Military Helmet Sensor Data: What does it show?

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Two years ago, sophisticated sensors were implanted in military helmets of some 7,000 troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The purpose of the sensors was to evaluate the extent of concussions and  brain trauma injuries caused by IEDs and other combat related incidents.  According to the military video shown below, data from these sensors was downloaded monthly to a computer terminal  and then forwarded to a “secure” data center in Aberdeen, MD for analysis.

 

To date, SFTT is not aware that the Department of Defense (DOD) has shared any of this information with the public. However, the recent decision by the military to award a new helmet sensor contract to BAE Systems strongly suggests that we are dealing with no trivial issue.  Indeed, the recent release of the comprehensive US Army report entitled Health Promotion Risk Reduction Suicide Prevention and increased media attention at the extent of brain trauma injuries within the military would argue that greater public disclosure is well-advised to deal with this growing problem.

As recent history shows, the US Army and DOD are unwilling to share relevant data with the public that might suggest that the equipment provided to our brave warriors is deficient.   In fact, Roger Charles, the Editor of SFTT, was obliged to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) to obtain forensic records of troops killed with upper torso wounds to evaluate the effectiveness of military-issue body armor.   A  federal judge in Washington, D.C. recently ordered the Army’s medical examiner to release information about the effectiveness of body armor used by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan or to justify the decision to withhold it.  For Roger Charles and those in SFTT who have followed this issue for several years, it is unlikely that the US Army will open their kimono and confirm what most already know:  the body armor issued to our troops was not properly tested and is most likely flawed.

Full disclosure is generally the “right” decision and it would be useful for the US Army to share the helmet sensor data with the public to help address a growing problem for the men and women who have served in harm’s way and their families.   The American public can handle the truth!

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Brain Trauma Injuries and A.L.S.

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In a paper released this week, there are new indications that brain trauma injuries may mimic many of the symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  In an news article published August 18th by the New York Times entitled Brain Trauma Injury can mimic A.L.S.,  NYT’s reporter Alan Schwartz indicates that A.L.S. or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly referred to as Lew Gehrig’s Disease may have been triggered by concussions and other traumatic head injuries. 

According to the New York Times report, “Doctors at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Mass., and the Boston University School of Medicine, the primary researchers of brain damage among deceased National Football League players, said that markings in the spinal cords of two players and one boxer who also received a diagnosis of A.L.S. indicated that those men did not have A.L.S. They had a different fatal disease, doctors said, caused by concussion-like trauma, that erodes the central nervous system in similar ways.”

As previously reported by SFTT and other reliable sources, the military is paying far greater attention to brain trauma injuries and its long-term effects on military personnel if left un-diagnosed.    Officially, military sources place the number of troops suffering from brain trauma injuries at 115,000, but informed sources place the number much higher.    Clearly, the  rapid deployment of new helmet sensors by BAE based on preliminary field studies suggests that is a serious problem that is attracting the attention of our military leadership.

While pleased brain injuries caused by frequent I.E.D incidents is receiving more careful diagnosis and serious medical study, the question remains:  Do our troops have the best protective gear and military helmets to cushion the immediate effects of an I.E.D. explosion?  Simply deploying our troops with sensors to “study” the effects of brain trauma injury is akin to a laboratory experiment with rats.  More succicntly, is there currently a better alternative to the current standard-issue military helmet that would help reduce brain trauma injury.

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New Helmet Sensor to detect Traumatic Brain Injuries

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BAE Systems unveiled its latest concussion sensor for soldier helmets, named Headborne Energy Analysis and Diagnostic System (“HEADS”).  Reportedly, about 7,000 1st generation sensors have already been installed in helmets of U.S. military warriors.   The new devices feature much more effective reporting capabilities that will hopefully help in getting medical attention quicker to those that need it.

