Despite improved TBI outreach, critics say needs not met
ARLINGTON, Va. — Army officials believe they have greatly improved the service’s ability to reach soldiers with brain injuries, but critics say servicemembers still do not receive adequate screenings from the military.
March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. Army Brig. Gen. Loree K. Sutton said Wednesday she believes the military is more equipped than ever to handle tens of thousands of brain-injured troops.
But she still urged troops who feel they may need care to seek it immediately.
"Asking for help is an act of courage and strength," said Sutton, who directs the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Sutton credited a series of initiatives enacted over the past two years — including better post-deployment health screening, more trained health professionals and centers that provide care and treatment — with helping the Army better reach injured soldiers.
Sutton said that of the approximately 9,100 individuals who have been treated for TBI in the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center network, 85 percent to 90 percent were considered "mild" injuries, or concussions. The vast majority of such injuries will heal completely, she said, often on their own through time and rest.
By the Army’s estimate, hundreds of thousands with mild symptoms have not sought treatment in their system.
Critics say that while military care has improved, individual servicemembers still do not receive adequate screenings before and after their deployments to war, including brain scans and face-to-face meetings with doctors.
The blanket use of post-deployment TBI screening — through four questions added to a questionnaire — was fully adopted by all services only last May. That questionnaire is working to automatically flag those who may have suffered some degree of TBI but have not sought help, according to Sutton.
But Adrienne Willis, a spokeswoman for Veterans of America, said that such forms amount to a self-diagnosis. "That would never be allowed or accepted [outside the military]," Willis said.
"In the ideal world, it would be to screen everybody pre-deployment and post-deployment — not just having them fill out a piece of paper, but an actual brain scan," she said.
"Any servicemember who comes back [is] not going to fill out that form the way that they should fill out the form. We’ve had countless people say to us, ‘No, I just want to get home.’ "
A better solution, she said would be to allow troops and veterans to more easily seek immediate care beyond the military’s system where needed.
"I’ve worked with people who have mild traumatic brain injury and I’ve seen how it affects their lives. You think that you’re just a little down. You can’t sleep at night, you start drinking, you start walking into a wall and you can’t figure out why," Willis said.