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Fort Bliss Says It Will Examine Its Handling of Brain Injuries

After soldiers’ reports of problems, officials at Fort Bliss tell a congressman that they will review the base’s care for traumatic brain injuries. But the base is now providing information that seems to contradict earlier statements.

The Warriors in Transition Barracks are designed to service returning veterans. (Blake Gordon/Aurora Photos)

July 2: This post has been updated.

Medical commanders at one of America's largest military bases have ordered a review into the care provided to soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injury, in response to an investigation by NPR and ProPublica.

Col. James Baunchalk, the commander of William Beaumont Army Medical Center at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, told members of Congress that he was concerned by our report, which found that soldiers there struggled to receive adequate care for mild traumatic brain injuries.

The hospital is "committed to delivering the very highest quality care and support to our soldiers and their families, including those who may be affected by traumatic brain injuries," Baunchalk wrote in a June 21 letter to Rep. Harry Teague, D-N.M., a copy of which was obtained by NPR and ProPublica.

The Pentagon's official figures show that more than 115,000 troops have suffered mild traumatic brain injuries, also called concussions, since the wars began in Iraq and Afghanistan. But our story said those figures likely understate the true toll, with some studies suggesting that the injuries go undiagnosed in tens of thousands of troops. While most recover quickly, some grapple with lasting mental and physical problems from exposure to explosions.

Our story focused on several soldiers at Fort Bliss, the third-largest American military base by troop population. The soldiers told us they endured long waits to see specialists and met with frustrating skepticism from doctors over the severity of their conditions. All had ongoing problems with memory, concentration and other cognitive functions.

We also wrote about Building 805, a small clinic at the base that was supposed to screen soldiers with traumatic brain injuries. Although the base has recently added billions of dollars of barracks and other facilities to accommodate newly arriving troops, Building 805 has remained shuttered for almost a year, for want of computer wiring, commanders told us.

Teague, who visited the base on Sunday and met with soldiers mentioned in our story, said he would continue to press the hospital to make sure that adequate care was being delivered.

"I would like to further examine how the overall quality of TBI care at Fort Bliss serves our soldiers compared to what they may have access to in civilian medicine," Teague wrote in a June 25 letter to Baunchalk. "I would like to ensure that the system of TBI care, in general, adequately addresses the needs of our service members and is adequately resourced."

Base officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on their letter to Teague. The letter listed a series of programs in place to treat soldiers and catch problems in care, but some of the information appeared to contradict material that base officials provided to us.

Fort Bliss told Teague it had 10 medical staff members "assigned full time" to the traumatic brain injury program. But in a letter responding to our questions in April, officials listed only four employees providing such care full-time. They listed seven other clinicians who worked part-time with brain-injured patients.

Fort Bliss also told Teague that Building 805 was "completed at the end of January 2010." But in interviews with us and in their written response to our questions, base officials told us that Building 805 "was completed in July 2009," though utilities were not installed until February 2010.

Fort Bliss officials also told us during our visit there in April that Building 805 would be open at the end of May. In their letter to Teague, they said that they had not even issued a contract to install the computer wiring until June 17 — nine days after our stories ran.

Sgt. Victor Medina and his wife, Roxana Delgado, who were featured in our stories, said they were pleased that Teague and others have paid attention to soldiers' concerns about treatment for brain injuries. Medina had to fight to get referred off base to a private medical facility specializing in cognitive rehabilitation.

But, they said, more work remains to be done.

"We're seeing a lot of progress in terms of attention and interest," Delgado said. "But we want to see more. We want to see real reform."

Update: Fort Bliss got back to us on Thursday to respond to our questions with this letter. They reiterated that the Fort Bliss program has 10 "full time" clinicians devoted to traumatic brain injury, though one slot is vacant.

They also said that Building 805, a clinic for screening soldiers with traumatic brain injury, was completed for occupancy earlier this week. The process to move in clinical staff has begun, according to the written responses.

Finally, Fort Bliss acknowledged for the first time that the base has not yet received full validation under Defense Department guidelines for its traumatic brain injury treatment program. Fort Bliss is designated a "Level 2" facility, meaning it is supposed to have one of the top 10 treatment programs in the U.S. to address mild and moderate brain damage. Fort Bliss officials said Thursday that the base passed an initial round of examination, but does not expect to receive full validation of its program until Fall 2010.

My Grandson, who has put 5 tours in the wars, has P.T.S.D., along with thousands of others who have served over there. This is appalling to read about, that our Government is continuing to send the Military troops into combat, but when they return, are met with skepticism and made to suffer, instead of being treated. The fact that many have committed suicide because the Army doesn’t want to spend the money or are just plain incompetent in dealing with the injuries, to me, is worse than terrorism. This is a disgrace. That every politician, along with the pundits who cheer the wars on, should be stripped of every thing they own & sent to Guantanamo Bay. I guess the corruption of the Government prohibits this type of remedy from becoming a reality though.

NIST has announced an addendum to include network interfaces with the human brain. It will include standards, testing and compliance. Hopefully, this will lead to a welcome relief for those suffering from what is probably not TBD, but unauthorized access to their brains via wireless EM spectrum usage.

The benefits due those who suffer this “torture” deserve more than medical benefits. They deserve a life-long full life support system, similar to disability and civilian welfare in the form of a monthly check and rules for remote medicine, not drugs.

If retirement from a company is required, more so, retirement benefits for military service in the huge budgets of the DOD. Take it out of the subcontractors fees.

It might even help with recruiting as brain implants cannot be removed. It is like joining the Borg.

to femtobeam:is about a hypnose proceed;so is very hard to distinguish between a normal case and a provocKed case.Maybe next year you’ll find the truth.See the news,what you say is a bomb in information,like a flame

Rebecca Sanford

July 4, 2010, 11:26 p.m.

My son is SSG Brandon Sanford.  He was one of the Soldiers interviewed as part of the NPR/ProPublica investigational report at Ft. Bliss. I commend NPR and ProPublica for the outstanding work they did in bringing this story to the Public.  It has been and honor to participate in this endeavor with SSG Victor Medina and Roxana Delgado.  I am a Registered Nurse with a background in Rehabilitative Medicine.  I have been functioning as his Care Advocate in conjunction with his Wife since Brandon returned from Iraq in January 2009…primarily because there was no person coordinating his care.  Like other “walking wounded” soldiers with TBI amother conditions, Brandon was lost in the shuffle.  Brandon has severe PTSD to the point he has a Therapy Dog.  He developed seizure disorders.  As a family we tried 3 unsuccessful times to have him transferred to California to be closer to his wife and family for supportive care.  Due to a child custody issue, she is unable to leave the State of California.  Brandon was treated with general apathy from the healthcare workers in general at Beaumont Army Medical Center each time he went to the ER for a grand mal seizure.  He was grilled about mixing medications with alcohol.  He was given outpatient appointments for neuro follow up. At one point he was seeing Cpt. Bret Theeler , Army Neurologist who stated Brandons seizures may have been brought on by anxiety and insomnia, but never referred Brandon for a neuro-psyc evaluation knowing that there was a history of a blast injury to my sons brain resulting in memory and cognitive deficits and NEVER documenting a Traumatic Brain Injury diagnosis in the medical records.  According to the medical records I have, Brandon was never provided a TBI screen when he returned Stateside. He was injured in Iraq when his Stryker Vehicle took a direct hit from an IED. Managing his medications per long distance phone calls has been a nightmare.  Worrying if he was going to accidently die from taking his medications incorrectly was a real and present danger.  February 6, 2010 Brandon suffered a major seizure that left him temporarily unable to feel or move his legs.  He spent a couple of hours under observation, then was released to his Squad Leader.  I filed a complaint with the Patient Advocacy Office of the Hospital that night.  It is now July, and I have STILL never received resolution regarding the complaint. I left a message on Col. James Baunchalk’s Secretary’s phone.  I also called General Volpe’s command lines for the Western Regional Command.  Brandon has been in various outpatient therapy appointments for over a year.  In February, Brandon was referred to the Physical Medicine Clinic for treatment of his chronic back pain.  Col. Richard Petre, a Physiatrist began treating Brandon, but as a physician who specializes in brain injured patients, also recognized that Brandon had many other issues that had not been addressed.  Col Petre wrote the diagnosis of TBI and a referal for Neuro-Psyc and evaluation by the Mentis Neuro-Rehab Center for inpatient care.  Ft. Bliss Command’s response to these actions was to attempt to have Col. Petre reassigned elsewhere.  There has been a LOT of posturing and a lot of command-dynamic-game playing.  The soldiers who are suffering trying to understand what has happened to them since their brain blast injuries and negotiate the system are the pawns and the victims.  Their families are suffering too.
Ft. Bliss is a long way off from having a Brain Injury Program up and functional.  Thankfully, the TBI Screening program is opening up for business to begin helping screen soldiers.  This endeavor needs to be Command wide.  Screening and identification of soldiers “At Risk’ need to start as soon as they are inprocessed.  They will need help, and a lot of it.  There are good people at Ft.Bliss waiting and willing to help. My son is fortunate he was able to receive inpatient services at the Mentis-NeuroRehabilitation Center in El Paso.
The Ft. Bliss TBI Program needs to start with a supportive Command, who truely embraces the needs of the soldier’s who suffer from the life changing consequences of brain injuries as opposed to initiating the political spin machine.
Thanks again to NPR/ProPublica and Rep. Harry Teague of New Mexico for their dedication.

