ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller joins the podcast this week to discuss his recent article on Iraq veteran Brock Savelkoul whose mild traumatic brain injury led him to attempt “suicide by cop.” Savelkoul along with four other soldiers in the blast have become a case study in a growing epidemic among America’s troops who experience a dangerous combination of concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mike Webb: Hi, I'm Mike Webb, and welcome to the ProPublica Podcast. Since 2002, traumatic brain injuries, which are also known as concussions, have affected 115,000 soldiers, according to official estimates by the U.S. Military. But in our year‑long joint investigation with NPR, our reporters found many more soldiers could have sustained this type of wound. While most recover quickly, estimates suggest that between 5 to 15 percent of soldiers go on to develop cognitive problems.
In a piece published by ProPublica last week, and available for free on Kindle Singles, T. Christian Miller and Daniel Zwerdling report on how five members of the Psycho Platoon were each affected in different ways by bomb blasts.
We spoke to Miller about these brain injuries, how it changed the life of one of the soldiers in the platoon and what the Army is doing to better diagnose the injury.
Welcome to the podcast, T.
T. Christian Miller: Thanks for having me.
Mike: All right. So you and your reporting partner, Daniel Zwerdling of NPR, have said that traumatic brain injuries are the signature injury of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. With thousands of explosions that have caused these injuries, how did you come upon the blast that shook Psycho Platoon?
T: That's a really interesting question. We had initially interviewed a scientist who had done a study on concussion blasts, and as part of that study, he had actually examined five soldiers who had been in a single blast in Iraq in 2009.
And through some different ways, we managed to track down one of those guys, and then through him tracked down the other five. And we saw it as really a case study. Let's look at these five guys, who've all been in one blast together, and find out how do their lives unfold afterwards.
Mike: And their reactions were different, right?
T: Yeah. That's what really began to intrigue us, is that mild traumatic brain injury is a mysterious injury. It affects people's brains in ways that we don't understand yet. And so each of these five soldiers kind of had different routes.
Some of them took typical recovery routes from a mild traumatic brain injury, which is also called a concussion, and recovered kind of quickly. Some of them had symptoms that went on for some period of time, and then some of them developed what we call this new epidemic, where they had suffered both the mild traumatic brain injury and then post traumatic stress disorder, which is a psychological wound. And it's very complicated how it interacts with a brain injury.
Mike: But they're not the same thing.
T: No. They're not the same thing at all. A mild traumatic brain injury is actually an event that occurs and it happens to your brain, and it damages it in some way. It can recover quickly or it cannot.
Post traumatic stress injury is a physiological injury that also injures the brain in some way, but it's usually not through a physical blow or a force, it's through ‑ nobody's exactly sure how, but it interferes with your psychological or your outlook.
So mild traumatic brain injury interferes with your cognitive, how you think. A PTSD injury interferes with your emotions, but can also have some effect on how you think.
Mike: OK. And that's led to one of these guys attempting "suicide by cop."
T: Right. The most severely affected of the five soldiers in Psycho Platoon, which was actually what they called their platoon, was a gentleman named Brock Savelkoul, who was a sergeant at the time. And he was in the bomb blast, the same blast as other soldiers who recovered rather quickly. He just never got his footing back again.
And if you fast forward a year and a half, he's left the Army. He's had a number of psychological breakdowns. He's been diagnosed as both suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and from a traumatic brain injury. And on this one very desperate night, he gets into a car with a bunch of weapons and leads the police on a chase across the prairies of North Dakota.
Mike: And what eventually happened to him?
T: It was about a three‑hour long chase, and he leads them up and down this incredible landscape, this barren landscape of prairie and badland. And eventually he runs out of gas on a muddy farm road in far western North Dakota. He's surrounded by police, and what ensues is a standoff where one trooper in particular, her name is Megan Christopher, attempts to talk him down for two hours. Just constantly talking over and over, trying to get through to him, as he...
Mike: He's got a gun, right?
T: Yeah. He's walking back and forth. He has an AR‑15, which is like a machine gun‑type of a weapon. He has pistols. He's waving it around. He's feet from the police. It's a very tense situation. And there's several moments when it looks as though he might be walking towards them. There are several moments when we talked to police who told us, "We took aim at his chest ‘cause we were going to pull the trigger."
Mike: But he also was saying that he wasn't going to hurt the cops.
T: He was, but if you're a police officer five feet from the business end of a rifle, I don't know if you trust that.
Mike: OK. Did he eventually get some help?
T: What eventually happened is after two more hours, finally, after Megan Christopher talking to him nonstop and being very human with him. She's not trained in this, she's just going through gut instinct saying… She uses her name, "I'm Megan." She uses his name. "Brock, can you please put your weapon down."
