Journalism in the Public Interest

Afghan Soldier Likely Took a Brain Test Riddled with Problems

Critics say the test Robert Bales likely took before deployment fails to screen for the invisible wounds of war.

More than a million soldiers have taken the military's controversial test for brain injuries (Flickr photo)

The aftermath of last week’s killing of 16 Afghans has prompted a flurry of speculation into the mind of 38-year old U.S. combat staff sergeant Robert Bales. In particular, the injuries to it.

Traumatic brain injuries are so common among today’s troops that the military has spent over $42 million for a test to detect them, a test that Bales most likely took before his final deployment to Afghanistan. The problem is, that test has failed miserably.

More than a million soldiers have taken the 20 minute computerized test, known as the Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics, or ANAM test. But as we reported last year in a ProPublica investigation, the test has been heavily criticized as an ineffective tool to detect brain injuries.

Many news outlets, including the New York Times, have cited military officials saying Bales was treated for a traumatic brain injury during his past deployments in Iraq. Bales was reportedly injured in Iraq when his vehicle rolled over. The Army Medical Command would not comment on any specifics of Bales’ medical history or testing, but spokeswoman Maria Tolleson said that Joint Base Lewis McChord, where Bales was stationed, was fully operational with the ANAM testing program.

“It would be expected that a deploying Army service member from that base would have a pre-deployment cognitive baseline completed,” said Tolleson.

Problems have plagued the test since its introduction. Critics charge the military chose the test through a biased selection process and then ignored years of warnings that the test was fraught with problems. They also say the military has not administered the test properly.

Soldiers are meant to take the test twice – once before deployment and then again after a suspected head injury. Soldiers must answer a series of questions that score basic thinking abilities such as reaction time, short-term memory and learning speed. In theory, the initial test serves as a baseline to compare the results of the second test; a discrepancy signals a possible injury and the need for more evaluation.

But the test – which a former Army surgeon general has called no better than a “coin flip” – is rarely implemented that way. The Army was so unconvinced of the test’s accuracy that it issued an ordernot to send soldiers with a troublesome score for further medical evaluation.

While there is no scientific consensus on the best test for traumatic brain injuries, alternatives do exist. Both the Army Special Forces and the National Hockey League chose a different test, called ImPact. Researchers are also developing new technologies to detect brain injuries, but right now the ANAM test remains the prime military TBI test.

The precise nature of Robert Bales’ brain injuries and subsequent testing is one issue, but linking his injuries to his outburst of violence is another matter altogether.

Scientists have not established any clear-cut connection between traumatic brain injures and later violence. This article from Wired explores some of the most recent studies on the topic, while the Los Angeles Times breaks down the many interacting factors that make drawing a clear line from injury to violence nearly impossible.

One problem with the situation is evident in the third-to-last paragraph.  The Army doesn’t trust the test, so by its own admission, it doesn’t implement it to standard, and so confirms the mistrust.

Of course, rather than fix it, they put it in private hands so that they can’t fix it while paying usage fees to not use it correctly, which is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard of.

That may point to a more systemic problem:  Is this something the Army WANTS to fix?  There’s obviously direct motive to avoid pulling these people off the front lines for treatment.  And if there’s a link to violence, there’s a rather strong motive to not treat the soldiers at all, unfortunately.

It’s more convenient for the Army to scape goat the actions of one man and say they are his own rather than take responsibility for letting a potentially mentally unstable man back into service. I think our society finds it more convenient to find fault in one’s action rather than look at the institution and find flaws in it. The implications of a deranged solider are less damning than the implications of a flawed system that produces veterans unable to exercise good judgement. Of course every serviceman or woman handles situations differently, and all are subject to a different set of experiences, but the armed force needs to invest more time and money into looking out for the mental health of their soldiers. If it’s not a massacre abroad, its substance abuse, violent, or mental problems at home.

Barry Schmittou

March 20, 2012, 11:53 a.m.

