The Maine Shooter’s Traumatic Brain Injury Didn’t Have to Happen

It’s hard to explain how it feels to be behind an artillery piece when it fires. First is the roaring sound that no movie can ever match. Then comes the sight: the gun jerking violently, smoke billowing from its tube as the crew scrambles to load the next round. Finally, there’s the physical feeling of the explosion that threw a hundred-pound shell for miles, knocking the breath out of you and causing your bones to shudder.

Each firing left me with a dull pain in my head, like I had just gotten hit in the face. But then it would fire again. And again. And again. So imagine experiencing this feeling 1,000 to 5,000 times in the span of less than a year, as some service members on gun crews in Iraq and Syria did.

I was deployed in Iraq from 2016 to 2017 and served as an infantry officer and a journalist, assigned to cover artillery units. I know this experience intimately.

The kind of injuries I sustained don’t only occur in combat zones or with heavy weapons. Earlier this month we learned that Robert Card, a U.S. Army Reserve soldier who killed 18 people in a mass shooting in Maine in October, experienced high levels of brain damage. For around eight years, Mr. Card spent summers working as a hand grenade instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Though grenades have a smaller explosive force than artillery, imaging shows the brains of those exposed to these blasts exhibit significant, potentially damaging changes in as little as five months. Mr. Card may have been exposed to over 10,000 blasts.

It’s clear now that each time people get hit by those shock waves from artillery fire, they pay a cost. These exposures increase the chance of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now calls primary blast injury of the brain, which can cause symptoms shared with other types of mild traumatic brain injuries.

We can’t say with certainty what effect this damage had on Mr. Card’s behavior, though he was treated for two weeks in a psychiatric hospital after he said he heard voices and made threats to others. Ann McKee, the director of Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, which ran the study on Mr. Card, said in a statement that “brain injury likely played a role in his symptoms.” Regardless, increased research from the past few years shows that these blasts are bad for brain health and can lead to increased anxiety and depression. The Defense Department even believes blast exposure could potentially render whole gun crews unfit for duty.

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