A far-reaching study by Navy researchers has found what advocates for veterans have been saying all along as suicide rates have dramatically climbed — exposure to munitions blast waves from combat and training may be causing brain injuries, the aggregation of which is resulting in serious and often deadly ailments such as depression, PTSD and suicide.
Years of prior research with animals have already documented an association between exposure to pressure waves from munitions blasts, known as overpressure, and behaviors mimicking depression. “The current research suggests a similar pattern in humans, which may also inform our understanding of the possible associations between overpressure and suicide that has been posited elsewhere,” researchers from the Naval Health Research Center found.
In another key finding, the Navy study “is the first to document an association between overpressure exposure and self-reported diagnoses of chronic fatigue syndrome specifically, though again the mechanism for this effect is still unclear.”
Service members exposed to repeated enemy overpressure waves had higher risks for PTSD and depression than those exposed to only one overpressure blast or none. Repeated exposure to both enemy overpressure waves and overpressure during training or combat also increased the risks of migraines and PTSD, researchers found.
They assessed 138,949 service members and focused much of their analysis on incoming blasts from enemy munitions, such as improvised explosive devices, and outgoing overpressure when service members fire their own weapons in training or combat.
The study was published in March in the journal “Frontier on Neurology.”
The findings come in the wake of a critical report from the Department of Defense’s oversight chief that acknowledged the armed forces are woefully ineffective at screening service members for traumatic brain injuries and following up with those suffering from them.
The two reports are windows into the suicide tragedy befalling veterans and service members.
They indicate that many service members may be suffering from hidden brain injuries. At the same time, the military is bad at diagnosing them. The lack of effective screening and follow-up, combined with the prevalence of brain injuries, often described by military officials as the signature injury of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, could at least partly explain the crisis of suicides plaguing veterans and current service members.
As the Department of Veterans Affairs noted in its 2020 annual report on suicide among veterans, “Veterans Health Administration patients who died by suicide are more likely to have sleep disorders, traumatic brain injury or a pain diagnosis than other VHA patients.”
Though it has taken 20-plus years in the global war on terror as suicide rates among vets and service members have soared, the Department of Defense is beginning to take the issue of blast waves from firing weapons in combat and training more seriously.
Last August, after five years of bureaucratic foot-dragging, the Pentagon published a plan for its Department of Defense Warfighter Brain Health Initiative. It seeks to develop policies that prevent, identify and treat brain damage caused by combat or by repeated shakes and blasts during training. Also promising is that the military says it will develop standards for acceptable levels of exposure for commonly used weapons and munitions.
This is where Congress is essential. Lawmakers must instill a sense of urgency and ensure sufficient funds are targeted for developing diagnostic tools that identify the range of brain injuries sustained during training and deployment. Lawmakers should make certain that the Pentagon develops as soon as possible effective guidelines for blast exposure and that the military finally takes aim at this pervasive problem that is contributing to surging suicides.
Dr. Jennifer Belding, the lead author of the Navy study, said that by recognizing the effect of blast waves on service member health, “we are better able to identify groups that may have a higher risk for adverse health outcomes, even after they leave military service.”
That will only happen if Congress makes it so and holds the Pentagon to account.