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Hope for Traumatic Brain Injury in U.S. Troops

By USA Gen. Richard Cody (ret.)

This past Memorial Day, millions of Americans respectfully honored our military heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country.  Today, many of our soldiers have been fortunate to return home after their tour of duty, but live in a state of silent suffering. 
 
Since 2001, the Defense Department has diagnosed more than 320,000 members of our armed forces with Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress. The conventional wisdom, repeated in recent reports in National Geographic and CNN, is still that “there are no real treatments.”  But today the pace of discovery and innovation has outrun even the best medical predictions. 

Here is the amazing fact. On military bases around the country special TBI-PTS “Intrepid Spirit Centers” (ISCs) are achieving up to 92 percent success rates in returning soldiers, sailors, air personnel and Marines to their careers, their families, their communities and the extreme demands of combat. The overall level of success (85-92 percent) is comparable to what was achieved against specific infections when the military introduced penicillin during World War II. Treatment at these centers is estimated to be six to eight years ahead of any other facility in the world. 
 
The ISCs themselves are as innovative as the care that is provided within them. On one hand, the buildings are designed to cast internal shadows and present space in a manner that has been found conducive to cognitive regeneration. On the other, they are a product of a unique partnership between the military and a private foundation, the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (IFHF). 

For decades the IFHF has quietly teamed with the Pentagon to help men and women in uniform who died or were grievously injured while serving their country. Starting in 2009, the fund began focusing on TBI and PTS, opening the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), a research and treatment center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.  
 
In 2013 and ‘14, the IFHF designed and built the first ISCs, which, like NICoE, it turned over to the services. These were designed to apply the findings of the research center and are located at Camp Lejeune (North Carolina, Marines), Fort Campbell (Kentucky, Army) and Fort Belvoir (Virginia, Army). Two more will open this year, at Fort Hood (Texas, Army) and Fort Bragg (North Carolina, Army).  
 
The ISCs have been successful, because they were designed from the ground up to produce multi-disciplinary, tailored-to-the-patient rehabilitation. Entering service members receive comprehensive evaluations from clinicians working closely together. This team probes the physical, physiological, psychological, social and spiritual dimensions of symptoms and conditions. Jointly its members develop a comprehensive, goal-directed treatment plan, which they then implement. 
 
The process combines high technology with traditional medicine and even ancient practices. Advanced neuroimaging pinpoints cerebral dysfunctions. Targeted therapeutic techniques using virtual reality simulators are combined with acupuncture and art therapy, all linked to new findings about neuro-healing processes. Each ISC includes a serene room removed from other therapeutic activity to allow patients to relax and meditate but also to stimulate specific brain sectors to self-repair. 
 
Fundraising has begun for the final four ISCs, which are to be located at Joint Base Lewis McChord (Washington State, Army and Air Force), Camp Pendleton (California, Marines), Fort Carson (Colorado, Army) and Fort Bliss (Texas, Army). 
 
Already Intrepid Spirit Centers are sharing their findings with the broader medical community. Civilians suffering from injuries in football, soccer, hockey, snowboarding, rodeos, and car accidents are benefiting from what has been learned in treating battlefield injuries. It appears that findings at NICOE and the ISCs could soon unlock secrets to strokes, Parkinson’s, MS, autism, Alzheimer’s, attention deficit and other brain disorders, “teaching the brain to fight back.”
 
Thankfully, allies in Washington are aggressively promoting greater awareness for traumatic brain injury. Reps. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), co-chairs of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, recently introduced the National Traumatic Brain Injury Research and Treatment Improvement Act of 2015, legislation that would direct the CDC to establish a national system to track the occurrence of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and collect data to assist research, prevention, and treatment development efforts.
 
As a former soldier and an American, it is heart wrenching to see so many who have served in harm’s way return stateside suffering from TBI and PTS.  But there is hope for all of the brave patriots. With the help of the American people and the close relationship between the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and the Military Medical community, we can get those veterans, who sacrificed so much for all us, the leading edge rehabilitative care they deserve.
 
 
Cody served as Army vice chief of staff, 2004-2008; as commanding general of the 101st Airborne, 2000-2002; and is a current member of the Board of Trustees of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.