The Pentagon disclosed on January 18 that 34 U.S. service personnel had sustained brain injuries from the Iranian ballistic missile attack on their base in Iraq. Half of those service members were returned to Iraq with concussions, while the rest remained under medical care in the U.S. or Germany. It was revealed twelve days later that 30 more soldiers had sustained such injuries in the attack. All but 25 of the 64 have returned to duty in Iraq.
Asked how this squared up with his earlier pronouncement that the January 8 attack did not harm any American troops, President Trump trivialized the brain injuries. “I heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things. But I would say, and I can report, it is not very serious, not very serious.” Trump went on to say he did not consider traumatic brain injuries to be serious.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, of which I am a long-time member, rightfully called for Trump to apologize for minimizing the severity of traumatic brain injury (TBI). After all, it has been recognized for years as one of the serious, long-term injuries inflicted on U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan from explosive blast concussion.
The President could be excused for not knowing the serious nature of TBI. After all, he was excused from serving during the Vietnam War because of elusive bone spurs somewhere in the vicinity of his feet. I could easily have avoided military service on medical grounds but, like many patriotic Idahoans, I volunteered for combat. It soon became clear in Vietnam that debilitating injuries not apparent to the eye can be sustained in the combat setting.
Unfortunately, this nation has had a long history of denying the serious nature of unseen combat injuries that have plagued many honorable service members. During World War One, it was called “shell shock” and derided as inconsequential. In WW2, it was called combat exhaustion or battle fatigue. General George Patton famously slapped two soldiers who apparently suffered from the ailment.
Many Korean War veterans suffered from various manifestations of combat stress, which were often, but wrongly, attributed to weakness or cowardice. Vietnam produced complaints of post-traumatic stress and a variety of ailments related to exposure to Agent Orange. Since no observable injuries were apparent, the Veterans Administration strenuously denied compensation and treatment for these conditions for years. PTSD is now accepted as a legitimate diagnosis and injuries related to Agent Orange are officially recognized.
Along came the First Gulf War and its attendant ailments that came to be known as Gulf War syndrome. Again, the government denied compensation and treatment from the get-go and the Department of Veterans Affairs still denies over 80% of the claims based on the condition.
When TBI surfaced as a medical condition during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the government was again sluggish to respond with identification and treatment of the affliction. After years of disorganized response, the condition has been recognized and taken seriously. The Pentagon now has an office devoted to tracking the ailment and promoting awareness of it. Over 400,000 service personnel have been diagnosed with TBI since 2000.
The President’s callous response to the injuries sustained from the Iranian attack is symptomatic of the government response to internal combat injuries over the long haul. It is destructive of the obligation we have as a country to make sure that those who put themselves at risk for all of us receive compensation and the best care possible for all of the injuries they sustain for their selfless sacrifice.
When it appears that service members have suffered any type of injury, whether or not it is apparent to the eye, the proper response is a good-faith examination of the ailment to see whether it is genuine and related to service to the country. Anything less is a gross abdication of our responsibility to those who protect our nation. When the Commander in Chief trivializes serious medical ailments afflicting service members, it jeopardizes the health and well-being of the troops.
Jim Jones served as an artillery officer in the Vietnam War (1968-1969). Jones has published a book about that experience: Vietnam…Can’t get you out of my mind.