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Mental Health Center

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Veterans' Health: Conditions and Stressors

An overview of what many veterans and their families experience after serving in war, including PTSD, traumatic brain injury, limb loss, and more.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) continued...

Sunny Brogan insisted her husband be brought home. Against all prognoses, by June Brogan was on his feet at Washington D.C.’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center and trying to play the keyboard.

With its virtually invisible symptoms, Brogan’s severe traumatic brain injury has permanently altered his and his wife’s lives. Brogan’s wife, a former loan officer with a degree in business, is now a full-time caregiver. She accompanies Brogan on about 15 doctor’s appointments per month for primary care, severe hearing loss, seizures, and physical therapy.

“Not just because I can’t drive but so I don’t miss anything the doctor says.” Brogan often forgets something he’s just said or heard. He has lost some long-term memory since the injury as well.

TBI, called the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is caused by a blow to the head that interrupts brain function and causes some loss of consciousness, usually when the brain collides with the skull. An estimated 320,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have experienced TBI ranging from mild (including concussion) to severe.

TBI is different in each person; 85% to 90% of TBIs are mild with some combination of headache and dizziness, forgetfulness, and anxiety and irritability, according to Joel Scholten, MD, of the Washington D.C. VA Medical Center.

Brogan is the only one at his American Veterans with Brain Injuries meetings who has no speech problems. Some use keyboards to produce automated speech. Severe brain injury can result in trouble waking, anger and even personality change. These symptoms increase distress for families who feel their loved one has come home a different person.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

If Petty Officer Don Arledge happens to catch a whiff of old canvas, he could have a nightmare that night. The smell reminds him of his tent in Iraq, where he was during his first mortar attack.

Returning home in 2008 from a year tour at Camp Bucca, the largest U.S. detention center in Iraq, Arledge knew to expect acute stress reaction. The symptoms are similar to those of PTSD but tend to dissipate within six months. But more than two years later, nightmares can still wake him. His adrenaline still spikes if a stranger passes too close behind him, and, echoing many other combat veterans, Arledge avoids crowds and sits with his back to the wall in restaurants.

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