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December 25, 2014

War Is Hell: Skin Cancer, Epilepsy, Sleep Disorders on Rise for U.S. Troops

147125002 3 445x296 War Is Hell: Skin Cancer, Epilepsy, Sleep Disorders on Rise for U.S. Troops

Brad Schwarz, with his service dog Panzer, attends a Cubs game with a group of veterans at Wrigley Field in 2012. Schwarz uses Panzer to help him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder issues related to his 2008 tour in Iraq. In addition to suffering from PTSD, Schwarz has memory loss related to traumatic brain injury and he must walk with a cane because of vertebrae and nerve damage in his back and legs. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Each war brings with it unique injuries and health afflictions for those who fight. For Iraq and Afghanistan, improvised explosive devices have led to extensive traumatic brain injuries and loss of limbs.

But those wounds aren’t the beginning and end of the kind of health problems this generation of the military is facing. Among those singled out by a Senate report: skin cancer, epilepsy, sleep disorders, hydrocephalus and chronic pain disorders.

Some of the conditions are interrelated, as described by the Appropriations Committee draft report for the fiscal 2015 defense spending bill. The report was obtained by The Subcommittee on Appropriations approved the bill Tuesday, and the full panel is set to do so Thursday.

Epilepsy, for instance, could be related to traumatic brain injuries:

The Committee is concerned about the large number of service men and women returning from the Persian Gulf Wars and Afghanistan who have sustained traumatic brain injuries [TBI] and the long-term consequences of TBI. These wounded warriors are at high risk for developing posttraumatic epilepsy, depression, cognitive difficulties, and posttraumatic stress disorder, which may be interconnected. As current TBI longitudinal studies have not include epilepsy, the Committee encourages the Department to place greater priority and invest more funding in longitudinal epidemiological research, including epilepsy surveillance, to better understand the magnitude and outcomes.

The panel sets aside $7.5 million for epilepsy research, and suggests the Defense Department expand research on the link between brain injuries and epilepsy.

Hydrocephalus, too is related to TBI:

The Committee is concerned that of the estimated 294,000 service members who have sustained a traumatic brain injury [TBI] in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, over 30,000 are expected to develop hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus, an increased accumulation of fluid in the brain, often has a delayed onset and can easily be misdiagnosed as dementia or other aging related diseases. Given that there is currently no cure for hydrocephalus and current treatment options are limited and have high failure rates, the Committee encourages the Department to increase its investments in hydrocephalus research.

But the health of today’s troops isn’t only affected by the enemy; it’s also affected by the environment in which they are fighting.

The Committee understands that melanoma diagnoses are increasing among active duty service members and that melanoma is the fifth most common cancer among veterans. Recent research suggests that exposure to high levels of solar radiation in young adulthood is associated with a higher risk of melanoma mortality. Given the extreme and harsh conditions service members face in theater and the rise of this aggressive and frequently deadly form of cancer, the Committee encourages the Department to continue its investment in melanoma research.

(An earlier generation of veterans might have suffered from melanoma via other means.)

Also, the committee, noted, sleep disorders — associated with TBI and post-traumatic stress — are “increasingly prevalent among servicemembers.” Chronic pain disorders, also “increasingly prevalent,” can lead to overmedication. The committee mentions the promise of “medication, tai chi, yoga and acupuncture” for treating those pain disorders.

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