Sunday, November 5, 2023

Gunners who came home damaged

A front page article in today's NY Times discusses the traumatic brain injury suffered by US troops sent to bombard the Islamic State in 2016 and 2017.  A strategic decision had been made to avoid sending large numbers of ground troops to fight the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and instead relied on airstrikes and a handful of powerful artillery batteries.  The strategy worked as the Islamic State positions were mostly eradicated and few American troops were killed.

A small number of troops had to fire tens of thousands of  high explosive shells, far more rounds than any American artillery battery had fired since the Vietnam War.  The cannon blasts were strong enough to hurl a 100 pound round 15 miles.  Each unleashed a shockwave that shot through the crew members' bodies, vibrating bone, punching lungs and hearts, and whipping at cruise-missile speeds through the brain.

The attack on Raqqa, Syria, for example, involved some of the military's most sophisticated cannons, M777A2 howitzers.  The gun crews fired the gun by pulling a simple cord.  The resulting blast was several times louder than a jet taking off, and unleashed a shock wave that hit the crews like a kick to the chest.  Ears rang, bones shivered, vision blurred as eyeballs momentarily compressed and a ripple shot through every neuron in the brain like a whipcrack.  In comparison, in the initial months of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, crews fired an average of 260 rounds.  In the attack on Raqqa, in 2017, each gun fired more than 1,100 rounds in two months.

The crew members continue to suffer from headaches, depression and confusion; some have committed suicide.  The Defense Department has spent close to a billion dollars to research traumatic brian injury but it focuses on the effects from big explosions from roadside bombs and not on the blast waves from the routine firing of weapons.  This prominent, extensive article is designed to give the Defense Department a wake-up call on this issue.

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