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Army to briefly promote senior NCOs without schooling

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston shakes hands with Cpl. Faith Scott, 509th Engineer Company, at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, Sept. 21, 2021. Photo credit: Spc. Rhianna Ballenger

By:  Thomas Brading, Army News Service 

WASHINGTON – Senior noncommissioned officers who have not yet graduated from the Master Leaders Course may still be promoted in the coming weeks, said the Army’s top enlisted soldier.

The new policy starts Nov. 1 and will briefly promote qualified soldiers to E-8 for up to a year to provide them time to complete required schooling, or enter proof of graduation into the service’s backend personnel system.

“If you’re on the OML (order of merit list), we’re going to promote right off (it) if there’s a requirement,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston during an event at the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition Oct. 13.

Grinston noted the policy doesn’t mean every soldier on the list will be promoted. But since they may face a variety of situations, from those who’ve already gone to school to those who are attending now, many will, he said.

“You may not even have to catch up too much,” he said. “We’re also going to increase the slots and authorizations so we can get ahead of the OML so that you will get to school and we don’t have this issue in the future.”

In the past, it was difficult for leaders across the Army to track participation, Grinston said. On paper, some soldiers were not qualified for promotion because their graduations were not reflected in their personnel records.

Ranking soldiers on the OML is determined by several factors, such as professional military education.

“What we’re saying is, if I’m No. 5 on the OML, and even if I don’t have the certificate in the system, I’m going to get promoted,” Grinston said. “I might have not even gone to school.”

Even though the Army will not consider MLC in its OML for now, it will be evaluated later, he said. The policy does not eliminate the requirement for leadership education.

“We’re going to promote off the OML on the authorizations that we require. If you meet the proper requirements other than (professional military education), you will get a temporary promotion,” Grinston said.

“We’re going to temporary promotions based on the requirements we need, based off the OML,” he added. “If you were No. 1 and you were skipped because of (school), you’ll get promoted for one year. We’re also going to increase the slots (for MLC).”

Unlike MLC, other Army NCO schools, like the Advanced and Senior Leaders courses, are job specific and they will remain the same. The SMA noted promotions of all ranks would be reviewed “in a deep-dive review,” he said, in case changes are needed.

Regarding the Basic Leaders Course, the SMA also announced the Army will implement financial training during the first leadership course for NCOs. Other tasks will still include leadership, training management, land navigation, warfighting and drill and ceremony.

“We have to look at both. Are you getting enough money for your family and if you are, how are you managing your money?” Grinston said. “Those are the tasks that we have. When a soldier gets promoted, you are required to give them a class on financial literacy.”

Sgt. Adam Krauland, who was named the Army’s NCO of the Year earlier this week, attended the SMA’s initiatives briefing.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville interrupted Grinston’s remarks and joined him on stage, where the senior leaders did an impromptu promotion for the young NCO.

Krauland walked out of the event as the Army’s newest staff sergeant.

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More DoD guidance on shots

Sgt. Morgan Evans, a combat medic specialist assigned to 2nd Stryker Brigade Stryker Team, 4th Infantry Division, prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Photo credit: Jeanine Mezei

J.M Simpson

The good news for the Defense Department is that the vast majority of military members have been vaccinated for COVID, so there won’t be a mass exodus of troops come December’s deadline.

By all recent indications, roughly 90 to 95% of the force has complied with the mandate, with those numbers expected to rise by December.

But what is the state of the civilian workforce? And how will visitors to the base be treated?

An Oct. 18 memorandum from the Pentagon stated civilian workers must comply by Nov. 22 or be ultimately fired.

Latest numbers from the DoD show 42% of the civilian workforce is fully vaccinated, however, officials said those numbers are unverified because civilians haven’t reported their status or they received shots outside the DoD’s medical system.

Those DoD civilians who refuse to get vaccinated will first go through “progressive enforcement actions,” the first being a five-day counseling and education period.

If an employee still decides not get vaccinated, they will be suspended without pay for less than 14 days. If the refusal continues, the DoD will terminate the employee for “failing to follow a direct order,” with exceptions due for medical conditions or religious reasons.

