Reinforcements Dispatched to Afghanistan to Salvage Soldiers’ Brains

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A military doctor scrutinizes a sheet of MRI images / DoD photo

The battle against the never-ending detonations of roadside bombs in Afghanistan — which is killing, as well as maiming, thousands of U.S. troops each year — has signed up two new recruits: a pair of state-of-the-art MRI machines are going to begin operating in Afghanistan in hopes of detecting, and treating, traumatic brain injuries as soon as possible.

Currently, troops can’t get MRI scans of their wounded brains until they get to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in southwestern Germany, more than 3,000 miles — and usually several days — from the combat zone. “It’s a time-based formula,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Battleland earlier this month. He ordered the gear shipped to Afghanistan because of increasing evidence that early detection and treatment of traumatic brain injuries — and the post-traumatic stress they often cause — generates the best outcome for wounded troops. “The sooner you get at this, whether it’s PTS or TBI,” Mullen said, “the likelihood of resolution is much more positive.”

The deployment later this summer of the two magnetic resonance imaging machines — think of them as sophisticated X-ray devices that can give doctors precise images of what, if any, damage has been done to a solder’s brain following the nearby explosion of a roadside bomb — highlights a new horror of war.

Such soldiers generally are wrapped inside Kevlar body armor with shrapnel-stopping ceramic plates and full helmets, and often are riding inside armored vehicles when their brains get smashed inside their skulls by nearby improvised-explosive-device blasts. Many would have been killed instantly in earlier wars. But because their bodies are well-protected, they remain alive, although often with the consequences of TBI.

The arrival of the pair of Philips Healthcare Achieva MRI units in Afghanistan will mark the first time such sophisticated machines — total cost of buying them and getting them there is $8.6 million — have been sent to a war zone, a Navy official says. The units will be built into rugged mobile housings and constructed so they can be flown to field hospitals and endure the harsh Afghan weather and airborne sand. One is bound for a Navy-run hospital in Kandahar, close to some of the most fierce fighting of the war, and the second is headed for Camp Bastion, Britain’s main base, in violent Helmand Province.

“This is a complex and unprecedented acquisition issue,” says Captain James Poindexter, commanding officer of the Navy Medical Logistics Command. “Our team is working hard to field this equipment as soon as possible while ensuring it will do the job we intend it to do, taking care of our men and women in uniform close to the battlefield.”

But the Navy, in announcing the contract award, made clear the MRIs are no silver bullet: “While there is no clinical requirement for MRI systems in battlefield trauma care, they will be informative and may lead to cutting-edge discoveries in the diagnosis, treatment and enhanced follow-up care for wounded personnel with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).”