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The Lies We Tell About Soldiers’ Traumatic Brain Injuries

A combat veteran on what Trump doesn't understand about the "invisible wounds" suffered by soldiers in the Iranian attack

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The weekend before last, I went ice-fishing on “The Big Water,” Lake Superior, with my dog, and as I was dragging my sled back to the truck, I could feel my body starting to fail. Off the ice, mowing down gas-station donuts to hold my blood sugar on level, I caught up on the news. 

President Donald Trump was downplaying the growing number of American service members who had sustained traumatic brain injuries when Iran launched ballistic missiles on their air base in Iraq—an attack Trump had instigated with the assassination of a senior Iranian military officer without a declaration of war. “All is well!” Trump had tweeted after the Iranian missiles impacted. “So far, so good!” 

As reports of TBIs among Americans began to roll in, an interviewer asked Trump about the injuries. “I heard that they had headaches, and a couple of other things, but I would say, and I can report, it’s not very serious,” he replied. There are 50 troops with TBIs from the attack, the Pentagon says now

I’m not really surprised by any part of that. It’s just the same old stuff. The Veterans of Foreign Wars’ national commander demanded an apology from Trump for downplaying the wounds. Asking for contrition from someone incapable of it—that’s a new one, I guess; we’ll see how long that holds up.  

I owe a significant chunk of my quality of life to Dr. Charles Wilkinson and his research team at the Puget Sound Veterans Affairs. The problems emerged after my first deployment. No matter how much I lifted in the gym, I couldn’t gain or even retain muscle mass. Recovery times kept increasing. I felt weak all the time. Tired. The spells of vertigo were incessant. The eye migraines came later on. On my second deployment, I was downing protein and carbs nonstop, trying to gain what little muscle mass I could eke out of my body. My communications guy was benching like a monster, while I was stuck with free weights. It was embarrassing. Smells were far more intense. Bright light hurt my eyes. Certain sounds started feeling sharp, like needles. Sometimes it was, and is, like getting hit in the face with a sledgehammer.

I told the VA when I got out of the service. They couldn’t even really test for anything; they just accepted the passing scores from the MACE test—Military Acute Concussion Evaluation—that my medics performed after each “incident.” 

There were six big blasts that I can recall. The biggest was when the Humvee 20 feet ahead of me was blown apart by 80 pounds of homemade plastic explosives. You know how you can get close to an old TV’s antenna and watch the screen hash out into static? The Humvee blast felt like that. There was an RPG impact once, too. It filled my mouth with the taste of blood when none was there. This was all nothing compared to some of the combat engineers I worked with. One told me he’d been blown up 27 times. His manner reminded me of Mike Webster, the Steelers lineman who was portrayed as the NFL’s “patient zero” in the movie Concussion.

Years went by, and little seemed to help. My ex would rag on me for eating candy all the time, but if I stopped, the dizzy spells would get so bad that I’d fuzz out and find myself on the floor.

In 2015, I was working in forestry in Alaska. Lightning sparked a wildfire on Stetson Creek that gave my leadership a scare, and they had me and the other technicians clear our research station of undergrowth. We cut down all of the conifers that were too close to the outbuildings and our main cabin. None of us had a power-saw certification, so we did it by hand. I felt like I was dying every day. The work wasn’t bad: We hand-felled and swamped 75 or so spruce and aspen, and we went bonkers with the hand-loppers on the undergrowth. But something was wrong with me. The symptoms grew worse. I was irritable and harried, like my body was telling me that I would die soon and I needed to get my bucket list knocked out as fast as possible.   

I started riding a fat-tire bike. That helped with my mood, and oddly, my dizziness would go away. So I rode more often. I’d commute every day to work and school, and I’d knock out 20 to 30 miles a day on the weekends. In the summer of 2016, I was sitting in our research station by the wood stove we’d dug out of the dump, reading Scientific American. I came across an article on Wilkinson’s research into TBIs. I called him up, and seven months later, my bike and I were in Seattle. I hope I was a good guinea pig.

The pituitary gland sits in a little bone cup on the underside of your brain, just above the roof of your mouth. Dr. Wilkinson’s hypothesis was that during a blast event, the shock was rattling around the pituitary gland, causing permanent damage. It’s an amazing gland, producing eight different hormones and running a wide variety of systems, from thyroid stimulation to reproductive hormone production. 

When your pituitary gets damaged, everything can go wrong.  You can’t have any more kids; your body can’t heal anymore; you gain ridiculous amounts of weight; there’s a whole slew of other bad effects I’m not qualified to elucidate. 

Luckily, my issue was pretty singular—my pituitary gland was producing significantly less human growth hormone than normal. In adults, HGH governs muscle mass gain and healing from strenuous activity and significantly influences your sensitivity to insulin. When you run an HGH deficit, you can be tired all the time, sensitive to heat and cold, and unable to exercise. Sufferers also report a lower interest in sex, greater depression, anxiety, and a feeling of isolation from other people.

“Support Our Troops” bumper stickers and yellow ribbons seemed sincere to me when the war began. I was raised around recovering alcoholics and addicts, many of whom fought in Vietnam. Some little part of me held hope when I saw those stickers start floating around in early 2002, hope that we as a nation were coming to terms with what we had done to our Vietnam vets. 

It didn’t take long for the veneer on the Pop Patriotism bandwagon to wear off: “Support Our Troops” melted into a political mantra for a belligerent crowd hell-bent on getting a shipment of prime-grade, unscrambled Iraqi war porn. My beloved Dixie Chicks got burned, and it all went downhill from there. Their cover of Travelin’ Soldier had been real to me. I knew people who’d lived that story: common, decent, caring people with a love that endured through a terrible trial. That was the America I’d been raised to cherish.  

Five years later, I was home on R&R from my first combat deployment and hearing some lady shout “You’re heroes!” at us. The more I heard things like that, the more I worried my particulars didn’t matter; I existed as a caricature for somebody else’s idealized war story.

I don’t know if the bumper-sticker people actually care. What I know is that if you show most people an invisible wound, you’ll get invisible compassion. Wear earplugs all the time, and even your close friends will just blow it off. Go blind from an eye migraine for a few hours and see how much sympathy that gets. If people can’t see your injury, they can’t really see you. Empathy requires stimulus, and in the average person’s perspective, anybody can just “fake” post-traumatic stress or a TBI. This, of course, presumes the average person is capable of empathy.

But it’s more than just a failure to empathize in the abstract. Go to a VFW or Legion post sometime and disagree with one of the drunken war-hawk nonveteran auxiliaries parked at the bar. Marvel at how quickly they will “revoke your veteran status,” as one threatened me, for disagreeing with their celebration of endless war or the politicians who prescribe it.

You can almost predict the moment when the “pro-military” crowd will close ranks and attack a veteran in order to defend a known draft-dodger who’s belittled the wounds of service members in the field. It happens every single time a veteran or a widow or a Gold Star parent stands up to blood-and-soil nationalist kakistocracy.

You can also be ejected from the premises in favor of a nonveteran nonmember with the right political bent. Your service only matters if you remain in character.  

It took three doctors nearly two years to dial my HGH dose to the proper amount. In spite of the swollen hands and feet, the wildly swinging blood sugar, the urinary tract infection, and nearly contracting diabetes, I felt better than I had in a decade. I could stand up to 10-hour days of marking timber. I finally earned my power-saw certification and got my wildland firefighting “red card.”

I still can’t go out on a crew and fight fires. HGH is a daily injection that needs to be refrigerated, and the VA doctors are unwilling to risk me shooting up with foul meds and dying on the fire line. But I’m allowed to do local emergency rescue stuff. Last summer, we had a decent-size tornado blast through the area, so I mobilized with my Husky 365 and went gangbusters cutting downed trees to breach a path for emergency vehicles. But the custom cooler for my HGH injectors failed. 

Back-to-back 15-hour days without my meds pushed me to the limit. On the first day, my four-man saw team was rolling, chittering fury, eating through downed maple and basswood like crap through a goose, with a team of utterly dedicated Job Corps students swamping as fast as we could cut. On the second day, the dizziness came out. I fought it off. By day three, I was running on candy and fumes. 

As long as I could safely handle my saw, I would stay. The old lady in the next house could be trapped and need an ambulance. Campers could be pinned under a tree in the next campground. But my team was pulled off the incident on the third night.

It was a good little experiment: I’ve figured out that I can sustain about three days of strenuous activity without my meds before the full return of my symptoms—symptoms that, left untreated, I’m not sure I could endure much longer before seriously considering suck-starting a 9 mm pistol.  

It’s aggravating to watch time and again as basic funding for education and health care—for veterans and everyone else—is spurned, while more blood and treasure get shoveled into the martial furnace. Americans are advocating for outright war crimes now, as if Nuremberg were just another case of “might makes right.”

It’s sickening to watch the current political shit show, in which one can simultaneously “support the troops” while advocating for endless world-spanning brutality and smearing combat veterans who have learned the primary lesson of war and wish to bring it to an end. I’ve written about the moral bankruptcy of using the invisible wounds of veterans as a political crutch before. But your service only matters when you remain in character.

So pay no attention to the muffled explosions on the other side of the world. Just cheer your side and flip the channel, before you accidentally hear one of us breaking out of the flat script we’re expected to read from. Go on. The new season of The Bachelor is on; Baby Yoda needs your attention.