Defense contractors are also mandated to be vaccinated, or show up to their worksite with a negative COVID test and be subject to weekly screening.

The same holds true for visitors to all military bases and DoD buildings. If not vaccinated, they must show up with a negative test from the last 72 hours, or be subject to onsite testing if that is available. If the testing is not available, they will be refused entry. The order does not apply to those visiting infrequently such as taxi drivers or delivery personnel.

How many civilian workers on base will leave for not getting a shot?

Clues might be available here in Washington state. Last week, 1,900 government workers were fired from the state payroll for refusing the inoculation against COVID. That was roughly 3% of workers covered by the mandate, while another 4.6% plan to retire or get vaccinated.

If you haven’t heard, or remember, the military has been at these crossroads before in its history.

General George Washington could not see the virus that was ravaging his Army in 1777. Calling smallpox “the most dangerous enemy,” and regarding the virus a greater threat than British bayonets, he ordered Dr. William Shippen, Jr., the director-general of the Hospitals of the Continental Army, to inoculate the Colonial Army.

The majority of Washington’s soldiers obeyed the order; however, there were those who rejected it. But in a relatively short period of time, smallpox was contained and the health and welfare of the Army was restored.

Moving forward to the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21th century, the military found itself confronting the threat of anthrax. 

A disease that occurs naturally in herd animals, humans can contract it by eating contaminated meat, handling contaminated animals or animal products, or directly inhaling anthrax germs. If this happens, and if one is not vaccinated, death is a certainty.

By the end of the 20th century, anthrax had been weaponized. In the early 1990s, the Department of Defense began to vaccinate service members, particularly those who served in the 1991 Gulf War. But the threat posed by anthrax persisted, and in 1998 then Secretary of Defense William Cohen ordered all members of the military – active, Guard or Reserve – to receive anti-anthrax shots.

In language that now sounds familiar Cohen said, “Our commanders must know that all, not simply some fraction, of their forces are protected from this biological threat. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines fight in teams, and they need to know that all team members are protected from anthrax. … Allowing a voluntary vaccination program is inadequate in the face of this deadly threat.”

But not everyone in the military agreed, and social media helped to fuel the disagreement.

“One of the biggest lessons we have learned,” said Army Col. Gaston Randolph, director of the Department of Defense’s Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program in 2000, “is that you should never underestimate the power of the Internet to inform and misinform. It used to be that protesters made posters, put on marches, and maybe ran ads in newspapers with limited audiences.”

Those days are long past, and Randolph acknowledged this when he added, “Now, they can go worldwide, and in an instant, the information is available to millions.”

Resistance to this order attracted widespread press coverage; however, numerous military and civilian officials noted that only a relative handful of service members refused the injections. For those that did, each case was handled separately by the service member’s commander. On the whole, the hullabaloo about an anthrax vaccination has faded away.

Not surprisingly, misinformation and fear characterizes much of the current resistance service members have to being vaccinated – just as it did in meeting the smallpox and anthrax threats.

“The vaccine hesitancy mostly spurs health concerns and misinformation found on social media,” said Col. Owen Price, the Force Health Protection Officer at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, during a July interview.

In an attempt to address the hesitancy and combat misinformation, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a memorandum in August directing mandatory COVID vaccinations using only Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccines for service members.

The Pfizer vaccine has received full FDA approval.

“This is quite literally a matter of life and death for our soldiers, their families and the communities in which we live,” said Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle, the Army’s surgeon general.

The 485,900 soldiers on active duty must be vaccinated by Dec. 15, 2021. The 336,000 National Guard and 189,000 Reserve troops have until June 30, 2022 to be vaccinated.

The Air Force and Space Force has the earliest deadline, Nov. 2.

Service members who have concerns will be counseled and have their worries addressed before any action is taken against them.

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Sesame Street supports military families during TDYs

Elmo has questions about his dad, Louie’s short-term National Guard assignment. Photo courtesy of Sesame Street

Connected Health Communications Office 

Even in the most challenging times, service members and their families continue to thrive.

For military children these challenges often leave them with questions or strong feelings about what they hear on the news or at home.