The HEADS smart sensor is also designed to provide medical professionals with important data that may help determine the severity of a possible traumatic brain injury (“TBI”). The second generation HEADS sensor reportedly provides medical teams with a valuable diagnostic tool that utilizes radio frequency technology.   Spokesperson Colman claims that “With our new ‘smarter’ sensor, if a soldier is exposed to a blast, possibly sustaining a concussion, not only will the HEADS visual LED display be triggered at the time of the event, but once the soldier enters a specified area, such as forward operating base or dining facility, a series of strategically placed antennae will scan all available HEADS units and send data to a computer, identifying any soldiers who may have sustained a blast-related brain injury.”

The sensor itself is small, lightweight and can be secured inside virtually any combat helmet. Although imperceptible to the wearer, it is designed to continuously collect critical, potentially lifesaving data, including impact direction, magnitude, duration, blast pressures, angular and linear accelerations as well as the exact times of single or multiple blast events. That information is then securely stored until it can be quickly downloaded and analyzed by medical teams using a simple USB or wireless connection.

Compatible with most helmets, the HEADS sensor is unobtrusive and won’t interfere with additional helmet-mounted equipment soldiers may need, such as goggles and other sensors.

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Is the military covering up the extent Traumatic Brain Injury?

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In an explosive new report by ProPublica and National Public Radio (“NPR”) it would appear that the US military is seriously underestimating the brain damage or traumatic brain injury (“TBI”) caused by roadside bombs.   Officially, the military claims that 115,000 troops have suffered “mild” TBI, although ProPublica and NPR claim that “unpublished military reports” place the number much higher.

T. Christian Miller, ProPublica, and Daniel Zwerdling, NPR,   examined government records, previously undisclosed studies, and private correspondence between senior medical officials and conducted interviews with scores of soldiers, experts and military leaders.  Among their findings:

  • Military’s doctors and screening systems “routinely miss brain trauma in soldiers. One of its tests fails to catch as many as 40 percent of concussions, a recent unpublished study concluded.  A second exam, on which the Pentagon has spent millions, yields results that top medical officials call about as reliable as a coin flip.”
  • “Even when military doctors diagnose head injuries, that information often doesn’t make it into soldiers’ permanent medical files. Handheld medical devices designed to transmit data have failed in the austere terrain of the war zones. Paper records from Iraq and Afghanistan have been lost, burned or abandoned in warehouses, officials say, when no one knew where to ship them.”
  • “Without diagnosis and official documentation, soldiers with head wounds have had to battle for appropriate treatment. Some received psychotropic drugs instead of rehabilitative therapy that could help retrain their brains. Others say they have received no treatment at all, or have been branded as malingerers.”

Maj. Remington Nevin, an Army epidemiologist who served in Afghanistan is quoted in the article as saying, “It’s obvious that we are significantly underestimating and underreporting the true burden of traumatic brain injury. “This is an issue which is causing real harm. And the senior levels of leadership that should be responsible for this issue either don’t care, can’t understand the problem due to lack of experience, or are so disengaged that they haven’t fixed it.”

Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army’s most senior medical officer, allegedly instructed local medical commanders not to speak to ProPublica and NPR.  He apparently emailed bases that “We have some obvious vulnerabilities here as we have worked to better understand the nature of our soldiers’ injuries and to manage them in a standardized fashion. I do not want any more interviews at a local level.”    Neverthelss, Lt. Gen. Schoomaker later  “acknowledged shortcomings in the military’s diagnosing and documenting of head traumas.   “We still have a big problem and I readily admit it,” said Schoomaker, the Army’s surgeon general. “That is a black hole of information that we need to have closed.”

“The long-term effects of mild traumatic brain injuries can be devastating, belying their name. Soldiers can endure a range of symptoms, from headaches, dizziness and vertigo to problems with memory and reasoning. Soldiers in the field may react more slowly. Once they go home, some commanders who led units across battlefields can no longer drive a car down the street. They can’t understand a paragraph they have just read, or comprehend their children’s homework. Fundamentally, they tell spouses and loved ones, they no longer think straight.”

