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Cultivating Afghanistan: Battling Polytrauma

As the Indiana National Guard 119th Agribusiness Development Team ends its deployment in eastern Afghanistan, it faces numerous challenges. including the medical issues some returning veterans face when they arrive home.

Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, are two of the greatest threats facing soldiers serving in Afghanistan. The Pentagon estimates 360,000 U.S. soldiers have suffered traumatic brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. The New York Times reports there are 34,000 soldiers with PTSD. The two conditions often commingle in what the military calls "polytrauma".

Heidi Knock is a Clinical Psychologist in the Polytrauma Clinic at the Veterans Administration’s Richard L. Roudebush Medical Center in Indianapolis. Knock said the cause of most TBI cases is straightforward.

“The number one thing is IED blasts, improvised explosive device blasts—basically bombs," she said.  "And the blast waves or concussive waves from these blasts can cause brain, well, contrecoup issues, in the brain. In other words, the brain floats in a liquid and it can actually kind of rattle the brain.”

Many of the 1.5 million soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 have gone through several deployments, exposing them to numerous explosions—in some cases, twenty or more—which Knock said can further exacerbate problems.

“Sometimes because people have multiple exposures to IEDs, blast waves, that sort of thing, we’re seeing complicated issues with that.”

PTSD is a common after-effect for many TBI sufferers. Characterized by debilitating symptoms including avoidance, hyper-arousal and obsessive re-living of traumas, Knock said PTSD is devastating for suffering vets.

“They have this fantasy of returning, and getting back with their families, and they come back and it doesn’t end for them," Knock said. "The nightmares, the flashbacks, and the severe anxiety attacks and the panic attacks going out in public—and their world becomes smaller and smaller, and that’s a severe grief and loss issue for them.”

But she said it’s equally devastating for families.

“You know the veteran can leave, being a fabulous family man, happy, real engaged with the family. And they come back and they don’t sleep, they’re angry, maybe they’re drinking, they isolate from the family, and sometimes they’re yelling and screaming, because they’re just so overwhelmed. It has a huge impact on the family. It really does.”

The military has programs, such as the Battlemind behavior health system and Yellow Ribbon events for military families, to help veterans re-acclimate themselves to home—and to help them when they have problems. Though the tidal wave of polytrauma threatens to overwhelm the Veterans Administration’s broad spectrum of counseling, medical and vocational rehabilitation services, Knock said the VA remains resolute in its determination to treat America’s injured warriors.

"Our system is taxed, but we love our veterans, and I know that our staff does everything they can to serve our veterans," she said.

Next week: the Indiana Agribusiness Development Team faces a complex Taliban attack.

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