As of Monday, January 13, 109 United States service members have been diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury, commonly called a concussion. This follows the January eighth Iranian missile attack on the al-Asad airbase in Iraq, where United States troops were housed. A statement issued by the Pentagon discloses that nearly 70% of service members diagnosed have been treated and returned to duty. This statement followed the initial statement that declared no United States service members were injured or killed in the course of the missile attack. This raised concern that these injuries are not being taken seriously as the symptoms of headaches, mild confusion, and dizziness can be easily dismissed. This is a fair concern, as the most severe traumatic brain injuries can result in death. Early diagnosis and treatment are important, in ensuring that the injury is not exacerbated.
Anyone who has played a sport, or spent time around people who do, knows that concussions, while fairly common in the course of contact sports, are taken very seriously. From a high school level on, baseline testing is required so that in the event of an injury, the severity can be assessed and properly treated.
A few years ago, information on chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries, prevalent in sports like football and boxing — circulated, and sparked outrage as well as a desire for more awareness among athletes, coaches and families. The studies that resulted from this provided evidence of the potentially deadly ramifications of untreated brain injuries.
That being said, a concussion in and of itself is far from a death sentence. When properly diagnosed and treated, a concussion can be recovered from in 7-10 days, the danger lies in blowing off the symptoms or the instructed treatment. In terms of the brain injuries of the service members in Iraq and the conversation surrounding them, what causes concern is that these numbers were not given initially, giving the impression that it was potentially something that was hidden from the public. On the other hand, symptoms of concussions and other brain injuries can take time to manifest themselves, and the initial information given may have been accurate at the time.
From the numbers in the January 13 statement from the Pentagon, it appears that the injuries are being treated, and that service members involved in this and future incidents will continue to be screened and treated as needed. This, coupled with the assurance from General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that service members diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries will continue to be monitored after they have been returned to duty, offers some confidence that the injuries are in fact being taken seriously. However, these initial numbers and promises can only go so far, and the real test of how well service members with traumatic brain injuries are being treated and how seriously the consequences of them are being taken will come in the years ahead.