“A Secret War, Strange New Wounds and Silence From the Pentagon”

Firing weapons is as fundamental to military service as tackling is to football. And research has started to reveal that, as with hits in football, repeated blast exposure from firing heavy weapons like cannons, mortars, shoulder-fired rockets and even large-caliber machine guns may cause irreparable injury to the brain. It is a sprawling problem that the military is just starting to come to grips with.

The science is still in its infancy, but evidence suggests that while individual blasts rippling through brain tissue may not cause obvious, lasting injury, repeated exposure appears to create scarring that eventually could cause neural connections to fail, according to Gary Kamimori, a senior Army blast researcher who retired recently after a career studying the problem.

“Think of it like a rubber band,” he said. “Stretch a rubber band a hundred times and it bounces back, but there are micro tears forming. The hundred-and-first time, it breaks.”

Those blasts might never cause a person to see stars or experience other signs of concussion, but over time they may lead to sleeplessness, depression, anxiety and other symptoms that in many ways resemble P.T.S.D., according to Dr. Daniel Perl, a neuropathologist who runs a Defense Department tissue bank that preserves dead veterans’ brains for research. “It’s common to mistake a blast injury in the brain for something else, because when you walk into a clinic, it looks like a lot of other things,” Dr. Perl said.

His lab has examined samples from hundreds of deceased veterans who were exposed to enemy explosions and blasts from firing weapons during their military careers. The researchers found a unique and consistent pattern of microscopic scarring.

Finding that pattern in living veterans is another matter. There is currently no brain scan or blood test that can detect the minute injuries, Dr. Perl said; the damage can be seen only under microscopes once a service member has died. So there is no definitive way to tell whether a living person is injured. Even if there were, there is no therapy to fix it.


Comment: This is an excerpt from the well done NYT article on the damage caused by prolonged exposure to artillery firing. The stories are largely from Marine artillerymen who supported the YPG/SDF assault on Raqqa in the Spring of 2017. I remember reading that this was the most intense use of US artillery in a very long time and that a lot of the barrels had to be replaced immediately after the mission was over. Keith Harbaugh mentioned this article in a comment a few days ago. I had read it just before. The entire article moved me deeply. One particular passage concerning an experiment on mice caused my blood to run cold.

The team then dissected the animals’ brains. At first they found almost no damage. “Everything looked fine until we looked at a nano scale,” Dr. Gu said. Under an electron microscope, a ravaged neural landscape came into focus. Sheaths of myelin, vital for insulating the biological wiring of the brain, hung in tatters. In key parts of the brain that control emotion and executive function, large numbers of mitochondria — the tiny powerhouses that provide energy for each cell — were dead. “It was remarkable — the damage was very widespread,” Dr. Gu said. “And that was just from one explosion.”

I’ve always had an almost irrational fear of nerve damage. I’ve sustained some from early injuries, but I’ve been able to compensate for or hide the effects of most damage. I managed to get through the SF Officers Course with that damage. Once I retired, I starting experiencing searing and stabbing nerve pain in my feet. I just chalked it up to old injuries catching up to me. Suck it up, I told myself. A few years later I entered the VA medical system and found out I was diabetic. Got it fully under control, but the damage was done. I recently learned that the nerve damage from diabetes is due to sugar stripping away the myelin from the nerves. That’s why the passage about the experiment with mice chilled me. Such damage in the feet is just annoying, but I find it difficult to fathom that kind of nerve damage and pain in one’s head. I’m surprised there aren’t more suicides among artillerymen. I also thought of the plight of all those Ukrainian and Russian artillerymen in that artillery intensive war. Just another reason why war is an abomination.

Please, read the full article. Do it as a favor to an old soldier. As I told Keith Harbaugh, I thank God I was in the Infantry and Special Forces, but I have decided to adopt this cause as my own. I won’t be marching in the streets, but I will be contacting my senators and congressmen. I’ll also be talking to whoever will listen at the Richmond VA hospital as long as I’m making frequent visits.