Temporary duty assignments, which typically last anywhere from a few days to a few months, bring their own complications, especially when there is little time to adjust to a parent leaving. But military families have always been resourceful about staying connected over long distances, and temporary duty is no exception.

To help, Sesame Street for Military Families today launches a suite of new resources for families preparing for a TDY – whether the parent is headed off for training, schooling, a short-term humanitarian assistance mission, or a special event.

Temporary duty is often both shorter and more frequent than longer-term deployments outside the continental United States, but they share some challenges, like disruption of family routines and the possibility for separation anxiety. Technologies like video calls, mobile apps, or family social media groups can make it easier for service members on temporary duty to reach their loved ones back home.

Now, the new Sesame Street for Military Families digital resources offer a road map to help navigate TDYs. Sesame Street‘s own military kids, Elmo and Rosita, model the feelings and experiences children may encounter, in videos, printable activities, and articles that cover three main areas: preparing for temporary duty, staying connected while the parent is away, and adjusting when the family reunites.

Across all the new materials, families will find the mantra “We’re in this together even when we’re apart, we stay connected in each other’s hearts.”

The videos follow Elmo and his family as Elmo’s dad, Louie, goes on a short-term National Guard assignment. Elmo feels disappointed when his dad can’t come to Elmo’s first t-ball game, but shares joyful moments with him via videos and calls, and the whole family celebrates with a song when Louie returns. Articles for parents suggest activities and language to help small children understand the temporary nature – and importance – of their parent’s absence. Printable activities, including a coloring page and lyric sheet for the new song, “I’m With You,” serve as jumping-off points for family conversations before, during, and after the TDY.

“When a parent serves, the whole family serves – that’s something military kids can be proud of. At Sesame Workshop, we appreciate that service, and, with these new materials, we hope to help military families feel strong and connected whether they’re near or far,” said Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of U.S. Social Impact. “We want children to know they’re never alone – their families are there to support them, and their Sesame Street pals are sharing similar experiences and emotions, too.”

“TDYs are a regular part of life for all military families. TDY-specific content from Sesame Street for Military Families was something military parents and subject matter experts were asking for, so we hope the new resources will be a welcome addition throughout the community,” said Dr. Kelly Blasko, counseling psychologist and the lead for mobile health clinical integration at the Defense Health Agency Connected Health Branch. “We are really excited to have worked with Sesame Workshop to create TDY materials to continue the mission of improving the well-being of military parents and their young children.”

The new TDY materials join a robust lineup of resources to uplift and support families through deployments, homecomings, long-term family caregiving, transitions in health care, and much more. The resources are free to families and providers and available in English and Spanish on the Sesame Street for Military Families website

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Hearing Loss Due To Military Service

Veterans who served between 2003 and 2015 may be eligible for compensation for tinnitus and/or hearing loss caused by faulty earplugs designed by 3M. Photo Credit: JM Simpson

J.M Simpson

Listen closely.

In July of 2018 the Department of Justice announced that the 3M Company, which is headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota, agreed to pay $9.1 million to resolve allegations that it knowingly sold for over a decade the dual-ended Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 (CAEv2) to the military without disclosing defects which degraded the effectiveness of the hearing protection device.

3M continues to deny that it knowingly designed the earplugs with a defect.

“We believed these earplugs were doing their job,” said Army veteran David Henderson on a March 2019 edition of CBS This Morning, “and the basic expectation is to rely on your training and equipment, and here was a company deliberately lying for money and hurting service members.”

Fellow veteran Joseph Junk agreed; he said he does not know what “quiet” means to him anymore.

Both served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As a result, they and thousands of military personnel who served between 2003 and 2015, who used 3M earplugs and were diagnosed with or suffer from hearing loss or tinnitus may be eligible for compensation.

Tinnitus is the most common disability service members suffer from with 2.7 million receiving benefits for it.

To begin the process of applying for compensation, veterans should visit www.3mlegalhelpers.com    

Once there, all that service members have to do is fill out the information on the page; they will be contacted to see if they qualify.

