Heavy weapons training may cause brain injury in military members
Traumatic brain injuries are often called the “signature injury” of soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan because so many service members returned home with brain injuries. However, a new study shows that even more soldiers may have developed TBI than previously estimated and the cause may not be what you expect.
According to the new report, heavy weapons training including explosives experience may be causing a large number of brain injuries in troops.
The researchers at the Center for a New American Security said they found evidence of lasting brain injury in service members who may have never seen combat but specialized in using weapons such as rocket launchers.
The experts from the nonprofit defense think tank say they believe the pressure blasts from the weapons combined with the intense pounding on the necks and heads could be causing brain injuries similar to those injured by improvised explosive devices.
“It’s analogous to people getting hits to the head in sports, playing football or boxing,” said Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at the center. “This is not really well understood, the primary blast effects on the brain. Exactly how it affects the brain is unclear, but the fact that it is having some kind of negative effect is now being shown.”
While shooting weapons like rocket-propelled grenades may look easy in movies and video games, those with experience with the weapons say the process takes a significant toll on their bodies. The loud boom that accompanies the shot is often compared to being punched in the side of the head by troops.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon has long acknowledged the potential damage from using these weapons and limits the number of rounds service members can fire at any given time. However, little research has been done to investigate exactly what harm these blasts may inflict on the brain.
As part of an effort by the Department of Defense to better understand traumatic brain injuries in the military, some troops have recently been equipped with small gauges designed to measure the impact of blasts. This allows them to recognize if a member of the military experiences a potential brain injury in combat. However, researchers began to notice that the gauges were also registering significant blasts in training as well.
Based on this, the team of researchers examined further data collected from the Defense Department, blast-effect research on animals, and computer modeling to determine the cause of the potentially damaging blasts.
While the findings raise concerns about the use of some heavy weaponry and explosives, Scharre says these weapons are absolute necessities in the field. However, the military can take several steps to mitigate the effects.
Specifically, the researchers advise tracking when troops fire weapons in training, so they can be better assessed for injuries or potential TBI.
“They would have a record of times of exposure, how frequent, the amount of ammunition shot and over what time period,” said Lauren Fish, co-author of the report.
The team also believes better helmets could be developed that may help direct the pressure from the blast waves away from the head and brain.