By Zoë H. Wool
Jake was fond of saying that even though he had become dumber, he wasn’t quite dumb enough. He knew that the improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq had mangled his body, brain and self.
Jake (a pseudonym) lost 30 IQ points due to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) from that IED blast. According to the military, he was still smart enough to function and hold down a job, so they didn’t plan to include TBI in his disability rating.
He fought them on this, just as he fought them on the decision not to amputate his leg. After countless surgeries and rehabilitation techniques, his leg was almost useless, allowing him maybe 30 minutes of use before it started rebelling against its reconstructed form. The pain that caused was excruciating; he simply couldn’t use it more.
Eventually Jake won his battle to lose his leg. It was the best thing that happened to him during the year I got to know him while doing my dissertation fieldwork at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. (yes, that Walter Reed).
Dealing with, or writing about, TBI is rarely as clear as an amputation. The same is true of TBI’s nearly constant companion, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). TBI and PTSD are not injuries that you can see, unlike a lost leg. Despite the high numbers of TBI and PTSD cases from Iraq and Afghanistan, the relationship of these conditions to more obvious forms of combat trauma remains a fraught one: Witness the debate about PTSD and the Purple Heart.
Most people think that the Purple Heart, that most iconic of military honors, is awarded to American military members injured in combat. As with most issues military, it is not quite that simple.
In 2008, after months of consultation, the decision was made not to award the Purple Heart to those suffering from PTSD because, in part, the medal “recognizes those individuals wounded to a degree that requires treatment by a medical officer, in action with the enemy or as the result of enemy action where the intended effect of a specific enemy action is to kill or injure the service member.” PTSD doesn’t count.
Though the decision was officially framed in rather bureaucratic terms, the debate which surrounded it raises much deeper issues about the nature of trauma. Thinking through these issues has led me to think about the Cartesian split between the (internal) mind and the (external) body and the nature of trauma inside and out.