What is more, veterans can also receive help in appealing their current Veterans Administration benefits or help them obtain VA benefits as a result of their hearing loss.

Applying for eligibility for compensation due to hearing loss will not negatively impact the veteran’s current VA benefits.

When applying for compensation, every effort will be made to qualify veterans and, if need be, to increase their existing rating or to file a new claim for disability benefits.

Thanks for listening.

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Strong military families

 Ranger cover: To better help service members build a strong relationship or strengthen an existing one, the Military Community and Family Policy office will host the inaugural “Relationship Wellness Summit,” Nov. 16-17, 2021. Photo By: Military OneSource

C. Todd Lopez, DoD News 

Strong relationships make for strong families, and with a strong family back at home, service members can focus on providing the nation with a strong defense.

To better help service members build a strong relationship or strengthen an existing one, the Military Community and Family Policy office will host the inaugural “Relationship Wellness Summit,” on Nov. 16 and 17. 

The completely virtual event aims to provide military couples with tools and techniques to help them strengthen their marriages and to help parents develop stronger relationships with their children. Single service members are not left out. The summit also will feature a variety of experts with tips on how to navigate the social minefield of dating and provide techniques on how to stay resilient when dealing with the emotional complexities of a breakup.

“Our target audiences are military couples, single service members and parents,” Kelly Smith, with the Military Community and Family Policy office, said. “Within each session, participants are going to be able to walk away with strategies that they can use to improve their relationships – really, tips and strategies they can use right there on the spot.”

Military Community and Family Policy runs the Military OneSource website and Smith says that the No. 1 reason service members and spouses seek non-medical counseling is for relationship issues.

That observation, she said, served as a catalyst for adding a relationship component to this year’s Virtual Military Spouse Symposium, which happened earlier this year. That pilot effort gained a lot of attention.

Another driver for the summit, she said, has been the change in family and relationship dynamics that have arisen from COVID-19.

“A couple of our sessions, within the parenting track and the couple’s track, are focused on strengthening your relationship during COVID and also how to parent through COVID,” she said.

Another big area of focus, she said, is the amount of time spent online using social media, playing games or watching streaming services.

“It’s an area where people struggle – how to find that balance with managing time on social media or screen time,” she said. “We’ve seen couples and parents struggle to set healthy social media and screen time boundaries.”

Among single service members and Americans in general, Smith said the struggle to deal with the fallout of a breakup can be hard. And evidence of that has shown up in numbers reported regarding suicidal ideation.

“There is a correlation between relationship challenges and risk for suicide, particularly within single service members who have experienced a breakup and started exhibiting maladaptive coping strategies,” she said.

“We want to have a conversation around managing and breakups and how to identify when extra help, like non-medical counseling, is needed,” she said.

The two-day relationship summit includes 20 sessions, meetup mixers and panels with experts on a variety of topics including breathing life into an existing relationship, dating in the 21st century, maintaining a long-distance relationship, positive parenting, the effects of social media on relationships, parenting in the COVID-19 environment and techniques on how to restore trust.

Relationships, counseling and dealing with emotional issues are subjects some service members tend to shy away from. But mission effectiveness and combat readiness are things the same service members are proud to embrace. Relationship challenges can negatively impact mission readiness and combat effectiveness, and it’s something Military Community and Family Policy is committed to helping service members overcome.

“We believe in what we can see anecdotally from the relationship counseling provided through our non-medical counselors: when our service members are able to focus on the mission and not be concerned about their marriage, their relationships, or how their children are doing at home with regards to parenting, they can focus on the mission,” Smith said.

Single service members, married service members and spouses interested in securing mission readiness by squaring things away on the home front with their own interpersonal relationships, can sign up for the Relationship Wellness Summit by clicking here

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Main Military

Flexibility in education

J.M Simpson

Education is vital to the building and maintaining of a career in both the civilian and military sectors. For many working adults and soldiers, this education has to have a degree of flexibility.

UMass Global (University of Massachusetts Global) is one such educational experience designed to help individuals who have busy schedules also continue their education.

“Our programs and classes are designed with the flexibility to allow any type of working adult to attend school and complete a degree,” said Emory Lunsford, the Senior Account Manager and Air Force veteran.

