VERMONT - It's been called the signature injury of the Iraq War - traumatic brain injury, or TBI for short. As the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan rely increasingly on improvised explosive devices as their weapons of choice, U.S. service members, including Vermont soldiers, are coming home in record numbers with mild to severe cases of TBI, many of which go undiagnosed but will require a lifetime of medical care and other support services.
In recognition of this growing problem, Vermont Protection and Advocacy, a federally funded nonprofit agency, is sponsoring four legal clinics around the state to help brain-injured veterans, their families and caregivers better understand their legal rights and entitlements as TBI survivors, from Social Security benefits to Medicaid and Medicaid claims, to their legal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The clinics, to be held in Colchester, Bennington, White River Junction and St. Albans, will provide free legal advice and referral services with help from the Disability Law Project and the Brain Injury Association of Vermont.
The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that of the nearly 24,000 injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, about one-third suffer from TBI. However, accurate statistics on the number of vets with TBI are hard to come by, in part because of medical privacy laws. Some TBI advocates also say it's because of the government's unwillingness to disclose the pervasiveness of the problem.
In Vermont, the figures for vets with TBI are mostly anecdotal. Sheila Tourangeau, an information and referral specialist with the Brain Injury Association of Vermont, says she's heard of at least 20 to 30 diagnosed cases of veterans with TBI, though she admits the number may be much higher. As of last year, it was believed that 600 to 700 Vermont National Guardsmen had suffered some blast exposure during their deployments, according to data from the state TBI program. But until recently, Tourangeau notes, the VA had no comprehensive program for screening returning vets for TBI.
"You may not see the effects [of TBI] for three to six months," she says. "It can take that long, especially coming back from a war zone, where you're dealing with a lot of stress and PTSD issues. Combine that with a brain injury and you can have some intense issues to deal with."
Legal clinics for veterans with TBI will be held at the Family Assistance Center in Colchester on Tuesday, May 13, 4:30-6:30 p.m.; at the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington on Thursday, May 17, 1-3 p.m.; at the VA in White River Junction on May 23, 3-5 p.m.; and at the National Guard Armory in St. Albans on Thursday, May 24 4:30-6:30 p.m. Info: 800-834-7890 x 106.