems now used in the field. After a blast or blow to the head, soldiers take a paper-and-pencil exam called the MACE, or Military Acute Concussion Evaluation. In interviews, doctors and soldiers acknowledged that troops often gamed the test to get back to battle with their comrades.
A second computerized test used on the battlefield, known as the ANAM, or Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics, failed to catch nearly half of all soldiers who had suffered a concussion, according to a recent unpublished study obtained by NPR and ProPublica. Lt. Gen. Eric Scoomaker, the Army's top medical official, recently testified in Congress that results from the test are no better than a "coin flip."
In recognition of the military's problems with screening, two Congressmen called for the military to implement legislation that would require veterans to receive individual, one-on-one evaluations for traumatic brain injuries and other battlefield illnesses.
Tom Rooney (R-FL) and Michael E. McMahon (D-NY) cited the NPR and ProPublica investigation results as further proof of the need to pass the legislation, known as the Veterans Mental Health Screening and Assessment Act.
"Our troops and veterans deserve action to improve screening and detection of traumatic brain injuries," Rooney and McMahon said in a joint press release. "We hope the House of Representatives will move quickly to take up and pass this critical legislation."