Letter to Defense Department highlights insult to servicemembers

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ-09), the co-chair and founder of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force,  responded to comments made by Donald Trump denigrating the impact of traumatic brain injury that likened brain injuries to mere “headaches.” Pascrell wrote a letter to the Department of Defense Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness and the Assistant Secretary of Defense Health Affairs asking for more information on the extent of U.S. servicemember injuries resulting from Iran’s attack of January 8, 2020 in Iraq and calling on the Pentagon to reiterate its commitment to the seriousness of brain injuries on the battlefield and elsewhere.

“As the co-chair and founder of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, the comments of the Commander-in-Chief are concerning and show a clear lack of understanding of the devastating impacts of brain injury,” Rep. Pascrell writes. “TBI is recognized as the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Department of Defense, 383,000 men and women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan sustained a brain injury while in the line of duty between 2000 and 2018.”

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This week while discussing the January 8, 2020 Iranian attack on Al-Asad airbase in Iraq, Donald Trump expressed that he does not consider brain injury and concussion to be a serious combat wound, downplaying brain injury symptoms to “headaches.” After the January 8 attack, 11 United States servicemembers were evacuated to Kuwait and Germany with evidence of concussion and traumatic brain injury.

Effects of traumatic brain injury can be short-term or long-term, and include impaired thinking or memory, movement, vision or hearing, or emotional functioning, such as personality changes or depression. Currently, between 3.2 million and 5.3 million people, including civilians, veterans, and servicemembers, live with a TBI-related disability in the United States.

“Brain injuries are serious and can often be life-altering. Working in concert with the Congress, the Department of Defense has been right to change its policies and make the investments treat concussions and traumatic brain injuries with the gravity warranted. We cannot and must not go backwards. It is critical that the Department of Defense strongly affirm its commitment to prevention, treatment, rehabilitation, and research regarding concussion and brain injury,” Pascrell’s letter concludes.

For two decades, Rep. Pascrell has been a leader in advancing brain injury policy on Capitol Hill. He co-founded the Congressional Traumatic Brain Injury Task Force in 2001 and has served as task force co-chair since its inception. The Task Force works to increase awareness of brain injury in the United States, supports research initiatives for rehabilitation and potential cures, and strives to address the effects these injuries have on all Americans, including children, members of the Armed Forces, and athletes. Rep. Pascrell also champions funding for programs at the Department of Defense that go towards TBI research and treatment, such as the Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury Research Program, the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence.

A copy of the letter is available here, the text of which is provided below.

January 23, 2020

 

Matthew P. Donovan

Undersecretary of Defense

Personnel and Readiness

4000 Defense Pentagon

Washington, D.C. 20301-4000

 

Thomas McCaffery

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs

7700 Arlington Boulevard, Suite 5101

Falls Church, VA 22042-5101

 

Dear Secretary Donovan and Secretary McCaffery:

This week while discussing the January 8, 2020 Iranian attack on Al-Asad airbase in Iraq, President Trump expressed that he does not consider brain injury and concussion to be a serious combat wound, downplaying brain injury symptoms to “headaches.” As you know, after the January 8 attack, 11 United States servicemembers were evacuated to Kuwait and Germany with evidence of concussion and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Subsequently, additional servicemembers were transported to Germany for medical treatment and evaluation. As the co-chair and founder of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, the comments of the Commander-in-Chief are concerning and show a clear lack of understanding of the devastating impacts of brain injury.

According to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, “Traumatic brain injury is a significant health issue which affects service members and veterans during times of both peace and war. The high rate of TBI and blast-related concussion events resulting from current combat operations directly impacts the health and safety of individual service members and subsequently the level of unit readiness and troop retention. The impacts of TBI are felt within each branch of the service and throughout both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs health care systems.

TBI is recognized as the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Department of Defense, 383,000 men and women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan sustained a brain injury while in the line of duty between 2000 and 2018. Effects of traumatic brain injury can be short-term or long-term, and include impaired thinking or memory, movement, vision or hearing, or emotional functioning, such as personality changes or depression. Currently, between 3.2 million and 5.3 million people, including civilians, veterans, and servicemembers, live with a TBI-related disability in the United States.

The Department of Defense currently prioritizes concussion and blast injury through multiple avenues including the National Defense Authorization Act, the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, the Blast Injury Research Coordinating Office, and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence. The commitment to brain injury must remain a major priority for the Department of Defense on the battlefield and in training.

In light of Mr. Trump’s comments, I request responses to the questions below:

  1. Despite warnings of the attack, many U.S. troops continued to operate exposed positions. One Army Captain said that he was knocked off his feet by the blasts. Why were troops not required to report to bunkers for injury prevention and overall personnel safety?
  2. On January 17, a U.S. military official confirmed that 11 servicemembers were injured in the attack on the Al-Asad airbase despite initial reports from the Department of Defense that there were no casualties. Has the Department of Defense ensured that servicemembers present at the Al-Asad airbase in Iraq have been screened for blast injuries and concussions? Of the initial 11 servicemembers transported to Kuwait and Germany for treatment, how many sustained a brain injury?
  3. A spokesman for U.S. Central Command confirmed on Tuesday, January 21 that additional U.S. servicemembers were evacuated to Germany for injuries. How many servicemembers were included in the second transport to Germany for treatment and evaluation? Did any of the additional servicemembers seek treatment for blast injury or concussion?
  4. In October 2019, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs announced $50 million in new funding to research long-term impacts of concussion. Does the Department of Defense, in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs, remain committed to understanding the long-term impacts of concussion, despite the comments of Mr. Trump?

Brain injuries are serious and can often be life-altering. Working in concert with the Congress, the Department of Defense has been right to change its policies and make the investments treat concussions and traumatic brain injuries with the gravity warranted. We cannot and must not go backwards. It is critical that the Department of Defense strongly affirm its commitment to prevention, treatment, rehabilitation, and research regarding concussion and brain injury.

Sincerely,

Bill Pascrell, Jr.

Member of Congress