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Are brain injuries from IED blasts causing the military suicide crisis?

Traumatic brain injuries sustained by more than 200,000 U.S. troops may be fueling the military’s suicide crisis, according to a letter co-signed by 53 congressional members who are seeking additional data to investigate the new theory.

In the letter, sent Tuesday to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, the lawmakers urged both agencies to provide Congress with a raft of figures, including the number of Iraq and Afghanistan service members and veterans who committed suicide or tried to end their lives after being brain injured by the detonation of an improvised explosive device — “the weapon of choice” in both wars.

“Evidence has suggested that blast injuries, including but not limited to those causing damage to vision or hearing, can have a severe psychological impact ... that can play a major contributing role in suicides,” read the bi-partisan letter.

Between November 2011 and October 2012, there were more than 15,000 IED attacks against U.S. service members in Afghanistan, and 58 percent of all coalition casualties during that span were caused by the hidden bombs, the letter states.

At least three veterans groups, including the Blinded Veterans Association, are backing the congressional push to — as the letter to DOD and VA states — “get a better understanding of the connection between blast injuries and suicide.”

“I’ve talked to a lot of neurologists, military neurosurgeons and trauma surgeons who have all started to ponder if the IEDs that have caused the TBIs are the real cause of the suicides, versus the traditional approach that suicides are all caused by the psychological stresses of combat,” said Thomas Zampieri, head of government relations for the Blinded Veterans Association.

“Let’s collect more information and maybe the epidemiologists will find a way to unlock some of this mystery: Are military suicides actually more related to the brain injuries? I think there may be a big connection,” added Zampieri, who served as a Vietnam-era Army medic. “As the numbers of TBIs go up, the numbers of suicides continue to go up.”

The portion of U.S. service members who sustained TBIs increased each year from 2001 to 2011 — with a total of 266,810 brain injuries diagnosed in American troops between 2000 and 2012, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, part of the DOD. More than 80 percent of those injuries were not deployment-related cases, with many occurring amid crashes of privately owned cars and military vehicles. 

Army soldiers account for the vast majority of diagnosed TBI cases, and those injuries range from “mild” (a concussion) to “severe.” Within the Army, the suicide rate among active-duty members has risen from 9 per 100,000 in 2001 to nearly 23 per 100,000 in 2011, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

During that same span, according to the DOD’s brain injury center, the number of annual TBI diagnoses among American troops has ballooned from 11,580 in 2001 to 32,609 in 2011 — an increase of 182 percent.

“What is significant is that we are looking at a potential paradigm shift of significant proportion if the link between low-level TBI from IEDs emerges,” said retired Army Col. Bob Morris, founder of the Global Campaign against IEDs.

“The current automatic approach is to connect everything to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and look at it all as psychological when it may be a physiological,” Morris added. 

The lawmakers additionally asked the DOD and VA to supply "specific autopsy findings (of service members or veterans) potentially indicative of prior TBI." The members said they want to know whether such post-mortems found "chronic traumatic encephalopathy", which has been detected in the brains of a number of NFL players who recently committed suicide. 

Numerous Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been diagnosed with both TBIs and PTSD, as well as with hearing loss — the most common disability among the men and women who served in those wars. 

"There is no higher priority for VA than the mental health and well-being of our courageous men and women who have served the nation," said a VA spokesman, responding to the congressional letter. "Under the leadership of Secretary Shinseki, VA has made significant progress in providing increased access to mental health care services and strengthening our suicide prevention efforts, but there is more work to do. VA is committed to providing all Veterans the care and benefits they have earned and deserve.”

A Pentagon spokeswoman said Hagel "responds directly to correspondence received" and that it would inappropriate for her comment on the letter. 

Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., a surgeon who worked at a VA medical center for 20 years, led the effort to collect congressional signatures for the letter to Hagel and Shinseki.

“Far too many of our veterans and military personnel have taken their own life after bravely serving our nation. Frankly, it’s tragic and unacceptable,” Benishek said in a statement Tuesday. “I am hopeful that by working together we can make sure our guys and gals in the military and the VA have the support they need to recover from the damaging psychological effects of war.”

"There is particular evidence linking suicide to those wounded by IEDs," added Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y. "It is my hope that through additional research we will be able to identify and reverse this painful trend. One suicide is too many and we should do all we can to address this as quickly as possible."