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Hope for victims of brain injury and PTSD is right in front of us

 By Arnold Fisher for thehill.com

Every American knows that our greatest national debt is not to holders of our government bonds but to those who have faced fire on freedom’s front – members and veterans of our military. On Veterans’ Day last week the nation honored the sacrifices our men and women in uniform have made over the centuries to preserve our freedoms. Both in history and today those sacrifices include living with the wounds of combat, wounds like lost limbs that all can see and others locked inside the injured patriot’s head.

Since 2001, more than 320,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, Marines and Coast Guard have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post traumatic stress (PTS).  In the past these conditions were considered a mystery. In some cases a bewildered military ignored those who suffered or even accused them of misconduct.  

A recent NPR story highlighted this problem in the military’s response to the so-called invisible wounds of war and has led to calls for investigation from U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Meanwhile, unknown to many even in our armed forces, the alliance of a private foundation and military medicine has produced breakthroughs that are transforming our understanding of what these conditions mean to our service members. At three special TBI-dedicated Intrepid Spirit Centers (ISCs) on as many military bases, TBI and PTS have been found to be highly responsive to treatment.

Built by the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (IFHF), operated by military medicine, and deploying protocols developed in the past decade by an IFHF-instigated civilian-military alliance, these ISCs have treated more than 3,000 military patients in the three years since the first of them opened. 
 
They have recorded an amazing 90 percent-plus success rate in returning their patients to family and career (i.e. certified on brain issues for fully active duty including combat). 
 
The centers take a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to rehabilitation. Patients meet with an entire team of doctors and experts from numerous disciplines. Together team and patient develop a customized treatment program that includes traditional medicine, neuroimaging and psychology, but also may incorporate such new age disciplines as acupuncture, yoga, and art therapy. Soldiers are closely monitored throughout the typically four-month program and their families are involved every step of the way.
 
At over 90 percent success, the centers boast results comparable in magnitude to the introduction of penicillin during World War II and “Golden Hour” battlefield treatment in Vietnam. Some estimate that they are 6-8 years ahead of the rest of the world in the diagnosis and treatment of TBI. They are also beginning to apply their protocols to treatment of neurodegenerative conditions including Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, strokes, autism, and MS, with promising early indications.
 
The currently operating ISCs are at Forts Belvoir (Va.) and Campbell (Ky.) and Camp Lejeune (N.C.). Two new centers will open in early 2016 at Forts Bragg (N.C.) and Hood (Texas). For 2017 four more are planned.  Last month, the IFHF broke ground on the first of these at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington. Fundraising is underway both for that facility and additional ones at Camp Pendleton (Calif.) and Forts Carson (Colo.) and Bliss (Texas). As increasing numbers pass through them, the expanding network of centers will share a common, electronically linked database. Assessment of treatment and response will become more refined and sophisticated. All that is learned will be pushed out throughout military medicine, veterans’ care, sports medicine, and the rest of civilian medicine.
 
For me, returning nine of 10 of the military’s TBI sufferers to active duty and a full life is not a matter of charity but honor. Of course members of Congress should shine a light on brain injury, but they should also make the successes that are being achieved known to a wider public.  The treatment protocols of the Intrepid Spirit Centers are changing what TBI and PTS mean to our military heroes and all of us, forever.
 
Fisher is the honorary chairman of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and senior partner of Fisher Brothers Corporation.