I-TEAM: Investigation exposes underreported CTE cases in our military and veterans

Military members face a different kind of battle here at home
Published: Jul. 20, 2020 at 8:34 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Our military fighting for our country overseas come home to face a different kind of battle. We’ve heard the letters “CTE” in sports, but our troops are facing it, as well.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is the term used to describe brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head traumas.

The Department of Defense says close to 400,000 in the military have been diagnosed with some sort of brain injury since 2000. But as our I-TEAM is finding out, those numbers are underreported.

It’s “Call of Duty” meets hide and seek.

“We were trained to go out there and look for IEDs. So that’s what we’ve done,” said retired Sgt. Daniel Smith, a Purple Heart recipient.

The “looking” is not so bad. The “finding” is what’s the problem.

“It wasn’t 50-60 yards from us, but my head was sticking up. I was the gunner on the vehicle. And it rattled us pretty good. It knocked me completely in the turret backwards. I had blood coming out of both my ears,” Smith said.

Smith was back in combat three days later, and not officially diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury until he was back in the States six months later.

“Have you been exposed to more than one blast?” I-TEAM reporter Laura Warren asked.

“Yeah, I was exposed to a couple because we were out there looking for them,” Smith said.

Now, the Purple Heart recipient is fighting a different battle here at home, his brain injury, but he's not alone.

According to the Department of Defense, close to 400,000 in the military have been diagnosed with some sort of brain injury since 2000, but through our investigation, we found those numbers are underreported.

“I have a number of veterans, and when I say a number, I mean a dozen, when I ask -- have you ever been blown up, and they’d say, ‘Sure’. Sometimes a couple of times a week. I’d say total, in your first deployment,” said Dr. Patrick Lillard, a retired neurosurgeon and psychiatrist.

“How many times?” Warren asked.

“Eight or maybe so,” Lillard replied

Lillard is treating soldiers with brain injuries for more than 50 years. He’s seen the effects of CTE, long before we had the research to name it.

“What is the difference in the impact of, say, a helmet to helmet tackle, versus a mortar blast?” Warren asked.

“A patient that I’ve seen here, he was involved in an IED that blew his Humvee up in the air and upside down, the blast effect of that was 1,000 times more severe than two football players hitting each other,” Lillard said.

1,000 times more severe. It’s alarming considering the data we uncovered from the Department of Defense.

Of those near 400,000 traumatic brain injuries recorded in the armed forces from 2000 to 2018, the I-TEAM found 82 percent of those are marked as ‘mild.’ And only 9,000 injuries of 2.5 percent are marked as ‘severe’.

The Army reported the most TBIs, or traumatic brain injuries, over those 18 years, a little more than 225,000. The Navy, Air Force, and Marines -- about 52,000 to 54,000. Again, the majority marked as “mild,” and counted only once.

Lillard agrees this I-TEAM analysis reflects a misleading hole in data reporting since repeated head trauma is the hallmark of CTE.

Current data reflects our government's practice of only tracking diagnosed TBI's. Even if a service member has more than one TBI, it's only counted once, meaning the true number of traumatic brain injuries may actually be in the millions.

“I feel because of the numerous IED exposures since 911, there will be a profound epidemic of degenerative CTE cases in the coming years,” Lillard said. “And the question is, are we prepared to evaluate them and treat them? And is there something we can do earlier by not ignoring the problem but taking care of them immediately.”

Most of what we know about CTE is thanks to Dr. Ann McKee’s research. She is the chief neuropathologist for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Boston who helped start a brain bank, since right now, the only way to diagnose CTE is by autopsying the brain after death.

“How widespread of a problem might this be?” Warren asked.

“It’s not just these major injuries, it’s the smaller ones, too -- and we’re finding there can be long-lasting effects,” McKee said.

Smaller injuries like the ones the Department of Defense records as mild, and while most of the more than 80 brains in McKee’s brain bank belong to athletes, they are actively studying military veterans.

“So how many veterans’ brains have you studied so far? How many have you collected in the brain bank?” Warren asked.

“It’s about 100, I don’t have the exact number for you,” McKee said.

“How many of those had CTE?”

“It’s about a third, maybe a little more than that,” McKee said.

And back to Smith ...

“Tell me how many of these CTE symptoms do you identify with,” Warren asked.

“Memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and towards the end stages, tremors, shaking similar to Parkinson’s. Everything except the tremors,” he said.

Does Smith have CTE? Right now, we don’t know. Researchers are hoping they are on the verge of being able to diagnose CTE while victims are alive. And the hope is to keep it from progressing.

Experts like Lillard say there needs to be realistic data on head injuries and serious changes when it comes to military protocol.

“Are you worried about the future?” Warren asked.

“I worry all the time and there have been times I’ve had my dark moments,” Smith said.

And Sgt. Daniel Smith is hoping he lives to see those changes.

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