Healing Veterans' Unseen Scars

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Over 230,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan - perhaps the same number as those with PTSD - are said to suffer from those wars' signature injury: blast neurotrauma, a newly coined term for so-called "mild traumatic brain injury" (mTBI) from exposure to IED explosions and other "blast events." That means as many as a half million men and women have come home from those travesties suffering from either or both of two major neurological disorders, PTSD or the related mTBI, about which even less is known and whose symptoms often bleed into PTSD.

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Despite its prevalence, researchers are just beginning to study the neurological effects of blast waves on the brain, which include a dizzying range of symptoms - headache, depression, seizures, motor disorders, sleep disorders, visual disturbances, mood changes and cognitive, memory, and speech difficulties. Though a new study has found a rare honeycomb pattern of nerve fiber damage in the brain, fundamental questions about “blast-induced traumatic brain injury” remain unknown. There is no clear diagnosis, prevention, cure or even consensus about what precisely blasts do to the human brain. Among sufferers of a devastating injury officially deemed "minor" - those whose lives have been shattered, with little or no help forthcoming from an overwhelmed, underfunded, infamously inept veterans' health care system - there is reportedly only one clear consensus: an objection to the term "mild."

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Various groups have stepped up to help fight this "invisible war on the brain." They range from the multimedia Real Warriors' Campaign (that name!) "to encourage help-seeking behavior" launched by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) to Veterans Healing Veterans From the Inside Out and Veterans For Peace. Smaller groups offer the solace of trained veteran dogs, from the Dutch non-profit KNGF to the Arizona-based Soldiers' Best Friend.

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Improbably to many sufferers, there's also art therapy offered at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), part of Walter Reed Medical Center. It includes a project wherein veterans make masks exploring the trauma, grief, pain, rage behind their daily masks that they often find hard to articulate. In a stunning National Geographic piece, the visuals proclaim the force of explosions, physical and psychic, that "rattle the earth around you."


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