Dr. Evan Kanter, a staff physician for the Department of Veteran Affairs, who wrote in a November study by Physicians for Social Responsibility, titled “Shock and Awe Hits Home,” that “as many as 30 percent of injured soldiers have suffered some degree of traumatic brain injury.”
January 2, 2007 – To many people, Army Sgt. Rob Wentworth wouldn’t be considered very lucky – he suffered multiple back, leg, knee and ankle wounds and a traumatic brain injury in the Iraq war.
But Wentworth, 28, of Farmington Hills, says he’s fortunate to have survived when a 2,000-pound bomb in a vehicle was detonated by a suicide bomber north of Tikrit on June 25, about 120 feet from where he was working on guard duty.
One in every nine American soldiers deployed to Iraq suffers a traumatic brain injury, according to Department of Defense figures, said Rick Briggs, a retired Air Force major who runs the veterans program at the Brain Injury Association of Michigan, based in Brighton.
This fact was echoed by Dr. Evan Kanter, a staff physician for the Department of Veteran Affairs, who wrote in a November study by Physicians for Social Responsibility, titled “Shock and Awe Hits Home,” that “as many as 30 percent of injured soldiers have suffered some degree of traumatic brain injury.”
‘Very difficult to diagnose’
Wentworth was standing behind a 12-foot-high cement wall, when the blast occurred. The force of the explosion picked up the 6-foot, 206-pound Wentworth and threw him 25 feet through a large metal sliding door.
Before Wentworth could check to see if he was injured, he came under attack near Bayji, Iraq. The attack killed dozens of Iraqis in the area.
Wentworth is just one of the estimated 28,451 American soldiers injured in the war, which began in March 2003, months after Wentworth joined the service Aug. 21, 2002.
Department of Defense figures show that since the war in Iraq began, 3,918 American soldiers have died there. So far, 18 soldiers from Oakland County have died in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
A traumatic brain injury can leave the victim in a lifelong coma or with milder symptoms such as short-term memory loss or headaches, said Dr. Robert Spitzer, a Beaumont Hospital neurologist.
“It’s very difficult to diagnose,” Spitzer said. “Treatment generally is providing medications to alleviate symptoms or trying to stop the progression of impairment.”
Wentworth’s brain injury left him with short-term memory loss, migraine headaches, dizziness, stuttering and insomnia. He is undergoing physical therapy.
In addition, Wentworth, who was deployed to Iraq in November 2006, advocates for proper treatment of soldiers who have suffered brain injuries in the war, Briggs said.
The cost of treating someone with a traumatic brain injury can range as high as $5 million during a lifetime, said Briggs, who was in Operation Desert Shield in 1990, when Coalition forces pushed the late Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait.
Wentworth recalled the moments after the blast blew him through the door.
“After I went through the garage door, I got up,” Wentworth said. “I was looking for my buddy. I took two steps and was hit in the head by a 2-foot-long piece of steel falling back down from the sky.
“It hit me flat on the head and threw me down,” Wentworth added. “I was looking for the other guy pulling guard duty and realized what was going on. The blast was followed by machine gun fire and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) being shot at us.
“The bomb destroyed a massive amount of the building.”
Wentworth said that, a few hours after the explosion, “the adrenaline wore off and I told my squad leader I wasn’t feeling so well.” He was sent to a battalion medical aid station.
“I walked in and said my back hurts,” he said. “I collapsed on a stretcher and couldn’t get up after that. They pumped me full of morphine, did X-rays,” and he was sent to a contingency operating base, “a large American base in Iraq, for a CAT scan of my back.”
“(Doctors said) I had possible cracked vertebrae. I was in the hospital by the next day,” Wentworth said.
He was then flown to Speicher, a large U.S. base near Tikrit, for other tests. He then went back on missions after being released from Speicher.
Then, Wentworth started having symptoms and was sent to Balad, Iraq, where there was a U.S. base.
A few weeks later, as his symptoms intensified, Wentworth was shipped to Landstuhl, Germany, where there was a U.S. medical Army hospital and “I was diagnosed with TBI (traumatic brain injury).”
“I didn’t want to leave,” Wentworth said of being sent out of Iraq. “I promised my guys I’d keep them alive.”
Wentworth is assigned to the Community Based Health Care Organization. The military sends soldiers with brain injuries home to be rehabilitated.
Michael Harris, the executive director of the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, based in Novi, said there’s an unusually high ratio of injured-to-killed in the Iraq war.
Harris worries the Department of Veterans Affairs won’t have the resources to take care of the injured soldiers from the Iraq war. The “Shock and Awe Hits Home” study estimated that health care for Iraq war veterans could top $650 billion during the lifetimes of the soldiers.
“This report should serve as a wake-up for Americans and the (Bush) administration,” Kanter said in the report.
“While we endlessly debate what we are gaining in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and their families are falling victim to death, post-war trauma and lifelong struggles with mental and physical wounds as a legacy of this war,” Kanter, a psychiatrist who is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington, wrote in the study.
The Brain Injury Association of Michigan is trying to inform the public of the scope and seriousness of traumatic brain injuries.
Briggs said part of the role of the association is to hold seminars and conduct “pre-homecoming” and post-deployment” briefings.
A post-deployment briefing occurs 60 to 90 days after a soldier returns home.
Traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorders are similar and often are misdiagnosed, he added.
The determination can be made by special screening tests such as a CAT scan, in which doctors look for physiological damage to a soldier’s brain.
However, Spitzer said there often is no physical evidence of a traumatic brain injury.
Some 63 percent to 80 percent of combat-injured veterans who were hospitalized also have suffered brain injuries, Briggs said.
“So, that means at least two out of three injuries have a TBI component with them. Wounded warriors don’t get better overnight.”
Wentworth is working on getting healthy.
“I do physical therapy and exercise,” he said. “Lately, I’ve developed migraine headaches.”
He also has support from his family, something essential for wounded warriors.
“We’re a pretty close family,” Wentworth’s mother, Michelle, said of Rob and his brothers, Andrew, 26, and Richard, 22, and her husband, Bob. “One thing I find frustrating is that it takes so long to rehab,” she said. “We hope he will make a 100 percent recovery. We’re worried about all the guys not getting diagnosed (with TBI).”
Michell Wentworth said parents of soldiers with brain injuries should help their children take advantage of all the help available to them. “Tell the parents to be advocates,” she added. “Don’t stop until you get all the help you can get. The help is there. It’s just hard sometimes to put your finger on it.”
Part of Wentworth’s current mission is to help other injured soldiers. “If they’re home after deploying and having problems, then I tell them to get some help,” Wentworth said. “Go to the Brain Injury Association of Michigan, the VA. Don’t stop until you find someone that understands your issue.
“I don’t have any plans to be 99.9 percent recovered,” Wentworth said. “I hope to get to 100 percent. I plan to be 110 percent after I’m finished (with) therapy. I’m planning to be better than I was.”
Michigan is fortunate to have 55 accredited rehabilitation facilities that can help injured soldiers such as Wentworth recover, Briggs said. By comparison, Missouri has two, and California, usually at the forefront of rehabilitation services, has five
“We’re working diligently to get our massive health care provider network to augment the VA and Department of Defense TBI health care system,” said Briggs.
“A lot of the people get better,” Spitzer said. “I think there’s the feeling that nothing can be done, but that’s wrong.
“If I go in with a positive attitude and have a positive patient, I have a good fighting chance I can help that patient recover.”
Few have a more positive attitude than Wentworth. “My No. 1 mission is to get better,” he says. “I love the Army. I would do anything to help others. I would give my life to help soldiers.”