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Traumatic Brain Injury: The Solution Is Here for Servicemen and Civilians Alike

by JAMES MACGUIRE

Returning serviceman Pete Scobell remembered:
I couldn’t read e-mails let alone write them. My wife would ask me to run to the grocery store, and I would find myself sitting in the parking lot at work. I was taking six Excedrin a day to cope with my headaches. The herniated discs in my neck would keep me up all night unless I drank myself to sleep. I’ll never forget my first consultation at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) in Bethesda when Dr. Robert Koffman said to me, “Pete, you’re broke, but we can fix you.” In an instant I had hope again!
The hope is real at three dedicated clinical facilities attached to military bases in northern Virginia (Fort Belvoir), southern Kentucky (Fort Campbell) and North Carolina (Camp Lejeune), and the NICoE research and treatment facility on the campus of Walter Reed National Medical Center, just outside the nation’s capital.

These facilities are estimated to be six to eight years ahead of any other brain-treatment centers in the world. At one, opened less than a year ago in Fort Campbell, Ky., treatment results approach or exceed the advances against infection after the introduction of penicillin to our forces in World War II, the first conflict in which fewer of our combatants died from disease than from battle wounds. As determined by a battery of standardized neuro-cognitive tests that certify a soldier prepared to return to active duty, the center’s success rate is 92 percent.

More than 5 million Americans are living with traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and their aftermath, with 2.5 million new cases each year. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought home to the entire nation the severity and scope of traumatic brain injuries. What has not been widely recognized, however, is that, as a result of the Intrepid Spirit Centers and NICoE, the injuries can be diagnosed and healed.

But it didn’t just happen. Since 2008, a private philanthropy — the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (IFHF) — has worked with teams of military and civilian brain specialists throughout the nation, as well as with architects and builder,s to design and construct specially customized centers for brain research and rehabilitation. Two additional centers will open this year at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and at Fort Hood in Texas. The fund has just launched a campaign to provide for a final four centers by the end of 2016.

The four planned facilities will be Camp Pendleton (California), Fort Bliss (Texas–New Mexico), Fort Carson (Colorado), and Joint Base Lewis-McChord (Washington State). Each will treat at least 1,000 patients a year and incorporate a new fully interlinked research-information network. Clinical readouts on every patient will flow directly into a system-wide data center, turning the Intrepid Spirit Centers and the NICoE into a unified “central nervous system” for brain-trauma analysis.

The treatment protocols at the Intrepid Spirit Centers are unlike any that a traditional military or civilian program would have produced. Using the most advanced findings of the brain’s functioning and self-healing capacities, the Spirit Centers have developed an unprecedented, interdisciplinary approach to brain trauma. Every technique that has demonstrated promise in stimulating the brain to heal itself has been incorporated. These include advanced neuroimaging and virtual-reality simulation, acupuncture, art therapy, yoga, meditation, and spiritual counseling from clergy of the service member’s faith.

Each entering patient is assigned a care-giving team. A typical team’s expertise ranges from neuroplasticity of the brain to spiritual counseling. The team members meet jointly with newly admitted patients for detailed assessments and then develop individually customized programs for each individual. As noted above, the success rates — 92 percent — have been nothing less than astonishing.

The cost of building the four final Intrepid Spirit Centers will be $50 million.

In just a few years, the Intrepid Spirit Centers have proven that, if properly exercised, the brain can repair itself. Already the innovative research and treatment techniques from Intrepid Spirit Centers are being applied to civilians suffering from concussion and other brain injuries received in football, hockey, snowboarding, rodeos, and car accidents. Intrepid Spirit Center doctors believe that these advances could soon unlock the secrets of many brain disorders, “teaching the brain to fight back” against strokes, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, autism, attention deficit, and other maladies.

Before he arrived at NICoE, Pete Scobell felt hopeless and alone. Once the four additional Spirit Centers are opened, and their pathbreaking research and treatments are made available to medical professionals nationally, the hope and healing Pete Scobell found — of the body and the spirit — will be within reach of all Americans whose brains have suffered trauma and who must learn to fight back.

As flags fly at half-mast to honor the five servicemen gunned down in the attack last week at a military center in Chattanooga, we can rededicate ourselves to honoring and, when necessary, healing the men and women who risk their lives for us every day. What better way to do so than saluting these Intrepid Spirit Centers? In returning more than nine out of ten TBI-suffering active-duty service members to their families, communities, and careers, the centers are paying tribute to their service in the best way possible.

— James MacGuire advises the White House Writers Group. You can e-mail him at jpmacguire@gmail.com. For additional information on the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, go to fallenheroesfund.org.