Femtobeam:

Perhaps what you say could become a reality. But as I see it, the mindset of the Military has to be up graded to fully understand just what they are dealing with. It comes down to $$ value, for if they except the issue as a service connected disability, then, like “Agent Orange” from the Vietnam war, the Government will be on the hook. The insanity of it all, is that the majority of officers don’t have the slightest clue of what they are dealing with. Nor does the rest of the government entities.

If one looks at all the waste being spent on the 2 wars, the bloated D.O.D. budget, not to mention the wall street bailouts, then there wouldn’t be a problem to paying for the military members who need care. Congress wastes too much $$ as it is. Just what are the American taxpayer getting in return?  No body believes that these wars are protecting the U.S.A. except the profiteers.

I believe it’s time for the business people who set up shop in foreign countries to fund their own private armies, instead of the Government always sending the Military to fight the people who resist the Business companies.

Margie Kronewitter

July 6, 2010, 9:36 p.m.

Aloha Rebecca,
    My son and I HAD severe brain problems from living 9 years in a house with leaky plumbing.  Black Mold does it’s damage by stopping amino acids which are what your neurotransmitters are made of.  I had a happy healthy 16 year old who turned into Monster Child, acting out the terrible twos by the time he turned 18.  We both became homocidal and suicidal and I was diagnosed in 1992 with “early dementia” and put out to pasture. 
    I’d once tested at 154 I.Q. and had won a science fair in 1962 with rat nutritional deficiency experiments.  I NEVER GAVE UP, even though, by 1992 I was JOURNALING to remember what happened.  The mold caused internal yeast problems and my G.I. system was raw.  One day I was eating a BANANA and said, “This APPLE burns my tongue.”  I somehow realized I was wrong, so corrected it to, “I mean, this ORANGE.” 
    I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, Chemical Sensitivity, Arthritis (growing nodes on my joints), Depression, etc.  My body temp was often 96 in Hawaii and it took me 3 years and mistake on my Rheumatoligist’s part to get thyroid Rx.  I am still disabled and jokingly say I have residual Aspberger’s syndrome.  (Maybe too much oxytocin, because I want to help everyone.) 
    My current M.D. says I should be a researcher and I love “searching PubMed”.  I had so many areas malfunctioning I focused on the brain because it runs the rest.  I learned brain plasticity is facilitated by Alpha-Lipoic-Acid, a multi-functional anti-oxidant.  I ended up “hapa (1/2) homeless” with my focus on saving my living creatures, after loosing most of my material posessions to greedy landlords, the weather and theives.  My son (now LOL) wanted to institutionalize me for years because I at one point had 19 Salukis and 13 Amazon parrots… I’d bred.  I’m now down to 2 dogs and last week when I talked about wanting to bring my 92 year old mother over to get her out of MI winters, accepted, “Then I’ll have to take care of BOTH of you.”  There were times when I worried I would be institutionalized and he’d end up incarcerated.  Simply put, our brains weren’t working.  He had many injuries, a damaged retina, and I’m sure many concussions…. He was WILD, nicknamed GramBO, fought for fun with healthy European windsurfers who encroached on his waves.  I think his love of surfing pulled him through, and my love of him and fear he’d never be able to support himself kept me researching.  My pets kept me going. 
    Enough of my bummers.  During this time Gulf War Syndrome was fighting for recognition and my symptoms were similar.  Chemical exposure (new pavement, perfumes, Tide would fatigue me (mentally and physically for days.  I’d be immoble) and Dawn dish soap was giving me thought to kill my son before he followed through on this threats.  It was normals for my loving, privately schooled son to walk in the door and say, “I hate you, I’m going to kill you.”  I’d be terrified when I heard him snorting in his sleep (I knew nothing of allergies), my mom thought he was “posessed”... he’d stare at the wall, talk to himself and had Tourette’s symptoms and was very self destructive.  (Cooked his finger with a lighter and took a bite, put a New Years firecracker lei around his neck and lit it, etc.)  Now, when I meed a North Shore surfer girl and ask them if they know him from the beach, they ALL answer, “He’s the nicest guy at Hookipa.”

Margie Kronewitter

July 6, 2010, 9:49 p.m.

aloha… i guess that intro to my “need to fix some brains” story got send accidentally.  Then my son showed up from a 4th of July week end on Oahu.  He was driving home after work and a small deer jumped up and crashed his windshield, so i have to supervise the cleaning.  If ANYONE IS INTERESTED IN HOW WE RECOVERED, i can pretty much recall the program. 
    Please contact me if you think I can help.  I know I can assist PTSD with GABA, Taurine, etc.  Aloha

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Brain Wars

Brain Wars: How the Military Is Failing Its Wounded

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.

More »

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