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.