UMass Global represents the combining of efforts between the former Brandman University and the University of Massachusetts. On Sept. 1, 2021 the merger became official.

“We (Brandman) have a record of successfully helping working students, and would like to be of service to students around the nation. Our goals are aligned, so an affiliation made a lot of sense to both institutions,” explained Lunsford.

“The University of Massachusetts was looking for an on-line partner that could help working adults in their home state, and throughout the country, earn degrees. We now have campuses affiliated with four military bases in Washington and two in California.”

One of those campuses is located at McChord Field; a second is located on Joint Base Lewis-McChord Main.

Built on a tradition of providing educational opportunities to military members and their families since 1958, UMass Global offers the following:

  • Active duty, Guard and Reserve members and their families receive tuition breaks
  • UMass Global offers three different learning modalities: Programs may be available in traditional on-line formats; they may be a blend of on-campus and on-line activities; or they may be offered through UMass Global MyPath, a self-paced competency-based format.
  • Students can select from over 90 degree-granting programs, as well as from more than 90 certificate and certification programs.
  • Senior military members can earn a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership by successfully completing seven classes.
  • UMass Global also offers an Associate’s degree in General Studies for students needing an on-line option.

“As you can see, our programs and classes are designed with the flexibility for allow working adults to take classes and complete a degree,” concluded Lunsford.

“What’s more, we work well with all local community colleges and their transfer centers to help students earn their associate degree or continue their education at UMass Global.”

For more information regarding UMass Global, the GI Bill, tuition, financial aid and military transfer of credits, call 800-746-0082.

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Concussion linked to depression, anxiety and PTSD

Service members can suffer concussions when exposed to blast waves when explosions occur during training or operations. Photo by U.S. Army, Sgt. M. Austin Parker

Claudia Sanchez-Bustamante, MHS Communications 

Recent research shows mounting evidence of a link between mild traumatic brain injury and mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

For the first time, a study of post-mortem brains of service members who were diagnosed with blast-related concussions found visible evidence of damage to the brain.

Researchers believe the unique scarring that the study found could account for the mental health conditions that are diagnosed more frequently among service members who have suffered mild TBIs or been exposed to blast concussions.

In other words, the “invisible wounds” – as TBI is frequently called – might not be invisible anymore.

“The more we look, the more we’re finding other subtleties and other kinds of changes in the brains of individuals who’ve been exposed to blast,” said Dr. Daniel Perl, one of the study’s researchers and a neuropathologist specializing in TBI and neurodegeneration at the Uniformed Services University (USU) of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

As a result, “we think there is a biology to this, that the exposure to blast can, in some people, produce damage to the brain, which leads to dysfunction and underlies some aspects of (mental health issues),” Perl said.

THE LINK

TBI is associated with an increased risk of psychological health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress, according to experts at the Defense Health Agency’s Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence (TBICoE), in Falls Church, Virginia.

A 2019 study of a Department of Veterans Affairs health care database found that “a history of TBI increased the risk for suicide and other psychiatric conditions by more than two-fold.”

Veterans with a history of TBI also had a two-to-four times higher prevalence of psychiatric diagnoses compared with those who did not suffer a TBI, with PTSD being the most common, according to the TBICoE team.

The prevalence of depression in the TBI group was 68.1 percent, the TBICoE team said.

David Riggs, a clinical psychologist and chair of the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology at USU, explained how the exact reason for the neuropsychiatric symptoms service members experience following a blast-related concussion is not clear.

“We don’t know exactly, particularly in the case of mild TBIs or concussions, what might be leading to these problems because it’s very hard to identify the specific change in the way that the brain functions after a concussion,” he said.

“If you have a penetrating head injury, where the skull is fractured or penetrated, you can actually identify the part of the brain that was injured and perhaps is no longer functioning at all,” added Riggs.

“In the case of concussion, it’s very hard to identify where the brain was injured.”

Riggs explained that there might be a disruption in “the way that the neurons in the brain talk to one another.”

