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Mideast edition, Saturday, August 25, 2007

WIESBADEN, Germany — Soldiers deploying next month with the 1st Armored Division headquarters staff are taking part in the U.S. Army’s first large-scale test for traumatic brain injury.

A traumatic brain injury, or TBI, disrupts normal brain function and is typically caused by a blow or jolt to the head, though an external head injury obviously has the potential to upset cognitive thought. While the latter is naturally a concern, the test on 1st AD soldiers in Wiesbaden could be especially useful in assessing mild brain injuries, such as those associated with exposure to blasts.

“It’s the mild TBI guys” who are the focus, said Lt. Col. Jerome L. Buller, the division surgeon-general. “They are the diagnostic dilemma.”

That’s because any damage done is generally hard to diagnose, since the injury is internal and thus more difficult to detect. A rough analogy could be that of a football player who has had his “bell” rung one too many times.

Symptoms of mild TBI, or a concussion, include headaches, dizziness, excessive fatigue, concentration problems, forgetfulness, irritability, sleeplessness, balance problems, ringing in the ears and vision changes, Buller said.

The test, which takes 15 to 20 minutes, is part of the pre-deployment regimen that about 1,200 soldiers are going through at Wiesbaden Army Airfield. The 1st AD headquarters staff and a few related support units are due to begin deploying to northern Iraq in late September.

Buller indicated that the test likely would become part of the Army’s pre-deployment and post-deployment process. The 2nd Brigade soldiers in Baumholder, for example, likely will take the test prior to their deployment in early 2008.

More than 400 soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky., participated in a pilot program in June and July. The program is supported by the University of Oklahoma, the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs.

“It’s going to catch wind,” Buller said of the initiative as he stood near to where the test was being administered.

The computer-based test doesn’t entirely hinge on right or wrong answers. It’s designed to also capture baseline data on a soldier’s reaction time, processing speed, spatial memory, short-term memory and working memory, which is the skill to temporarily retain facts or thoughts while handling a task or solving a problem.

All of the data won’t come into play, Buller said, unless a soldier is injured or experiences TBI symptoms following a blast, which is the leading cause for TBI. The expectation is that the baseline data on each soldier will help in the identification and treatment of mild brain injuries.

Capt. Christopher Siegrist wasn’t quite sure what to make of the test after he completed it Friday. He likes the concept, though, and sort of wishes something like it was in place for his three earlier deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’ve been lucky,” said Siegrist, a member of the 146th Signal Company. “I’ve had no close calls, per se, where you feel the percussion.”

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