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TBI Study and TBI Sufferer Self-Advocacy


While I was in the Marine Corps, I experienced a concussion. The story behind it is not heroic - it was not from a roadside blast, and, though I served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, I never engaged in combat.  In fact, I feel a little stupid about how it happened. My unit was playing a sport for PT (that's "Physical Training" or exercise, for you non-Marines). It wasn't even one the elevated-injury-risk sports we often played (such as no-helmet tackle football, no-rules soccer, or pushball in boots, “utes”, and body armor). The sport was "ultimate frisbee." As far as I recall, that is a no-contact sport. The ground, however, was apparently unacquainted with rules and during a rather dramatic catch, my head bounced hard off the ground. I remained conscious, but I immediately suffered short-term memory loss. I could not remember why I was at PT, where I had put my uniform, or even what day it was. I spent the rest of the day vomiting and the next few days with a throbbing headache.

Since that injury, I have learned that that type of injury is often called a minor traumatic brain injury or minor TBI. I have never called my concussion a TBI, and I have never sought treatment after the initial visit to sickbay on the day of the injury. In recent years, it has become more difficult for me to concentrate than it used to be. Sometimes I have trouble remembering things. Are those symptoms related to my concussion? I don't think so. That was a long time ago, and I am getting older. Even if they were, a brain injury from playing frisbee is not something I want to readily admit - or seek help for. I believe there are many who are in greater need than I, and I don't want to use resources needlessly.

And, therein lies a problem. I believe my symptoms are extremely minor, but I'm unqualified to accurately assess them. I do not connect any of my minor symptoms to my in-service injury, though maybe a neurologist would. I don't want to admit the weak way the injury occurred, and I don't want to take resources from those who, I believe, have a greater need.


One issue I have experienced with disorders or injuries involving the brain is that the individual affected has increased difficulty in self-advocating. Sometimes that means a veteran who has experienced a TBI may have a harder time navigating the VA healthcare system or the veterans' benefits process than most. Sometimes, these veterans will experience hardships communicating within their personal relationships. Though the long-term effects of TBI might include physical effects such as sleep disorders and headaches, they also include cognitive effects such as difficulty with memory or focus and attention, even difficulty with language processing, which can be disabling to a person attempting to communicate needs.

In my work at the UCLA Veterans Law Clinic, the VA Board of Veterans Appeals, and at Rawls Law Group, I have experienced veterans with brain disorders (TBI and others) unable to provide necessary documents because they have forgotten those document’s location, or because they misunderstood or forgot instructions they were given. They often also fail to get medical help they need. These difficulties can sometimes look like the veteran is willfully sabotaging their own well-being. The psychiatric issues often associated with those frustrations can be nearly as devastating as the TBI itself.


Now, an ongoing VA study suggests that many more veterans might have experienced TBIs than previously thought. One surprising lesson from the study is that many veterans who experienced explosive blasts have displayed symptoms of traumatic brain injury even if they never experience a typical concussion. Our previous understanding was that a concussion was a key indicator that a TBI might be likely. This highlights the fact that not enough veterans are getting the care they require, even if self-advocacy were not the only impediment.

I am confident that I share the following behavior with many other veterans: I often can't properly assess when I need help, I actively resist acknowledging when I might need help, and, too often, I determine I do not need help when that assessment would be more appropriately made by a professional. It is even worse for veterans with chronic symptoms from a severe TBI.


If you are a veteran and you believe, for any reason, you might have experienced a traumatic brain injury, whether it happened while you were deployed, during combat, or during training, you might consider letting a medical professional address it.

You might also want to consider participating in VA's ongoing study. Participating in the study might be able to help you, but it will also possibly help all veterans who suffer traumatic brain injuries in the future.  Even if you had not experienced a potential TBI, the study may be able to use your experience to help other veterans.

As the NPR article (written by Fred Thys linked below states, "Veterans interested in participating in the [VA] study can contact study recruiter Wally Musto at 617-799-8617."

Below, I have linked the NPR article about the study, the VA TBI research page, the Harvard co-sponsors of the referenced research, and a UCLA TBI research center on the west coast who are conducting their own research.


Cited Links:


Post Written by David A. Tierney

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