Soldiers Brains to be Tested Before War
> 9/21/2007 1:03:17 PM

Grenades and land-mines threaten American soldiers every day that they serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have extensively covered the trauma that stress can wreck on these soldiers, but there is a government agency entirely devoted to neurological damage with a physical cause— the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. The DVBIC reports that over half of combat injuries are from explosives, and they have done extensive research showing that the high-pressure waves generated by explosions can damage the brains of even those not hit by debris.

The theoretical link between explosion and brain damage has been confirmed, but it is much more difficult to link a specific explosion to a specific change in one soldier’s cognitive function. If a captain goes from being a brilliant tactician to a zombie, then of course a diagnosis is easy, but doctors have much more trouble detecting subtle declines in function. Small declines do not always create notable changes in behavior, and they cannot always be distinguished from the natural variance in human ability. Recognizing this difficulty, and the value of attentively monitoring the mental health of soldiers, the U.S. Army has begun a new program to test all soldiers before they are deployed.

The 101st Airborne Division are the first to take the pre-deployment cognitive test that will become mandatory in every U.S. military base with the permission of each base commander. The test can be easily administered in 10 minutes using a laptop that can collect baseline measurements on reaction time, problem solving, and memory. Soldiers will be tested again when they return from duty, and their scores will be compared. With this technique, a soldier who left with near-perfect recall and returned with only slightly below average memory has evidence that deployment eroded their cognitive function.

A spokesman for Veterans for America warned the Associated Press that this new technology might be used by the government as justification to deny disability claims. While it is possible that brain damage that is not picked up by computer cognitive tests will be delegitimized, pre-deployment tests have a greater potential to help veterans get the benefits they deserve. Without proof of pre-deployment health, soldiers face the risk of being discharged under the often-abused Regulation 635-200, Chapter 5-13. This regulation states that soldiers discharged for personality disorders are not entitled to benefits because these conditions are “pre-existing.”

The Nation reported on the tragic example of Jon Town, who suffered a rocket explosion two feet above his head only to have his resulting emotional and cognitive problems dismissed as a personality disorder. If Jon had been given a thorough test before being sent to Iraq, he could have proven that he suffered brain damage in service to his country. Until uniform and comprehensive tests are given to soldiers before they are thrust into danger, it will be too easy for agencies to sweep their mental injuries under the rug.

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