Living with Traumatic Brain Injury
The last Sailor of the day holds an anti-tank rocket (AT4) launcher on his shoulder, pointing the business-end down range, ready for the order to loose its might with the push of a button.
Each student does this no more than twice a day. The explosions can compress the brain of anyone close to the rocket when it's fired and more exposure is considered unsafe. Rasmussen, the instructor, has 16 Sailors on his range today. Each one goes through this evolution twice.
At times, he feels dizzy after spending a hot afternoon on the range. He tells himself he should probably just drink more water. "We're practicing for war," he thinks. This is no time to complain just because you've gotten your bell rung.
Rasmussen would later learn that those hot summer days on the range, along with many other seemingly minor head injuries over his 26-year career, have left him with bruises that can't be seen. And that "getting your bell rung" actually means a concussion, a mild form of a brain injury.
In 2013, Rasmussen would learn he had suffered from a traumatic brain injury.
It Can Happen to Anyone
"Traumatic brain injury, also known as TBI, is the result of any blow or jolt to the head that disrupts normal brain function," said Dr. Scott Livingston, director of education for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, in Silver Spring, Maryland. "The most common symptoms are headache, dizziness and confusion. There may be some memory loss, difficulty concentrating, difficulty remembering people or places and irritability."
Not all TBIs are equal. Livingston said they are classified on a spectrum, from mild (also known as concussion injuries), to severe. Most TBIs in the military are classified mild, and these can usually be treated with rest and over-the-counter medication. However, suffering multiple mild brain injuries in short succession (less than a 12 month period), without proper diagnosis or treatment, can lead to long-term effects.
"Based on data from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, a relative minority, less than 20 percent of the individuals, who have a mild TBI will experience ongoing symptoms," said Livingston. Most people with a concussion will recovery from their symptoms in 7 to 10 days. "For the smaller percentage of individuals who will have symptoms that last weeks or possibly months, other treatment options, such as psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and other medications, may be beneficial."
Rasmussen, like many service members, experienced a large number of minor TBIs over his career that went undiagnosed.
"I honestly thought that I had to be in a vehicle explosion, or a roadside bomb would have to go off," said Rasmussen. "That never happened to me, so I never thought I had a TBI."
As time went on, Rasmussen began to experience regularly occurring headaches, fatigue, memory loss, sleep issues and erratic emotions.
"I thought I was getting too old, and I was in my early 40s. I thought it was just age kicking in," he said. "My days weren't as full as they used to be. I had to start taking more time off [for medical visits]. That was taking away from me being an active member of the military."