A program that placed blast gauges on Combat soldiers in Afghanistan study thousands of brain injuries to soldiers in Afghanistan has been placed to the side with little resistance by the Pentagon.The gauges were initially put in place to study and better understand the effects of explosions on the brain - much in the same way that the NFL has conducted studies by placing sensors in players' helmets. The devices are about the size of a quarter and are worn on the head and upper body to measure the air pressure after a blast and its effects on the body. A sudden change in PSI can cause damage ranging from popped eardrums to severe concussions and even death.Retired Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who is now the CEO for One Mind, a nonprofit dedicated to researching and diagnosing brain trauma and PTSD, called the move, "a huge mistake," according to NPR news. The data from those gauges could have played, "a very, very important role in helping us understand why an individual has negative effects from a concussion, or why an individual develops one of the neurodegenerative diseases that seem connected with concussion, everything from ALS, to Parkinson's to dementia and even Alzheimer's."
Rep. Louise Slaughter also laid into the DoD, saying that, "Our veterans deserve better than this. The Department of Defense is not taking bold action to move this forward.”But blast gauges have come under fire before. The devices, admittedly, didn't reliably deliver information on IED explosions and their unseen damage to the body and mind. But, they did find something more interesting - that simply being near heavy weaponry when fired could cause worrisome levels of blast pressure to the head. Firing a weapon within even a slightly confined space could result in an exposure, and the unseen damage resulting from it could have significant effects on the wellbeing of thousands of soldiers over time. The most significant brain damage wasn't from the larger explosions, but from repeated exposure to lesser blasts from recoilless rifles, shoulder-fired rockets, artillery, and mortars, to name a few. Some soldiers were even exposed to high pressures on the range, and not in combat.It's not terribly difficult to diagnose a significant concussion when it happens; medics are trained to identify the signs and symptoms, and how to treat patients. Soldiers are also trained and advised that firing certain weapons in an enclosed space can result in a concussion. That may be why the DoD considers the blast gauges program to be a failure - they had different expectations for the devices which they ultimately did not perform (i.e. the ability to pre-diagnose and treat concussions), and so they discontinued them.But perhaps, what might be needed instead is an adjusted view of the benefits of the blast gauge - a comprehensive view of the total exposure to "minor" blasts that a soldier experiences while serving, and how that exposure, over time, could affect institutions like the VA as they treat the aftermath of these "invisible injuries." The benefits may not be instant, but they might mean a world of difference for the mental and physical health of future soldiers.