Clearly, the extent of brain injuries are extremely difficult to diagnose and particularly so under battlefield conditions.  Nevertheless, there is mounting evidence that our brave frontline troops are not receiving a proper diagnosis and timely and adquate treatment for this crippling affliction.   SFTT applauds T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Daniel Zwerdling of NPR for their thorough investigative reporting.

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BAE Helmet Sensor Contract a Step in the Right Direction

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BAE Systems has received an initial order of $17 million from the U.S. Army for Headborne Energy Analysis and Diagnostic Systems (“HEADS”) to help address combat-related traumatic brain injuries(“TBI”), which according to many medical professionals are becoming a signature injury of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.   BAE is one of two military contractors who has received such a contract with a maximum contract award value of $105 million.

According to the news release, the HEAD’s sensor system is “designed to better monitor soldiers and help identify their risk levels for combat-related TBIs, BAE Systems introduced its HEADS sensor to the military in 2008. Since then, nearly 7,000 of the company’s HEADS units have been fielded to the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps . . .”

While this appears to be good news given the increased media focus on TBI-related injuries, it would be most useful if the DOD could share information with the public on the data it collected over the last two years based on the 7,000 units that have already been fielded.  Presumably, there is enough information from this sample testing to award a $105 million contract.  SFTT makes this simple request, since Dr. Charles Hoge, the U.S. Army’s senior mental health researcher at Walter Reed Hospital from 2002 to 2009 and now advisor to the Army Surgeon General, wrote an interesting piece for the Huffington Post in which he effectively dismissed the idea that there might be lingering effects from mild traumatic brain injury (“TBI”).

Is Dr. Hodge yet another case of a military spokesperson “sugar-coating” or “quibbling” over the effects of traumatic brain injury because of improper helmet design or is there something more sinister the military leadership is hiding?  Why the sudden rush to extend the use of sensors to track TBI?   With the recent recall of military helmets and Dr. Hodge’s lame defense of troops with “mild” TBI, one suspects that there is strong reason to be concerned that our troops don’t have the “proper” headgear and are not likely to have any too soon since the new HEAD’s sensors won’t be available until July, 2011.   While this may allow us to treat TBI injuries more quickly, it does little to determine whether our troops have the best available headgear.

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Military Helmets: Traumatic Brain Injury

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Dr. Charles Hoge, the U.S. Army’s senior mental health researcher at Walter Reed Hospital from 2002 to 2009 and now advisor to the Army Surgeon General, wrote an interesting piece for the Huffington Post in which he effectively dismissed the idea that there might be lingering effects from mild traumatic brain injury (“TBI”).    This article appears to have written to place the US Army “spin” on earlier report from the New York Times that a US Army survey of 18,000 soldiers suggested that 40% of returning soldiers had “experienced at least mild TBI.”   Could it be that our antiquated military helmets should have provided better protection to prevent these cases of TBI?

While Dr. Hoge recommends that we should honor these brave but impaired heroes, he goes on to argue that there is no easy clinical or pychological explanation to determine the degree of TBI.  In fact, he goes on to suggest that we re-label these conditions to produce an “AC” or Army-Correct version.  According to Dr. Hoge, “medical and mental health professionals can better educate their warriors about combat physiology, and not make everything so clinical. Instead of ‘trauma,’ ‘injury,’ ‘symptom’ or ‘disorder,’ they can try using words like ‘experience,’ ‘event,’ ‘reaction’ or ‘physiological responses.’ That doesn’t minimize the importance of medical terminology, especially in guiding effective treatment, but it also acknowledges the warriors’ need for validation of their own experiences.” 

This callous “spin” suggests that if we call the symptoms or evidence of TBI something else such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) then we have a psychologically treatable “reaction” to high levels of stress rather than a physical ailment.  This is sophistry at its best.

Many have long argued that our troops need state-or-the-art liners and self-adjusting padding inside military helmets to cushion or dissipate the energy of a hit that lessen the sudden movement of the head that causes concussions.   Why can’t our brave soldiers be afforded the same level of protection that we give to NFL and college football players?  The technology is available if only the US Army would care to look rather than staunchly defend the safety of current military helmets.

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