Blast injuries rattle gunners’ brains

Nov 15, 2023 | Blog, Noise

Photo credit: Department of Defense

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The New York Times recently reported on brain damage to Marine and Army artillery gunners who fired M777A2 howitzers. These 35-foot-long guns are considered the military’s most sophisticated cannons. The howitzers were fired almost continuously for several weeks against ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq in 2016 and 2017. Since the article may be behind a paywall, I’ll summarize the main points.

The article notes that for various strategic reasons, only a small numbers of troops were deployed on these secret missions, and they fired the cannons almost continuously for several weeks. Many subsequently developed a variety of symptoms, including nightmares, panic attacks, depression and hallucinations. The Times noted that, “once-reliable Marines turned unpredictable and strange. Some are now homeless. A striking number eventually died by suicide, or tried to.”

Many were initially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder but were later thought to have a traumatic brain injury. Military pathologists have yet to study the brains of those who served on this specific mission, but brain studies from other military personnel exposed to blast injuries found “a unique and consistent pattern of microscopic scarring.” The Times reports that a Marine Corps study found that those who participated in this mission had suffered from a TBI. But the Marine Corps has never publicly commented on this study.

The findings aren’t surprising. Animal research shows that blast injuries damage or destroy the connections between nerve cells in the brain, causing behavioral deficits. We hope that the U.S. Department of Defense will recognize this problem and that the U.S Veterans Affairs Department will provide appropriate care to affected veterans. Steps should be taken to prevent this type of brain damage to military personnel in the future.

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