I-TEAM: ‘Ultimately, it comes down from the very top': Culture change necessary for TBI to be taken seriously in military, doctor says

Published: Jul. 23, 2020 at 3:59 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - We're continuing to expose a troubling trend for the potential of rising cases of CTE -- not in football players, but in the US military from repeated traumatic brain injuries while in combat.

On Monday, we uncovered TBI’s are often underreported by the Department of Defense. Now, we’re investigating why it’s a two-fold problem -- a tough guy culture within the ranks that comes from the very top.

In January 2020, 15 Iranian missiles were fired at US troops at the Al Asad Airbase in Iraq. Two thousand American troops took cover while fiery bombs rained down from the night sky. There were no American casualties, but shortly after, concussions emerged from among the injured.

"No, I heard they had headaches and a couple of other things, but I can say that it's not very serious," President Donald Trump said during a news conference.

A reporter asked him if he believed a potential TBI was serious.

"No, I don't consider them very serious compared to other injuries I've seen," Trump said.

At first, the Pentagon released it was only a handful of soldiers that suffered from a traumatic brain injury. Then it grew to 74 and by February, a whopping 109 TBI's had been diagnosed tied to the missile attack.

The Pentagon said all 109 TBI's were classified as "mild" despite 48 of those injured being airlifted thousands of miles away to a hospital in Germany. We found 70 percent of those 109 soldiers with TBI's are already back on active duty.

A previous report uncovered 82 percent of all TBI's recorded by the Department of Defense are marked mild, leaving experts to believe the severity and the number of TBI's are being underreported.

"You don't have to be unconscious to have a TBI," Dr. Patrick Lillard said. "The Army feels that's the hallmark. You weren't unconscious? No problem. Don't see blood? No problem. But the fact is, all those people injured with the recent Iran shelling that have TBI, they didn't have an open wound to their skull."

Lillard has treated soldiers returning home from war with brain injuries for more than 50 years. He tells me he has seen firsthand the effects of CTE, long before we had the term to diagnose it. He says giving it a name is not enough. Now we have a crisis of culture within the US military.

“Ultimately, it comes down from the very top,” Lillard said. “To say, we cannot allow this, that there’s going to be literally hundreds of thousands of people that will be impacted by this in years to come.”

Jerry Lyda, founder of K9's for Veterans in Augusta says he sees the longterm effects, every day.

"A lot of my PTSD patients are due to TBI," Lyda said. "A lot of them."

It's also personal for Lyda. Not only is he a veteran himself, his father-in-law, a dedicated US hero, suffered in silence for decades.

“He was World War II, Korea, and Vietnam twice,” Lyda said. “When he came home, he had PTSD, shell shock. Of course, he was told suck it up. Deal with it.”

Shell shock back then was known as exposure to multiple blasts in combat.

“He wasn’t home 12 months, they sent him back to Vietnam,” Lyda said. “And you know, it was different then, but a lot of it isn’t any different than what it is now.”

He passed away from Agent Orange exposure before he could see Lyda start K9′s for Veterans in 2012.

"A lot of TBI patients have memory issues," Lyda said. "They don't know when they're supposed to take their medications, so the dog is alerted on how to listen to sounds to say, 'Hey, I just heard it. You need to get up and go do this.'"

But Lyda says it's more than just forgetting medication. TBI can lead to erratic behavior.

"I had a Vietnam-era vet, special forces, got upset, hit me with his cane. Was about to do it again, my director grabbed him," Lyda said.

The wounds aren't always visible but they run deep.

"The suicide rate was 22 per day. Now it's down to 20 a day. A lot of the reason for that is because a lot of the Vietnam soldiers have already done it," Lyda said. "That's bad."

And it's about helping veterans before it's too late.

"A young man that I saw, that clearly had a traumatic brain injury and he had changes on his MRI and his behavior changed dramatically," Lillard said. "He had five deployments. His general said before his separation board there was no medical reason for his behavior and he needed to be separated. So the separation board kicked him out. Three months later, he killed himself."

The tough guy military attitude, seeing the wound to believe the wound, it doesn't work in this case. But exposure to repeated blasts during multiple deployments -- it's been happening--since before Vietnam, and it still happens now.

"Sending them back too soon, telling them to deal with it," Lyda said. "That's not right."

Lillard says the treatment in the field, sending these guys back into battle after a TBI, it all has to change.

"They put their ass on the line for you and me and our children. They volunteer, and, they deserve better evaluation and treatment than they've gotten up to this point," Lillard said.

New resources are rolling out in Georgia to help veterans. There is a two-week intensive outpatient program at Emory University that's absolutely free for any Georgia veteran who served after September 11. There, you can get treatment for TBI's, anxiety, depression, or PTSD.

Gov. Brian Kemp backed the free program as part of a federal effort to try to prevent veteran suicides.

In 2017, we found 14 percent of all Georgians who committed suicide were veterans. That’s the exact same statistic as the national picture: 14 percent of nationwide suicides that year were veterans -- far too many for the men and women who risk so much to serve us all.

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