Ben Richards would have rather lost a limb in Iraq than suffer the wounds he did — the ones no one could see.
Appearing on 60 Minutes, the retired Army major recalled rushing into battle still reeling from a concussion days before, fighting the enemy while unable to see straight. Staying alive in combat is a struggle all its own. Richards didn’t need to be fighting his own brain — he had enough enemies in Iraq.
This became all too common. Richards would suffer several concussions, and they would end his Army career. They came close to ending his life.
‘Suicide Risk High’
After leaving combat, Richards landed a coveted gig teaching at the Army academy at West Point. But he couldn’t do his job. His mind would go blank. Superiors deemed him a “suicide risk” and noted he was “unable to accomplish any aspect of his job.”
His wife told 60 Minutes he spent a lot of time at home behind closed doors, alone. She didn’t know what was wrong with him. They said it was post-traumatic stress disorder. She didn’t know what a traumatic brain injury was.
Richards is not alone — not even close. Roughly 250,000 American men and women have suffered a concussion on the battlefield in the last 11 years, a military official told 60 Minutes. The lasting effects of those injuries are impossible to quantify. But one thing is for sure: the Pentagon has finally started paying attention.
Generals Take Notice
60 Minutes spoke with retired General Pete Chiarelli, who was for a time the Army’s second-in-command. When he took that role in 2008, he knew next to nothing about brain injuries.
“I had no idea that traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress were, in fact, the two largest categories of injuries we had,” he told 60 Minutes.
As it turned out, it was thanks to Chiarelli that top military brass began to recognize the immensity of the problem. And it was Chiarelli who issued the order than any soldier who suffers a concussion on the battlefield in Iraq would not return to combat until healed.
While the military has taken notice, much of the legwork addressing the problem has actually come from the private sector. A generous donor funded the National Intrepid Center for Excellence, a state-of-the-art facility at Washington’s Walter Reed Military Medical Center dedicated to soldier head injuries.
That’s where Ben Richards found out it wasn’t post-traumatic stress disorder causing his problems. He had a brain injury. It was clear as day on a scan of his brain. It was somewhat comforting for him to see that it was, in fact, something real that had been plaguing him for years. He could point to it.
60 Minutes closed the segment by speaking with Arnold Fisher, the benefactor who helped fund the brain center at Walter Reed. He’s raising money to build nine more across the country. It will cost $90 million. Information on the effort, as well as how to donate, can be found here.
It’s somewhat shocking to think it’s not the government building these hospitals to care for soldiers — it’s generous American citizens.
And there is still a long way to go. If nine new centers are built, the Defense Department will be able to care for 9,000 new brain injuries a year.
Whether or not the centers are built, the military is expecting that many new brain injuries will occur annually. The question isn’t whether they will occur. It’s whether or not the government will be able to treat those brave men and women.