The longer Dr. Elaine Date studied the medical file of Cpl. Frank Sandoval, the more certain she became: In any previous war, he never would have survived.
Shrapnel from a roadside bomb blast in Iraq had broken open his skull and damaged portions of his brain last November.
Yet here he was, alive and struggling to recover from what has been called the signature wound in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts: traumatic brain injury.
A sudden, blunt blow to the head can cause TBI, which in severe cases leaves people unable to perform even basic cognitive and physical functions. Military and VA doctors describe a perfect storm of contradictory factors that have contributed to a spike in the number of brain injuries compared to other recent conflicts.
Improvements in combat medicine and body armor, which protects vital organs, mean that fewer soldiers die on the battlefield. About 86 percent of all U.S. casualties have survived their injuries – the highest percentage in the history of warfare. In contrast, about 75 percent of all casualties survived in both the Persian Gulf War 15 years ago and the Vietnam War.
That blessing comes with a terrible catch. The survivors of these once-deadly wounds are returning home with devastating and disfiguring injuries that can require months of therapy and sometimes a lifetime of care.