Next month, thousands of veterans will return from Afghanistan, as the US military begins withdrawing troops, the final phase of “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

An estimated 12 to 20 percent of those veterans will have traumatic brain injury (“TBI”), which doctors are calling the “signature injury” of the conflict.

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Lt. Sam Console’s job in Iraq was to hunt for Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs.  He found a few by running over them, but there was that one blast that caused his traumatic brain injury.

“As we drove past it, it detonated on my side of the truck, just next to my door, so the entire truck is engulfed in flame.  The shrapnel peppered the truck,” he recalls.

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After that, Console says, everything was… different.

“Every little thing a normal person experiences is exacerbated with TBI,” he says, “so if you’re having a bad day and you have a TBI, you’re having a really bad day.”

>> Read Sam Console’s blog, “Service and Sacrifice”

Console wasn’t diagnosed until three years after he came home — which is not unusual.  TBIs ranges from mild to severe and can be hard to diagnose.  The symptoms may include dizziness, headaches, forgetfulness, insomnia, seizures, and loss of cognitive function.

Extended interview with Lt. Sam Console

Now, researchers are hard at work on better ways to diagnose and treat TBI since up to a fifth of the two million soldiers who have been through the Iraq-Afghanistan theatre are returning with TBI.

(Kacy Cullen. Photo by Pat Loeb)

“The numbers could be just staggering, and this is literally a generation of our war fighters that have been afflicted,” says Kacy Cullen (right), with the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair.

Cullen explains that the prevalence of the injury is a combination of the increased use of blasts as a weapon and better body armor, which increases survival of those blasts but leaves a unique trauma.

“The pressure wave of a blast propagating through the soldier’s head and through their brain is doing something that is very subtle and perhaps insidious,” he explains.

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(A laboratory at the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania. Photo by Pat Loeb)

Cullen says there is no cure for TBI yet.

Extended interview with Kacy Cullen

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For Sam Console, the wounded soldier, his treatment has been simply learning to live with the damage.

“I have to actually think of myself as a new person,” Console says.  “I mean, not completely different, because I have memories of when I was younger, but I do not deal with any life problems the same, so I have to kind of accept that I’m completely different.”

Reported by Pat Loeb, KYW Newsradio 1060

Listen to the KYW Regional Affairs Council series, “Coming Home,” by Pat Loeb…

Part 1: The ‘Signature Injury’ of This War

Part 2: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Part 3: Combatting Joblessness Among Vets

Part 4: Combatting Homelessness Among Vets

Additional e-x-t-e-n-d-e-d podcasts:

Pat Loeb interviews traumatic brain injury survivor Lt. Sam Console

Pat Loeb interviews traumatic brain injury expert Kacy Cullen

TBI survivor Sam Console talks about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Gulf War veteran Kevin Miracle talks about living with PTSD

Dr. Edna Foa of the University of Pennsylvania describes her “prolonged exposure” therapy for PTSD

Marsha Four, director of the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service Center, on veteran unemployment

Kevin Miracle, a once-jobless Gulf War vet now working at the Philadelphia Multi-Service Center

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Vincent Kane, director of the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans