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“We all look at the amputees and say, ‘God, they're really lucky' ”

SHOWCASE | September 26, 2006

Parents and siblings give up careers, forsake wages and reconstruct homes to care for soldiers with severe head wounds. Military, VA rehabilitation is seen as falling short.

By Nonna Gorilovskaya

What happens to the estimated 250 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with severe head injuries who won’t be able to take care of themselves for years, if ever? And what about the families of those who may never recover?

In a clear-eyed yet poignant report, USA Today’s Gregg Zoroya notes that because of medical advances, soldiers sometimes survive injuries that once would have killed them. But afterward, some require constant, even total care.

Zoroya writes of families that "say they also struggle with military and VA medical systems that were unprepared for these severely brain-damaged casualties. They say the rehabilitation of catastrophic cases has not kept pace with the advances in battlefield medicine that kept these service members alive and brought them home safely."

The list of complaints collected by the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program, which handles such cases, as Zoroya writes, includes “problems in the process of notifying families about casualties; a shortage of trained case managers; the adequacy of rehabilitation for severely brain-damaged soldiers; confusion about the medical retirement process; and the need for more financial support for families.”

Edgar Edmundson has a son who suffered severe brain damage after a roadside explosion in Iraq and needs daily care. “You could say we don’t have any disposable income,” Edmundson tells Zoroya. Marissa Behee, whose husband was wounded by a sniper in Iraq, has recently formed a foundation called Heroes with Head Injuries to provide guidance to families of veterans in dealing with the military. “They’re saving their lives. But there is no system really in place to give them their lives back,” Behee explains to Zoroya.

The VA says it is taking these complaints very seriously. It points to 21 new outpatient centers and says the challenges of dealing with this new group of patients are unprecedented. The military has also been encouraging soldiers to leave living wills, in which they can choose to refrain from medical treatment in the event they suffer severe brain injuries.

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