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Helping brain-injured soldiers return – safely – to the battlefield

Much has been written about soldiers who suffer from mild traumatic brain injury, or TBI, upon returning from combat deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to estimates from the Department of Defense, about 115,000 soldiers experience memory loss, mood swings and balance problems as a result of TBI-related injuries caused by blasts and explosions. So what about TBI patients who want to return to the battlefield? How do doctors know when they're ready? That was the focus of a segment today on NPR’s All Things Considered.

As reported by Blake Farmer, recovering TBI patients in Kentucky's Fort Campbell are put in simulated battlefield situations so doctors can see how well they fare under the stress of combat. One soldier comments on the mock mission:

As the sound goes down and the lights come up, pools of red surround each body.

"I've had soldiers' blood on my hand before, so it takes you back there," says Staff Sgt. Nicholas Smith, looking at his own hands.

He says the amount of blood in this simulation is pretty true to life.

"The only difference is no one's screaming 'Mom!' or 'Get me out of here!' That's the only difference."

David Twillie, MD, directs Fort Campbell's TBI clinic, which Farmer said is considered a model by the Pentagon, and he talked about the importance of returning soldiers to duty only when they're fully ready. "Soldiers are making life and death decisions, so doesn't it make sense to use demonstrated competence as the standard for returning someone to duty?"

Previously: Can proper nutrition help blunt brain injury?, Searching for better PTSD treatments and Are veterans with PTSD at higher risk for medical illnesses?

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