Military survivors get answers to hard queries
The Navy doctor had told everyone he would speak frankly, and he did. "Some of the things I'm going to talk about may have you relive some things you don't want to relive," said Capt. Charles Blankenship.
The name of the Memorial Day weekend seminar in Washington was "Did My Loved One Suffer?" — part of the annual gathering of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a support group for the families of military personnel killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It must have been the quietest, saddest room in America.
• "My son was killed in an IED (improvised explosive device) incident," said a gray-haired man sitting near the front. "I wondered if you could address the question of the concussive effect of a massive blast as it relates to loss of consciousness." Blankenship explained that the overpressure wave from the explosion probably knocked the soldier out, rendering him unconscious before the fragmentation injuries that took his life a split second later.
• A woman asked about the helicopter crash that killed her son. A sudden acceleration/deceleration usually tears the body's major vessels, Blankenship said. But even before that happened, the G-forces would have caused her son to black out. "He probably didn't have any idea."
• A woman raised her hand. Her son was in the turret of a Humvee in Iraq when the road underneath gave way and the vehicle rolled upside down into a canal. "More than likely, he was knocked out when it rolled and he hit his head on the armored shield of the turret," Blankenship said.
As Army suicides rise, their families suffer
Suicides in the Army, already at a record rate in 2008, surpassed the number of combat deaths for the month of January. As of the end of April, the Army had lost 64 active-duty soldiers to likely suicides.
"When we get to the point where more soldiers are dying by suicide than combat, there's something desperately wrong," said Mary Clare Lindberg, whose son, Army Sgt. Benjamin Jon Miller, killed himself while home on leave from Iraq in Minnesota in June. His mother was in Washington during the Memorial Day weekend for the TAPS gathering. Many of those participating were families of service members who took their own lives.
"Because my son was a suicide home on leave, his name was not on the memorial wall at Fort Campbell (the Kentucky post where her son served), and that's just not right," said Lindberg, who said her son was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
CT scans, autopsies of war dead help others
Within an hour after bodies arrive in their flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base, they go through a process not used on the dead from any other wars.
Since 2004, every serviceman and woman killed in Iraq or Afghanistan has been given a CT scan, and since 2001, when the fighting began in Afghanistan, all have had autopsies, performed by pathologists in the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. In previous wars, autopsies on people killed in combat were uncommon, and scans were never done.
The combined procedures have yielded a wealth of details about injuries from bullets, blasts, shrapnel and burns — information that has revealed deficiencies in body armor and vehicle shielding and led to improvements in helmets and medical equipment. One discovery led to an important change in the gear used to stabilize injured troops — longer chest tubes to treat collapsed lungs.
The military world initially doubted the usefulness of scanning corpses but now eagerly seeks data from the scans, medical examiners say.
"We've created a huge database that's never existed before," said Capt. Craig Mallak, 48, a Navy pathologist and lawyer who is chief of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, a division of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
The medical examiners have scanned about 3,000 corpses, creating a minutely detailed record of combat injuries.
Washington Post, New York Times