KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - At first glance he looks just like any healthy, young infantryman. He has no visible lacerations and all his limbs are intact. He certainly doesn’t look like someone who’s been through a blast big enough to knock the tires off of a Stryker.
“I was talking on the headset, and next thing you know, the [improvised explosive device] hit,” said Pfc. Jose Ojeda from Comanche Company, 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, recalling the blast that hit his Stryker while he served as a gunner during a mounted patrol in southern Afghanistan. “I blacked out for like 4-5 seconds and when I came to, I was in the back hatch. I was hit on the head, fell down, and my knee buckled up.”
Ojeda and his two comrades managed to make it out of the vehicle, but he wasn’t as perfectly healthy as his appearance would lead one to believe.
You’d need an MRI machine to see the injuries he sustained through that blast, because Ojeda has suffered a traumatic brain injury.
A traumatic brain injury can result from a blow to the head, a fall or an event that shakes the brain. Lt. Cmdr. Craig Carroll, a U.S. Navy neurologist at Role 3 Multinational Hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, said the most important thing to do when a traumatic brain injury is suspected is to confirm it as quickly as possible.
Education about traumatic brain injury and the capability to treat it has increased after the opening of the Warrior Recovery Center in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in early 2010. As a result, confirmation of the injury can now begin in the field.
“One of the ways we’ve tried to improve [identification] is to standardized the way that we have a medic or a primary-care provider on the front line assess an individual after they’ve been exposed to a circumstance,” said Carroll.
Once it was determined Ojeda had sustained a traumatic brain injury, he came to the WRC, which takes an uncommon approach to care.
“One of the things unique about our care here in the WRC is the fact that we are able to approach any service member that has had a traumatic brain injury in a very multidisciplinary manner,” said Carroll. “Meaning we have occupational therapists, we have physical therapists, we have psychologists and we have neurologists.”
The WRC houses all of these specialties in one relaxed environment, surreally located inside a war zone.
“I think that this is certainly the model of what needs to happen to take care of traumatic brain injury,” he said. “That is the most successful way to approach these patients.”
Instead of being sent stateside for care, injured service members in Afghanistan are now able to receive care in theater, rehabilitate and return to duty 90 percent of the time.
“Their motivation to get back to their unit is very strong,” said Carroll. “One of our jobs it to make sure we don’t get them back before they’re ready.”
The military is now working with the NFL to study traumatic brain injury and make care as effective as possible. The two have joined forces to study what the impact of multiple concussions can be for service members and players, as well as advocating treatment for the sometimes taboo subject.
“The important piece of this [campaign with the NFL] is to get our soldiers to understand the importance of coming forward,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, U.S. Army chief of staff. “If you believe you have a traumatic brain injury, it’s important that you come forward to get help. We have the capacity to [help], we have the capability, and it’s something that’s treatable.”
“If we can find a more sensitive way to assess the brain, that would have an impact across not just the military, but also our civilian counterparts as well,” said Caroll.
“As we work through this together, we’ll find more capabilities to help our soldiers as well as NFL players.” Odierno said. “We have to continue to move forward worrying about TBI.”
The NFL understands the benefits of this kind of study for players and service members like Ojeda.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodall said, “Working together we can lead in raising awareness on this issue that affects players in all sports, our men and women in the armed forces, and the broader public.”