That finally somehow gets through to him, and he puts down his weapon. She walks out toward him and then he turns right toward her. And then at that moment you see these two tasers fly out and he falls and gets shocked, because one of the other officers thinks he's about to attack Megan Christopher.
And then you have this moment where he's still alive and she walks out to him and puts her hand on his cheek and she says, "I'm so glad to meet you, Brock. I'm Megan. I'm so glad I can finally meet you."
And it was this wonderful human moment.
Mike: Yeah, it sounds really sweet. And now what's Brock's status?
T: So after that, Brock was then, of course, charged with several felonies because he'd gone on this police chase and, police said, tried to hold up a convenience store. And what I think is sort of a very interesting moment in the judiciary is, instead of just throwing the book at him. They recognized he was a veteran. They recognized he had post traumatic stress disorder and they told him that if he got treatment, he could possibly have his charges lessened.
So Brock then spends almost two months, actually, in psychological treatment and alcohol treatment. At the end of that time, he's given a suspended sentence that essentially said, "As long as you stay in your psychological treatment, you're not going to have to serve jail time." And that's how they ended up working it out.
Mike: OK. Now another member of that platoon left the Army as well. Can you tell us why he left and what his status is?
T: That was Jared Hollingshead. And he left, again, typical – he was another sort of case study. Some soldiers are just tired of the war, and it's been going on for so long and it's so violent. He was just tired of the violence and the bloodshed.
He left and has returned to Texas with his wife. He's about to have a child. They're about to have a child together. And he's struggled to find a job. It's been hard to find a job. And he's also struggled to find treatment and he's still waiting to get an appointment at a VA hospital to have himself diagnosed as to what might be causing some of his emotional reactions.
Mike: So they haven't really determined whether he has traumatic brain injury.
T: He definitely suffered a traumatic brain injury. His wife describes, and he describes, symptoms which are consistent with a post traumatic stress type of reaction in terms of nightmares and thrashing at night. But he hasn't been formally diagnosed.
Mike: OK. Now I want to talk a little bit about how the Army is responding. Is part of the problem that they don't want to diagnose this? That they need the soldiers to remain on the battlefield?
T: What we've found is that there are all sorts of pressures going on that can prevent a diagnosis. Certainly there was a time in the war, in the 2006‑2007 time period, when they were short of bodies. And there was some pressure to keep soldiers on the battlefield. I think that's less the case now.
There's also, the soldiers really don't want to get off the battlefield in some cases, and they want to stay with their men.
Mike: Stay with their brothers.
T: Yeah, right. They want to stay with their guys in the battlefield. So it's very hard to diagnose somebody who is going to try and get out of the test and trick the test and stay in.
There are some commanders and there are some medical officers who don't think it's that serious of an injury. And we see this in football too, with concussions as an issue in football, and how serious they are, these concussions are taken.
So you see a variety of impediments to getting really a full picture of how seriously wounded our soldiers are.
Mike: Is the Army taking steps to improve their ability to diagnose and treat soldiers with brain injuries?
T: Yeah. Certainly the Army has made it a priority. The current Vice Chief of Staff, who's the second highest ranking general in the Army, General Peter Chiarelli, has kind of made it his personal mission to increase awareness traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder, suicide, what they call some of the invisible wounds of war.
He's in charge of a massive multi‑hundred‑thousand men and women organization. So it's hard to turn around that many attitudes all at once. But he certainly made it his own personal mission to try and do that.
Mike: OK. And then lastly, has Congress taken any action on this?
T: Yeah, Congress has certainly taken an action on this. They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into research into this. They continue to try and get across to the military their interest in properly diagnosing and treating these soldiers. So Congress has taken an interest in this.
I think there's a lot more left to be done, and there's a number of people who will tell you that in Congress, that there's more left to be done. But there has been action taken.
Mike: OK. Well, thank you very much for joining us, T.
T: Thanks for having me, Mike. I appreciate it.
Mike: That was T. Christian Miller. He and Daniel Zwerdling won a George Polk award for radio reporting for their series titled "Brain Wars: How the Military is Failing its Wounded." You can read this latest piece and all of their stories at ProPublica.org/tbi.
And now for this week's Officials Say the Darndest Things Tumblr quote. "You have operational names like Desert Storm or Iraqi Freedom that convey a message. Others, like African Lion, are symbolic of the location. Odyssey Dawn is neither of those." Who said it? Eric Elliott, spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, or Africom, explaining how they came up with the name Odyssey Dawn for the U.S. action in Libya.
OK, that's the show for this week. As always, thanks to Minhee Cho for producing. For ProPublica, I'm Mike Webb. We'll see you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords