Aftershock: The Blast That Shook Psycho Platoon
Five soldiers injured in the same 2009 bomb blast are a case study in a new epidemic among America’s troops, who are grappling with a combination of concussion and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Updated March 13: ABC News and CNN have reported that the soldier who allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians previously suffered a traumatic brain injury during one of his four deployments, citing unnamed Defense Department sources. As part of our extensive coverage of traumatic brain injury, ProPublica featured a unit of soldiers dubbed "Psycho Platoon" who sustained brain injuries in Iraq and had severe mental health challenges when they returned from their deployments. In another story, we also visited Fort Lewis, where the soldier accused of the killings was based. While there, we talked to soldiers about how they are assessed for brain injuries.
A version of this story was co-produced with NPR and aired on All Things Considered. (Listen here.) This story was also published as part of Amazon's Kindle Singles program, and is available for reading on that device.
MINOT, ND -- At 8:20 p.m. on Sept. 21, 2010, Iraq veteran Brock Savelkoul decided it was time to die. He lurched from his black Tacoma pickup truck, gripping a 9-mm pistol. In front of him, a half dozen law enforcement officers crouched behind patrol cars with their weapons drawn. They had surrounded him on a muddy red road after an hour-long chase that reached speeds of 105 miles per hour. Savelkoul stared at the ring of men and women before ducking into the cab of his truck. He cranked up the radio. A country song about whiskey and cigarettes wafted out across an endless sprawl of North Dakota farmland, stubbled from the recent harvest. Sleet was falling, chilling the air. Savelkoul, 29, walked slowly toward the officers. He gestured wildly with his gun. "Go ahead, shoot me! ... Please, shoot me," he yelled, his face illuminated in a chiaroscuro of blazing spotlights and the deepening darkness. "Do it. Pull it. Do I have to point my gun at you to ... do it?"
Twenty feet away, the officers shifted nervously. Some placed their fingers on the triggers of their shotguns and took aim at Savelkoul's chest. They were exhausted, on edge after the chase and long standoff. They knew only the sketchiest of details about the man in front of them, his blond hair short, his face twisted in grief and anger. Dispatchers had told them that Savelkoul had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. They warned that he might have been drinking. Family members told police that Savelkoul had fled his home with six weapons, including a semiautomatic assault rifle and several hundred rounds of hollow point ammunition. To Megan Christopher, a trooper with the North Dakota Highway Patrol, Savelkoul's intentions seemed obvious. "Suicide by cop," she thought. "He wants to go out in a blaze of glory."
As it happened, Savelkoul's state of mind was of interest not only to the cops, but to some of the nation's top military officers and medical researchers.
More than 2 million troops have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Tens of thousands have returned with a bedeviling mix of psychological and cognitive problems. For decades, doctors have recognized that soldiers can suffer lasting wounds from the sheer terror of combat, a condition referred to today as post-traumatic stress disorder. They also have come to know that blows to the head from roadside bombs -- the signature weapon in Iraq and Afghanistan -- can result in mild traumatic injuries to the brain, or concussions, that can leave soldiers unable to remember, to follow orders, to think normally.
Now it is becoming clear that soldiers like Savelkoul are coming home afflicted with both conditions, in numbers never seen before. Studies have estimated that about 20 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered a mild traumatic brain injury while deployed. Of those, anywhere between 5 percent to nearly 50 percent may suffer both PTSD and lingering problems from traumatic brain injuries. It is an epidemic so new that doctors aren't even sure what to call it, let alone how best to diagnose and treat it.
Savelkoul and four of his comrades landed on the front lines of this confounding new conflict over the minds of America's soldiers when an Iraqi rocket exploded near their trailer in January 2009. By chance, a senior Army neuropsychologist was in Iraq at the time to conduct a study on the military's tools for diagnosing concussions. After learning of the attack, he persuaded Savelkoul and the others to enroll. The men became the first fully documented victims of "pure blast" concussions -- that is, mild traumatic brain injuries caused by the force of an explosion, rather than a secondary effect, such as slamming into a Humvee wall after a roadside bomb.
The concussions marked only the beginning of the men's problems. Aftershocks from the blast would ripple through each of their lives differently, mirroring the spectrum of psychic and physical outcomes that doctors have begun to catalog. Of the five men injured that night, three remain in the Army and are currently deployed to overseas war zones. One recovered quickly, though he continues to suffer occasional severe headaches. Two recuperated more gradually but complain of forgetfulness and problems concentrating. A fourth left the military, tired of the violence and still grappling with concussion symptoms.
Savelkoul struggled the most to return to the person he had been before. On that night last September, his troubles transformed from academic data point to terrifyingly real confrontation. All the Army's men, all its research, all its treatments, had failed to prevent the desperate showdown that would unfold on a deserted stretch of highway just south of the pinched hills of the Dakota badlands. Now the outcome depended on one distraught man and a half-dozen nerve-wracked police officers, trying to negotiate a battlefield of the mind that none of them -- no one in the world, really -- understood.
An Unremarkable Blast
In the violence of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was an unremarkable attack on an unremarkable day.
On the night of Jan. 16, 2009, several soldiers were hunched around a small television screen in a trailer at Camp Liberty, a sprawling base just outside of Baghdad. The men of Psycho platoon, Hell Raisers Battery, 1-7 Field Artillery of the famed 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, had arrived in Iraq from Fort Riley, Kan., in October 2008. They were on their second or third tours. After spending most of the day patrolling a nearby Iraqi village, they decided to unwind by playing "Call of Duty 4," a video game that allows players to act as U.S. Marines fighting in an unspecified Middle Eastern country. Subtitled "Modern Warfare," the game's scenes are harrowingly similar to the conflict in Iraq, with patrols down narrow streets of dun-colored buildings, sudden explosions and attacks by hidden enemies. "It sounds strange, but it's how we relaxed," said Staff Sgt. Derrick Junge, a muscular Illinois native with a shaved head and a fondness for reading Virgil, John Milton and Charles Dickens.
At about 8 p.m., the men heard the warning klaxon of the Phalanx, an antimissile system designed to destroy incoming mortar and artillery rounds by spraying bullets into the sky. The men continued playing "Call of Duty." Rocket attacks were common. The insurgents aimed so poorly that they rarely posed a danger. Seven minutes after the first warning, a second sounded. One man remembered that a fellow player, referring to the video game, called out "He's got a grenade!" Then, chaos enveloped the men.
The military has failed to diagnose brain injuries in thousands of soldiers returning from overseas.
The Story So Far
Traumatic brain injury is considered the “signature wound” of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Official military statistics show that more than 115,000 soldiers have suffered mild traumatic brain injuries since the wars began. Shock waves from roadside bombs can ripple through soldiers’ brains, causing damage that sometimes leaves no visible scars but may cause lasting mental and physical harm.