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Veterans Hospitals Struggle to Treat Brain Injuries

The Veterans Administration is unprepared to care for brain-injured Iraq war veterans once they leave rehabilitation centers and return home to VA hospitals, a new documentary reports. An advocate and the VA secretary discuss treating the injuries.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    For many of the U.S. service personnel injured in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the wounds are easy to see. But a surprising number of those returning from the front have scars that aren't visible.

  • INJURED SOLDIER:

    It's a long journey.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    While better medical care and body armor are keeping more fighters alive, traumatic brain injury has become a signature wound of the Iraq war. In a special report last night aired on ABC, former anchor Bob Woodruff focused on traumatic brain injury as a serious and widespread problem.

    BOB WOODRUFF, Former Anchor, "World News Tonight": On Jan. 29, 2006, while reporting from Iraq, my cameraman, Doug Vogt, and I were wounded by a roadside bomb. I nearly died.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Woodruff was injured by the Iraqi insurgents' weapon of choice: the improvised explosive device, or IED. He praised the treatment he received afterwards.

  • BOB WOODRUFF:

    I am standing here tonight because I got the best military and civilian medical care in the world.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But Bob Woodruff said he has learned that all veterans with traumatic brain injury, or TBI, may not be receiving that same level of care at many of the veterans' hospitals around the country.

  • INJURED SOLDIER:

    TBI is new, and the V.A. hospitals know nothing about it…

  • BOB WOODRUFF:

    The veterans and their families I spoke to said the V.A. isn't fully prepared to care for brain-injured veterans once they return home.

  • WOMAN:

    Brain injuries is a part-time job for them.

  • WOMAN:

    You know, I had no idea what we were walking into, that it was going to be so minimal.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The exact number of veterans with traumatic brain injury is difficult to pin down. Several estimates found that between 10 to 20 percent of the 1.5 million veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer a traumatic brain injury; other estimates put that number even higher.

    The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs disputes those estimates.

    In his report, Bob Woodruff asked the secretary of veterans affairs, Jim Nicholson, about the discrepancy between the 23,000 wounded listed by the Department of Defense and larger numbers found in a V.A. document.

    JIM NICHOLSON, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs: So I think Americans are always very surprised to know the number of amputations, for example, which is fewer than 600 in total.

    They're probably also surprised to know that, you know, 200,000 come to the V.A. for some kind of medical treatment. That's probably more than they think.

  • BOB WOODRUFF:

    You've got mental disorders, 73,000; diseases of nervous system, 61,000. These are huge numbers beyond the 23,000.

  • JIM NICHOLSON:

    A lot of them come in for — for dental problems. Others come in for a lot of the, you know, the normal things that people — people have. We're providing their health care. Some, I suppose, are because of their service over there, but they weren't evacuated for that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Bob Woodruff's report came a week after problems were brought to light at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. A Washington Post report detailed substandard conditions and questionable outpatient care.

    And just to clarify, I am not related to Bob Woodruff.

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