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NPR and the investigative news organization ProPublica reported recently that tens of thousands of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan may have long-lasting problems from concussions known as mild traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs. These soldiers can't read well anymore; they can't wrap their brains around simple instructions. Just last week, President Obama called TBIs one of the signature injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet as NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports, commanders have routinely denied the Purple Heart to these soldiers. This story is co-reported by T. Christian Miller of ProPublica.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: If you're a soldier, the Purple Heart is the most powerful symbol that shows you've been wounded in action.

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ZWERDLING: Here's a newsreel from the Korean War.

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Unidentified Man: These are some of the men wounded in action who have been returned from the Korean battlefront. Purple Hearts are awarded.

General PETER CHIARELLI (Vice Chief of Staff of the Army): It shows that you went into harm's way to stand up for something your country believes in.

ZWERDLING: That's the vice chief of staff of the Army, General Peter Chiarelli. And for generations, one kind of harm that's supposed to get the Purple Heart is a mild traumatic brain injury. Just read page 21 of the regulations. You get the Purple Heart for wounds caused by bullets, shrapnel, poison gas, and for quote, concussion injuries caused as a result of enemy-generated explosions, unquote.

General CHIARELLI: It's quite clear, the Army regulation, I mean, is very, very specific in stating that concussion caused by enemy action entitles a soldier to a Purple Heart.

ZWERDLING: Sergeant James Hopkins, were you in an explosion last year in Iraq?

Sergeant JAMES HOPKINS (U.S. Army): Yes.

ZWERDLING: Did an Army doctor diagnose you with a concussion?

Sgt. HOPKINS: Yes, he did.

ZWERDLING: Have you received your Purple Heart?

Sgt. HOPKINS: No.

ZWERDLING: James Hopkins is a platoon leader. He's based now at Fort Riley in Kansas.

Why is the Purple Heart so important to you and so many soldiers I've talked to?

Sgt. HOPKINS: It puts you in that distinguished category to where I mean, of people that have served their country and given something that they'll never regain back.

ZWERDLING: We've talked with soldiers like Hopkins across the country: Derick Junge in Tennessee, Michelle Dyarman in Pennsylvania, William Edwards and Jared Hollingshead in Texas, Jonathan Brooks in Washington state, and many others. They all got diagnosed with TBIs from explosions. But the Army has not given any of them a Purple Heart.

And we've obtained evidence that suggests one reason why. Top commanders in the Army's medical system have declared privately that a lot of soldiers with TBIs should not get Purple Hearts because they think it would cheapen the award.

Colonel RODNEY COLDREN (Army Researcher): Another issue that we've found in Iraq is the issue of the Purple Heart.

ZWERDLING: That's a leading Army researcher named Colonel Rodney Coldren. Coldren made that statement late last year to a national conference of brain specialists. Coldren wouldn't give us an interview, but the conference organizers recorded what he told them.

Col. COLDREN: There was a push by the higher-level commands to not be seen to be giving these out for just any old injury.

ZWERDLING: And we obtained internal Army emails that confirm it. They show that back in 2008, some commanders in Iraq declared no more John Kerrys when it comes to TBI. John Kerry, as you probably know, is the Democratic senator who got three Purple Hearts when he fought in the Vietnam War. His political opponents have mocked him - unfairly, as it turns out - because they claim that Kerry basically got one of the awards for just a scratch. So when commanders say no more John Kerrys, they're saying that traumatic brain injury is not really an injury.

Mr. NATHAN SCHELLER: I got hit so hard by the percussion, I felt like my face was going. I thought oh, my gosh, I can't believe I'm alive.

ZWERDLING: Nathan Scheller says his injury feels real. He was a tank commander in Iraq. He nearly got killed in two explosions. Army doctors sent him last year to a brain rehabilitation clinic. Actually, Scheller was reluctant to talk to us at first. He says, look, some of my buddies got hurt a lot worse than I did.

Mr. SCHELLER: You know, I'm crying about this or that, and this guy had to lose his life; this guy lost a limb.

ZWERDLING: But Scheller and his wife, Miriam, have come to realize he's injured, too. He can't read novels anymore because he forgets what he just read. He forgets what he just said.

Ms. MIRIAM SCHELLER: He'll tell you the same story 20 times over, over and over again. And in the five minutes he's telling a simple story, he'll tell that story five times.

ZWERDLING: And Nathan didn't do this before the explosions?

Ms. SCHELLER: No.

ZWERDLING: But the Army has never given Scheller a Purple Heart. The rules say you have to prove that you got your TBI in a specific explosion, and that a doctor diagnosed your concussion and treated you. Scheller has a box full of documents that he's sent to the Army, but no Purple Heart.

Mr. SCHELLER: The Army was my life. That was my world. I led every mission. I was the lead tank, the lead truck. I was out there in front every day, and they sold me down the river like that.

ZWERDLING: So, we went to the U.S. Army. We met with a spokesman named Lieutenant Colonel Mike Moose, and we asked: Which commanders blocked Scheller's and the other soldiers' Purple Hearts? And why?

Lieutenant Colonel MIKE MOOSE (Army Spokesman) We don't actually track the approvals and denials for Purple Hearts in theater. We don't have that information.

ZWERDLING: In fact, officials at the Pentagon told us they don't know how many soldiers have received the award for traumatic brain injuries. They don't know how many soldiers with TBI have been turned down. They do say that 25,000 soldiers have received the Purple Heart for all types of injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That number is strikingly low when you consider that the Pentagon says at least several times that many have suffered TBIs. General Peter Chiarelli says some commanders still don't get it.

Gen. CHIARELLI: Now, there are some commanders - and I've run into them myself -who will not recommend approval of a Purple Heart for a soldier based solely on a concussion.

ZWERDLING: But Chiarelli says if your commander won't give you a Purple Heart for a concussion, just appeal to the Army.

Gen. CHIARELLI: The forms are relatively easy to fill out. And I would argue that in most of those cases, the Purple Heart would be awarded to the soldier.

Mrs. JAYNA MOCERI BROOKS: I wish it were that easy. I wouldn't agree with that at all, actually.

ZWERDLING: Jayna Moceri Brooks is married to an Army captain named Jonathan Brooks. And he came home a different man after a couple of explosions. She says she doesn't want to sound disrespectful to the Army, but she's started a program to help soldiers with TBIs because the Army has made it so difficult.

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Ms. BROOKS: So this is the homepage of my website, called Recognize the Sacrifice.

ZWERDLING: She's a nurse. Her husband graduated West Point. And they've had to fight the Army every step of the way so doctors would diagnose his brain injury and treat him.

Mr. JONATHAN BROOKS: Wait a minute. I was in these combat operations that caused this, and I shouldn't be necessarily like, a bad person here for questioning.

Ms. BROOKS: That whole process was absolutely exhausting and frustrating, because we basically had to fight for and prove, you know, that Jonathan had changed and was injured in combat.

ZWERDLING: The Brooks echo all the soldiers and families we've talked to. They say they'd feel some sense of relief and closure if Jonathan finally got the Purple Heart they say he deserves.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: Learn more about TBIs and Purple Hearts at npr.org and propublica.org.

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WERTHEIMER: It's NPR News.

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