Military's invisible wounds

Consultant to NFL on concussions helps the military deal with emerging effects of head trauma in battlefield veterans

It took a doctor who helped the NFL to teach the military about the potential brain damage battlefield concussions could cause -- brain damage like that affecting Retired Army Maj. Ben Richards. He survived two roadside bombs in Iraq and both times he walked away from destroyed vehicles with no visible wounds. Yet Richards was grievously injured. He had suffered a permanent brain injury that would end his Army career and very nearly ruin his life. David Martin speaks to Richards and to Dr. David Hovda about traumatic brain injury, an invisible wound that affects tens of thousands of battlefield veterans, for a story to be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday, May 5 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

"If I could trade traumatic brain injury for a single leg amputation I'd probably do that in a second," says Richards. Back home, he had to endure frustration and stigma as the Army failed to diagnose his TBI, instead blaming his headaches and inability to concentrate on post-traumatic stress. "If you have post-traumatic-stress disorder and you are not improving through counseling, then it's your fault," Richards says.

While Richards blamed himself for not getting better, the Pentagon was trying to come to grips with an epidemic of battlefield head trauma caused by the prevalence of improvised explosive devices in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Retired Army Gen. Pete Chiarelli served two tours as a combat commander in Iraq and says he had no idea about the extent of TBI among his soldiers. He was stunned when he learned that TBI and PTSD accounted for 36 percent of the wars' debilitating injuries. "It just absolutely floored me. I couldn't believe it."

Chiarelli brought in Dr. Hodva, director of the Brain Injury Research Center at UCLA, to prove to the military that even mild concussions can cause severe brain injury like Richards'. He wonders whether some veterans may end up like some retired NFL players. "Are these individuals...back from Iraq and Afghanistan that have had repeat mild traumatic brain injuries, are those going to be like the retired NFL players that are committing suicide, who have problems with dementia?" asks Dr. Hovda.

The Army is taking decisive steps to treat TBI now at a state of the art facility called the National Intrepid Center for Excellence (NICoE), built with funds raised by an extraordinary philanthropist, Arnold Fisher. "People say to me our government should be doing this. Yeah, the government should be doing this, but they're not, so we do it," Fisher tells Martin. It was at NICoE, four years after he was injured, that Richards finally found out he had suffered a brain injury. It was bad news, but it freed Richards of his belief that his failure to get better was his fault. "It does seem to really affirm that this is a physical injury. . . I've actually been damaged. It really lifts a burden," says Richards.

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