What is known, is “that the way that a person processes information is related to mood and trauma symptoms on the psychological or psychiatric side,” said Riggs. “So, it may be that there are disruptions at the neurological level that lead to these psychological and psychiatric issues.”

“It’s also possible that what leads to the depression or the trauma symptoms isn’t about the injury, the concussion, or the idea that the brain is working differently, but rather the emotional and life-disrupting aspects of that,” he added.

SEEING THE ‘INVISIBLE WOUNDS’?

Mild TBI occurs when there’s a sudden jolt to the head due to impact or blast, causing it and the brain to jerk abruptly back and forth. This results in the brain bouncing or twisting inside the skull, creating chemical changes that can stretch and harm the brain cells, thus affecting brain function, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the USU study appears to have identified physical scars from blast damage in service members who are deceased, there are no visible damages to the brain when testing live patients diagnosed with blast-related concussion and other forms of TBI.

“When you do an MRI on such a patient, you don’t see anything consistently,” said Perl. “The implication is that something’s wrong with the brain, but you just can’t see it.”

Perl established a neuropathology lab at USU dedicated to researching the acute and long-term effects of TBI and PTSD among military personnel. In the study, they analyzed brain specimens of cases with chronic blast exposure, acute blast exposure, chronic impact TBI, exposure to opiates, and a control group with no known neurological disorders for comparison.

“The one thing that kept coming up in these cases (with blast exposure) was a pattern of scarring in the brain that seemed rather unique and had really not been described previously,” he said.

“And the more we worked, the more it appeared to be related to blast exposure.”

The type of unique scarring they observed is called interface astroglial scarring. From there, they learned that blast waves emerging from detonations of high explosives such as improvised explosive devices and suicide bombs carry pressure waves “that expand in all different directions, at about the speed of sound, and actually pass through the skull, and through the brain, the most delicate and complex organ in the body,” he said.

This led to the assumption that it must produce some damage to the brain.

“Indeed, the places where we found the scarring were places where biophysicists had previously shown that the blast wave gives off its energy,” he said. “Putting two and two together, we have indicated that we think that the blast wave is damaging the brain in these locations, and this is the brain’s attempt to repair itself from that damage.”

“Mental health issues may be superimposed to this,” he said, attributing the symptoms of concussion to “a duality of both factors – biologic factors plus functional factors – that are interplaying, interacting.”

SIMILAR SYMPTOMS

Concussion can result in a wide variety of symptoms that can also be attributed to other causes, including headaches, irritability, fatigue, balance difficulties, sleep disturbance, dizziness, ringing in the ears, blurred vision, concentration, or memory difficulties, and other problems. But these are believed to be temporary and usually heal on their own over time, as the brain resettles back to regular functioning.

Likewise, people who have had a TBI and people who are depressed can share similar symptoms. These include low activity levels, sleep problems, difficulty controlling emotions, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, decreased energy, changes in appetite, and lack of initiation.

Similarly, Riggs said, while some people with a concussion may also have PTSD, not everyone does. He said some experts believe some people may be more vulnerable to psychological health conditions after a concussion because they were having problems already, or because they may be genetically predisposed to psychological health issues, like depression or anxiety.

Either way, the psychological health conditions that arise from concussions may require longer-term treatment.

Common treatment options include counseling and medications. Most cases of PTSD respond well to treatment, according to TBICoE.

And some complementary or alternative medical approaches such as meditation have shown to be useful, as a second-line treatment for managing PTSD.

Perl’s research findings have implications for the way TBI might be diagnosed and treated in the future as well as for spurring broader research on the ways service members can be better protected as they head into situations where they might be exposed to blasts.

“We’re beginning to work on if there are means by which we can detect this in living individuals,” said Perl. “Our work has stimulated a number of ongoing studies to look for unique ways in which newer imaging and even fluid biomarkers can be used to identify these changes in the living.”

Service members experiencing depression, anxiety, and PTSD due to concussion are not alone. The TBICoE website provides ample resources to help service members, veterans, their families, and loved ones cope with mTBI.

If you notice changes in the behavior of a loved one after concussion or fear a loved one may try to hurt themselves, urge them to call their health care provider, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), or the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 as soon as possible.