June 13, 2007

When It Comes To E., Do We Really Support Our Troops?

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has been identified as the"signature injury" of the current war in Afghanistan and Iraq. All one need do is consider the number of blast injuries reported daily in the news, and an easy agreement can be reached with this statement.

But, it has a more significant implication.

On May 23, 2007, neurologist Dr. John Booss testified before the Senate Committee on Veteran's Affairs . Dr. Booss remarked on the pervasiveness of epilepsy among returning war veterans who suffered blast injury: "TBI...involves neurological, cognitive and behavioral changes which are complex, varied, diverse and may change in severity or develop over time... Post-traumatic epilepsy is going to be a significant long-term consequence of TBI. ...As neurologists, we believe that the rate of epilepsy from blast TBI will ...be high."

Booss went on to tell the Committee that even though official statistical outcomes had not yet been generated for the current wars in either Afghanistan or Iraq, the numbers of troops who developed epilepsy as a consequence of the Vietnam experience ran at 53% within 15 years after service.

Vietnam veterans were 25 times more likely to develop E. than the general population.

In March of this year, Dr. Marc Dicter, professor of neurology and pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that current "Government reports estimate more than 30,000 troops have been injured in the 4-year-old war in Iraq, and the two major wounds have been limb loss and traumatic brain injury. Veterans groups put the number of injured much higher." Dichter continued, saying "Severe brain trauma can trigger epilepsy in as many as 30 percent to 50 percent of the brain-injured soldiers" (Newsday, 3/29/07).

But, even though neurologists are telling lawmakers that treatment will be required for veterans long after their service has ended, it seems the Armed Services and the Veteran's Administration are working at cross-purposes: in an attempt to save about $8 billion a year, vets are being honorably discharged with a pre-existing "personality disorder". They find themselves with no benefits, no military pension and a bill from the VA for their treatment of war wounds.

These troops are kicked to the curb with nothing after giving everything.

Joshua Kors, reporting for The Nation magazine, writes the story of Jon Town, winner of a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq. His doctor told him to agree to the "personality disorder" diagnosis because it would give him an honorable discharge. What he was never told was that he would lose all of his benefits, his right of appeal, and that he would wind up owing the VA.

Kors writes, "In the Army's separations manual it's called Regulation 635-200, Chapter 5-13: "Separation Because of Personality Disorder." It's an alluring choice for a cash-strapped military because enacting it is quick and cheap. The Department of Veterans Affairs doesn't have to provide medical care to soldiers dismissed with personality disorder. That's because under Chapter 5-13, personality disorder is a pre-existing condition" (The Nation, April 9, 2007).

According to Kors, the services have discharged over 8,000 returning, wounded, often decorated Iraq and Afghanistan vets in this manner, and Town is simply a member of that cohort.

While the link between these dismissals may seem like a stretch, one might take into consideration the notion that these vets, some of whom are experiencing odd behavior, difficulty sleeping, rage, emotional inconsistencies, black-out, memory difficulties and more are among those whose conditions may ripen into E. over time. They are also among those dismissed under this specious Chapter 5-13 provision.

So, the question remains: when it comes to epilepsy, do we really support our troops or does it just make us feel better when we say we do.