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Healing Warriors

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By Dan Gordon '85

Published Jul 1, 2014 8:00 AM


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April Sabin, assistant coordinator of Operation Mend, picks up March at LAX. Photo by Eric Mencher.

Healing Invisible Wounds

The injuries to those involved in the nearly 13 years?of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are not all visible. Changes in the nature of war have produced signature wounds and enormous challenges. Since the advent?of the improvised explosive device as a major weapon of combat, high rates of personnel have returned with traumatic brain injuries from the blasts. With the new rules of engagement putting all who are deployed in danger of being rocketed or otherwise attacked at any moment, the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress has soared. “The sheer number of people who are affected has overwhelmed the system,” says Chiarelli. “There’s help for the visible wounds, but we need to advance?the research and understanding of the invisible wounds, which is why I’m attracted to what UCLA is doing.”

A meeting that involved Chiarelli and David Hovda, professor of neurosurgery and director of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center, set the wheels in motion for fundamental changes in how the military evaluates and treats traumatic brain injury. Hovda was instrumental in alerting the Department of Defense to the setbacks soldiers can suffer if not immediately removed from the battlefield and treated for mild TBIs (concussions). Now his program is part of the widening net cast by Operation Mend and under the umbrella of the new Katz center. “There is still no treatment for recovery of function after a traumatic brain injury,” says Hovda, who received the Army’s Strength of the Nation Award in 2011, as Katz had a year earlier. “By giving us access to these personnel for treatment and research, we can make a big difference so that they don’t have to suffer these long-term problems.”

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March stands in the offices of Operation Mend. Photo by Eric Mencher.

Post-traumatic stress is also adding to the already difficult burdens carried by service members’ families. Members of today’s all-volunteer force are generally older than those who served in past conflicts — more than 40 percent of them have children — and the unusually long period of war makes multiple deployments commonplace. “These long periods of separation in the context of danger are not something you see in a civilian population,” says Patricia Lester, a UCLA psychiatrist and director of the Nathanson Family Resilience Center. There is both stress and anxiety for the spouse and children left behind, and “when the military parent returns, coping with mental-health issues, it may be difficult to fully engage in family activities, and some?of these behavior changes may be confusing to a child,” says Lester.

Since 2006, the Nathanson center has partnered with the military to provide FOCUS Family Resilience Training, an evidence-informed intervention that has touched the lives of thousands of military families. The programs aim to build on strengths and reduce stress through communication, problem-solving skills and proactive strategies that include learning how to recognize and cope with emotional triggers.

For Debbie and Brandon Sanford, part of the resiliency training was teaching their young son that he could no longer surprise his father by hugging him?from behind, or that spontaneous family outings to Disneyland were a thing of the past. An 11-year U.S. Army veteran, Brandon Sanford’s exposure to IED roadside bomb blasts during his Iraq deployment left him with traumatic brain injury and seizures, as well as post-traumatic stress. Established by the Nathanson center and now also offered as part of Operation Mend, FOCUS — the first program of its kind — enabled the couple to work through unspoken tensions. “It was humbling to come home and realize I needed help with my emotional distress,” Sanford says. “It’s not easy for soldiers to come forward and admit that.”

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