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13 Responses to “A Secret War, Strange New Wounds and Silence From the Pentagon”

  1. F&L says:

    Thank you, TTG. Read it, and it’s awful, everything about it. You have to ask probing questions beyond the obvious also – how have these injuries affected our society more generally. All the way from contact sports to ear-shattering rock concert music to these most extreme traumas, it’s pervasive. Our country is obviously wacko – is invisible brain cell injury – is it a hidden factor? It particularly had me thinking of President Harry Truman who nuked two cities .. as I recall he was an artillery officer, a Captain, in the US Army of WW I. Was he playing with a full deck? Did he wake at night seeing apparitions? Hitler was also a veteran and severely injured in a gas attack – he often screamed at night and was overheard talking when no one else was present. Wittgenstein, the famous philosopher had a job similar to Hitler’s as a messenger running extremely dangerous missions under artillery bombardment. His father was the wealthiest man in Germany and Ludwig, his son, inherited most of the fortune and gave away every pfennig. Sound like the act of a sane person or one with his brain fully intact?

    The hallucinations should be no surprise. The most healthy brain essentially hallucinates the world as we know it, turning our vision’s images right side up and creating the nonexistent color white from a spectrum. Press on your shut eyes and the resulting kaleidoscope is a hint at what’s going on constantly. And the mistreatment of soldiers is, well, let’s just be kind and acknowledge it for what it’s always been, in silence and if we’re lucky in nearly full possession of our faculties which usually aren’t overly impressive to begin with. The human brain isn’t really even mature until the age of 26. Most of these guys never even got to that point.

  2. Stefan says:

    Makes sense. They have long known that serious concussions can have life long medical and psychological issues. Being around the use of an array of military equipment would likely cause similiar issues. It would go a way to explain suicide rates in the military and vets as well as homelessness, substance abuse issues, ect.

  3. Keith Harbaugh says:

    For me, the NYT article is behind a paywall.
    I have not seen the original NYT article, but Yahoo has at least a version of it, freely available:


    My original comment, and your response, is here:

  4. Laura Wilson says:

    Thank you. I am glad you have posted this and that you will be pursuing it. We should all read it and follow up with our Senators and Representatives.

  5. leith says:

    The comments section in the Yahoo version of the article that Keith Harbaugh linked to are worth reading. One commenter, John, says there is an existing scan that can detect the minute injuries to myelin in the brain – contrary to the DoD neuropathologist, Dr. Perle, who claims that no such scan or test exists.

    Per John: “Diffuse Tensor Imaging can expose tears at the myelin level but it is called an experimental test and disregarded. I had a tbi in an auto accident and appear normal to everyone but have headaches and sensory issues that made no sense until the test showed the damage… At least now I know it’s not all in my head… I mean imagination. “

    Looking up Diffuse Tensor Imaging or DTI on google it is just a type of MRI. I found a document that suggests it can be used to diagnose this type of TBI.
    As the brain develops, diffusivity is found to decline particularly in the direction that myelination would be oriented. Damage to the myelin sheath affects diffusivity.[39] DTI has been used in multiple sclerosis to monitor disease progression and correlate with clinical status.[40] Suggestions are that radial diffusivity is a promising biomarker.[41]”


    Write or call your congress critter. Or even better get your local veterans group to lobby congress to start doing DTI testing. VFW, DAV, American Legion, IAVA and others carry more weight in the House and Senate than letters and phone calls.

  6. d74 says:

    Observations about the consequences of living too close to active guns must have some truth to them.

    At the age of 11, our maths teacher was a former artillery captain. He was lame, wounded in the Indochina war, deaf as a post, with supposed alcoholism problems and above all abysmal intellectual laziness. He nearly put me off maths for ever. Fortunately, the following teachers were much better.

    After that, my enthusiasm for weapons of war (especially rocket launchers…) didn’t stop me from wearing ear protection. (In my opinion, individual rocket launchers were a great failure of the French army. You really had to have a serious inclination towards suicide to attack an enemy armored vehicle with it. But when it’s you or him, you do what’s necessary, even at the prices described above in your post…)

    By the way, please do whatever is necessary for your health.

    • Stefan says:

      Ear protection provides very little protection for the types of injuries talked about here. It is more about the pressure waves that constantly jostle the brain. Not the sound. Ear protection might keep you from going deaf, but it wont protect you against this type of brain injury. This is my understanding anyway.

  7. drifter says:

    I guess this puts and end to following our own artillery barrage so close that we take 10% casualties.

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