Blast Force: The Invisible War on the Brain

After the First World War, family and friends said that sometimes, boys came back from overseas “not right in the head.” Nearly 100 years later, the American military is only just starting to understand the effects of bomb blasts on soldiers’ brains and the prescience of those casual observations. Caroline Alexander reports in National Geographic on Traumatic Brain Injury and its devastating effects on soldiers and their families.

“Most of our medical research on blast injuries was either on fragmentation wounds or what happens in gas-filled organs—everyone was always concerned in a thermonuclear explosion what happened to your lungs and your gastrointestinal tract,” Lt. Col. Kevin “Kit” Parker, the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at Harvard, told me. “We completely overlooked the brain. Today the enemy has developed a weapon system that is targeted toward our scientific weak spot.”

Parker, a towering figure with a shaved head and booming voice, is also a former U.S. Army infantry officer who served two tours in Afghanistan, where he saw and felt the effects of blast force. “There was a flash in the sky, and I turned back toward the mountains where the fighting was,” Parker said, recalling the day in January 2003 when, in the hills of Kandahar, the shock wave from a distant explosion passed through his body. “It just felt like it lifted my innards and put them back down.”

Mostly he was made aware of the range of damage blast inflicted. “When bombs are going off, it’s easier to forget about the guy who’s been a little out of sorts than the guy who’s sitting near him and got both his legs blown off,” Parker said. “But the guy who’s going to have the more serious long-term issues probably is going to be the guy who had the brain injury.”

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Bonus: Behind the Mask: Revealing the Trauma of War

Brain injuries caused by blast events change soldiers in ways many can’t articulate. Some use art therapy, creating painted masks to express how they feel.

“I thought this was a joke,” recalled Staff Sgt. Perry Hopman, who served as a flight medic in Iraq. “I wanted no part of it because, number one, I’m a man, and I don’t like holding a dainty little paintbrush. Number two, I’m not an artist. And number three, I’m not in kindergarten. Well, I was ignorant, and I was wrong, because it’s great. I think this is what started me kind of opening up and talking about stuff and actually trying to get better.”

Hopman is one of many service members guided by art therapist Melissa Walker at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), which is part of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland. Images painted on their masks symbolize themes such as death, physical pain, and patriotism.

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