Aftershock: The Blast That Shook Psycho Platoon

T. Christian Miller and Daniel Zwerdling

Created on Sunday, May 5, 2013.
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A short Kindle Single about traumatic brain injuries resulting from explosion shockwaves without other impact (like being thrown against a wall), told in relation to a group of soldiers who suffered such injuries in an IED blast.

 

“When you work a lot with acute concussion, you actually kind of recognize even the look of a person who has been acutely concussed, which is kind of a dazed expression, a little bit unfocused, a little bit slow to respond,” Russell said. “Several of them had significant gaps in their memory. And it wasn’t clear how long they were unconscious. The last thing they remember is they were playing video games. The next thing they remember, they are outside the trailer in a shelter. Some minutes had actually passed where they weren’t recording memories. That’s post-traumatic amnesia. And that’s your classic symptoms of a concussion.”

 

Given the number of troops deployed, tens of thousands of soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen may be suffering from this pernicious combination of PTSD and lasting problems from mild traumatic brain injury. They become, quite literally, different men and women than they used to be, a generation of warriors whose fight has shifted from external combat zones to invisible internal battlefields.

 

Soldiers sustain their injuries in settings dramatically different from those encountered by athletes or car accident victims. Civilian concussions are typically caused by a physical blow to the head. But nobody is sure exactly how the brain is damaged in a blast concussion. Do blast waves rupture miniature blood vessels inside the brain? Does the force sever connections between neurons? Does it damage individual brain cells? Or does it simply slam the helmet into the head hard enough to injure the brain?

 

Some researchers believe that soldiers concussions may pose an even more complex medical challenge. Soldiers sustain their injuries in settings dramatically different from those encountered by athletes or car accident victims. Civilian concussions are typically caused by a physical blow to the head. But nobody is sure exactly how the brain is damaged in a blast concussion. Do blast waves rupture miniature blood vessels inside the brain? Does the force sever connections between neurons? Does it damage individual brain cells? Or does it simply slam the helmet into the head hard enough to injure the brain? After the blast, soldiers face a different environment than typical concussion victims. No fans applaud as they rise from the field. Medics often can’t rush them to the safety of a hospital right away. Instead, they remain on a hostile battlefield, fighting for their lives, the violence and rush of combat filling their brain with abnormal levels of chemicals such as adrenaline. Those left dazed, but not unconscious, experience a fear so fierce that it may simultaneously trigger post-traumatic stress. Paradoxically, patients who suffer severe traumatic brain injuries are less likely to develop PTSD-perhaps because, knocked unconscious, they do not actually experience the horror unfolding around them.

 

Though the men of Psycho platoon returned to duty shortly after the explosion, several continued to experience aftereffects. Hollingshead remembered stumbling across the base, unable to keep his balance on the white gravel that lined the ground between buildings. His ears rang constantly. He had difficulty keeping track of what his sergeants were telling him to do. “I just could not remember it. I’d ask three different times. It’s a very unusual feeling, not being able to remember all of a sudden.” Hopkins had similar trouble. “I just didn’t feel right. I could barely walk a straight line,” he said. “I was forgetting things, my attention span was shot, someone would be directly talking to me and I would not even really be paying attention. I couldn’t recall or say back what they said to me. It was like I was paying attention but I wasn’t gathering the information.” Junge had splitting headaches, so he popped ibuprofen and Tylenol PM to help get to sleep.

 

In Homer’s Iliad, some have speculated that Achilles blind rage after the death of a beloved companion is an early description of post-traumatic stress. During the Civil War, men who struggled to return to normalcy after the war were described as suffering from “soldiers heart.” In World War I, it was called shellshock. World War II brought the name “combat fatigue.” All generally described soldiers numbed and haunted, unable to return to battle-or normal life.

 

He tried to continue psychological treatments, but Minot is 271 miles from the nearest Veteran’s Affairs hospital. He started to make the drive several times but would get spooked when going under overpasses, often the site of insurgent attacks in Iraq.

 

Savelkoul seemed more at peace, more rested, more confident of the life ahead of him. He had taken the first steps, he said, toward understanding the war in his mind. He said that the VA and the military were helping. “They teach us how to get over there,” he said. “Now they need to teach us how to get back.”

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