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U.S. struggles with breadth, depth of war injuries

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    U.S. struggles with breadth, depth of war injuries http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/06/25/coming.home.wounded/index.html (AP) -- More than 800 of them have lost
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 7, 2007
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      U.S. struggles with breadth, depth of war injuries
      http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/06/25/coming.home.wounded/index.html


      (AP) -- More than 800 of them have lost an arm, a leg, fingers or
      toes. More than 100 are blind. Dozens need tubes and machines to keep
      them alive. Hundreds are disfigured by burns, and thousands have brain
      injuries and mangled minds.

      These are America's war wounded, a toll that has received less
      attention than the 3,500 troops killed in Iraq. Depending on how you
      count them, they number between 35,000 and 53,000.

      More of them are coming home, with injuries of a scope and magnitude
      the government did not predict and is now struggling to treat.

      "If we left Iraq tomorrow, we would have the legacy of all these
      people for many years to come," said Dr. Jeffrey Drazen,
      editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and an adviser
      to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "The military simply
      wasn't prepared for its own success" at keeping severely wounded
      soldiers alive, he said.

      Survival rates today are even higher than the record levels set early
      in the war, thanks to body armor and better care. For every American
      soldier or Marine killed in Iraq, 15 others have survived illness or
      injury there. (Gallery: Coming home wounded )

      Unlike previous wars, few of them have been shot. The signature weapon
      of this war -- the improvised explosive device, or IED -- has left a
      signature wound: traumatic brain injury.

      Soldiers hit in the head or knocked out by blasts -- "getting your
      bell rung" is the military euphemism -- sometimes have no visible
      wounds but a fog of war in their minds. They can be addled, irritable,
      depressed and unaware they are impaired.
      Invisible injury

      An estimated 2,000 cases of brain injury have been treated, but
      doctors think many less obvious cases have gone undetected. One small
      study found that more than half of one group of wounded troops
      arriving at Walter Reed Army Medical Center had brain injuries. Around
      the nation, a new effort is under way to check every returning man and
      woman for this possibility.

      Some of those on active duty may have subtle brain damage that was
      missed when they were treated for more visible wounds. Half of those
      wounded in action returned to duty within 72 hours -- before some
      brain injuries may have been apparent. The military just adopted new
      procedures to spot these cases, too.

      Back home, concerns grow about care. The Walter Reed hospital scandal
      and problems with some VA nursing homes have led Republicans and
      Democrats to call for better care for this new crop of veterans.

      Mental health problems loom large. More than a third of troops
      received psychological counseling shortly after returning from Iraq,
      and in a third of those a problem was diagnosed, a recent Pentagon
      study found. The government plans to add 200 psychologists and social
      workers to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues.

      No one knows what the ultimate cost will be. Harvard University
      economist Linda Bilmes estimates the lifetime health-care tab for
      these troops will be $250 billion to $650 billion -- a wide range but
      a huge sum no matter how you slice it.
      Numbers at issue

      Counting the wounded can be contentious. Earlier this year, the
      Department of Defense changed how it tallies war-related injuries and
      illness, dropping those not needing air transport to a military
      hospital from the bottom-line total.

      Bilmes, the economist, thinks this is disingenuous.

      "An accident that happens while they're there is a cost of war,
      particularly when you factor in the length of deployment" and
      injury-inducing conditions like very hot weather, carrying heavy
      packs, and more vehicle accidents because it is not safe to walk
      anywhere, she said.

      As of June 2, 25,830 troops had been wounded in action. Of these,
      7,675 needed airlifts to military hospitals and the rest were treated
      and remained in Iraq.

      Of the half-million troops who have left active duty and are eligible
      for VA health care, about one-third have sought it. The most
      complicated cases end up at one of the four polytrauma centers, in
      Tampa, Florida.; Richmond, Virginia.; Palo Alto, California; and
      Minneapolis, Minnesota.

      These were formed after doctors realized they were missing problems --
      amputees who were confused and unable to put on their prosthetics
      because of undiagnosed brain injuries, and guys who could remember
      their therapy dog's name but not their doctor's, or who could carry on
      a conversation but not recall what they had for breakfast. Most of
      these injuries are caused by IED blasts, which send a pressurized air
      wave through delicate tissues like the brain, sometimes send it
      smacking against the inside of the skull and shearing fragile nerve
      connections that control speech, vision, reasoning, memory and other
      functions. Lungs, eardrums, spinal cords -- virtually anything -- can
      be damaged by the pressure wave. Injuries also come from collapsing
      buildings, flying debris, heat, burns or inhaled gases and vapors.

      Much needs to be learned about how to treat these injuries, Kilpatrick
      said, but credited the military medical staff for having the chance.

      "It's just amazing to me every day when I look at these numbers," he
      said. "The good news is that the majority of these people who become
      ill or injured ... are going to survive and are going to be able to
      return either to the military or to civilian life and be productive."

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