I love and support our troops and the contractors who support them by driving supply trucks and providing other services. There are actually more contractors in the wars than soldiers. The government can use them to hide the cost of war and give huge no bid contracts to companies like Halliburton.

A news story showed Halliburton had blood from food preparation on the kitchen floors where they prepared food for our soldiers.

Awhile back I realized I do not support the corporate criminals and politicians from both parties who are creating so many wars and destroying the world so they can make huge profits.

There are so many corporate crimes being protected, as I have partially documented at :

Our soldiers and contractors are treated very poorly, especially when they are injured. The case mentioned in this story is just one example.

I believe the creation of wars for profit and all the other corporate crimes are all very connected.

They are so obvious and dangerous Bill Moyers recently wrote :
“How did politics create a winner-take-all economy? This was an inside job, politically engineered by Wall Street and Washington working hand-in-hand, to turn the legend of Robin Hood on its head: giving to the rich and taking from everybody else. It’s all on the record.”

My main reason for posting this comment is to suggest that we all pray as much as possible and take action to stop all the injustices we are able to. The Bible has many quotes about seeking justice. I also hope everyone will pray for our leaders souls because they seem to be hopelessly lost in their sociopathic greed. I sin too and I pray for forgiveness often. Except for believing in God and the love of family and friends my life has been destroyed by Obama and Bush’s protection of corporate crimes. I pray that soon God will help our politicians to stop protecting the sophisticated corporate mafia destruction of so many lives.

According to Mideast expert Stephan Lendman, the massacre was not the work of one soldier. There were 16 to 20 involved and two separate villages. The attacks were premeditate and most of the women who were murdered were raped first.

Sadly we will never know on this one. How can we expect our military to properly evaluate a person to go back into combat when they cannot properly evaluate those returning from the war zones who are staying ststeside or those who served 40 years ago… About 30 years ago a friend said to me, we will keep getting into wars around the world because the military needs real life training and they need medals and ribbons. Could you imagine a military that didn’t participate in a war for 30 years! ...Since they are not World Wars, I will call them mini-wars! Without mini-wars we would have ofiicers and troops without ribbons and medals.  Now that I have aged a lot more, and one of the few parts not attacked by Agent Orange is my brain…,I can see the mini-wars ALSO keep those factories going that make the military vehicles, the military weapons, the ammunition, the artillery, and the jets ect. Without the wars they would be virtually shut down. Could you imagine without wars and the market value of the stock of those companies! Follow the money and you will find the reason for things. Sadly, the medical profession is on the tail end of the cost of war. All the way at the back of the line! By the time the medical profession is needed after the war there is no money left and our government is crying poverty because of the war. I would bet if you take every Wounded Warrior/Veteran and issue them a medical insurance card for their injuries to be cared for by the same mediacal insurance as Congress has, we we would have fewer wars!

Maybe he was just disgusted with it all: senseless war, sacrificing everything afar while having your home taken away from a family you can’t be with, deployed over and over…inflicting trauma upon trauma. I’m not justifying his actions, but this is not his responsibility alone. The system has failed on every scale. We need to wake up to that. Forgive debt, forget war, practice humanity. It is the end of the horror and the beginning of living on this earth. Blessings and prayers to all affected in this horrible manifestation of “civilized” insanity.

A test to see if you’re mentally disturbed. Hahahahahahahahaha. Everyone involved in this war is mentally disturbed. Is it better to kill innocents from Colorado with drones? Arrest those guys and their commanders. They took and oath to obey the Constitution and they are violating it.

“Soldier took a brain test riddled with problems”

What else would be on a test other than problems?

In 1944 the Army assigned doctors to determine how much combat a soldier could handle. It determined there was no safe level. Additional testing in 2007 reconfirmed it. There is no test for this. In the first place some soldiers would try to fool it. The story here is not Sgt. Bales or those who preceded him. It is that the Army is willfully sending soldiers too often. They are bound to crack. With fresh troops from an army of draftees this could be minimized. That isn’t possible with an all-volunteer army.

And it only cost $42,000,000.00.

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