February 28, 2024

Warren Leads Senate Hearing to Urge Department of Defense to Better Protect Service Members from Weapon Blasts

“DoD is not meeting its responsibilities when it comes to traumatic brain injuries and other injuries that result from firing weapons.”

Opening Remarks (YouTube)

Washington, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), chair of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, led a hearing on the impacts of blast overpressure on American service members and the need for the Department of Defense (DoD) to better protect service members from blast overpressure. 

Senator Warren, in her opening statement, reinforced four critical solutions needed to address the growing risks and harm presented by blast overpressure, including 1) developing strategies specific to the military occupational specialties that are most at-risk to blast overpressure, 2) establishing blast exposure and traumatic brain injury logs for recordkeeping, 3) requiring regular cognitive health assessments for service members, and 4) establishing more accurate safety limits for weapons usage during training.

The full text of Senator Warren’s opening remarks are available below: 

Opening Statement
U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel
Thursday, October 26, 2023
As Prepared for Delivery 

Senator Warren: This hearing will come to order.

I’m pleased to welcome you all to today’s hearing to receive testimony on the Department of Defense’s efforts to protect service members from blast overpressure.

Service members put their lives and health on the line when they put on the uniform. In return, we have a profound responsibility to make sure that the nation is doing all it can to keep them safe, to prevent battlefield and training casualties, and to provide the best care possible for those who are injured. 

We are holding this hearing because DoD is not meeting its responsibilities when it comes to traumatic brain injuries and other injuries that result from firing weapons. Injuries from blast overpressure – the pressure caused from a shock wave that exceeds normal atmospheric values – have been the signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are also injuries incurred in training here at home. They are invisible, but they affect thousands of servicemembers, causing headaches, seizures, hallucinations, and ultimately, significantly increased risks of depression and suicide. Over the course of just three months in 2023, DoD provided TBI treatment to service members nearly 50,000 times. 

The more we learn, the more we come to understand that blast exposure is an ongoing threat to the health of individual service members and to the well-being, morale, and readiness of our forces.

I appreciate the support I have had on this issue from Ranking Member Scott, Senator Ernst, Senator Tillis, and other members of the committee. I secured a long-term study of blast overpressure injuries in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, and I’ve worked with Senator Ernst to introduce legislation on blast overpressure and to secure additional requirements to track blast overpressure injuries in the FY 2020 NDAA. 

DoD is working to implement this legislation, but we still have significant problems.

Last year, the New York Times reported on heightened brain injury risks for U.S. troops in Syria fighting ISIS.  Four artillery batteries assigned to the region fired more weapons than any American artillery since the Vietnam war.  The result was that each of these units had members with serious blast overpressure injuries – and each had had at least one member die by suicide. 

These deaths are a tragedy. Ryan, a Navy Seal deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, was subject to significant blasts from his own weapons over the course of his career and later died by suicide. His father, Mr. Frank Larkin, is here today to discuss the harm that blast overpressure has caused to service members and their families. 

The Times also revealed that even when DoD had made policy changes to address risks, those changes were not evident on the ground.  Weapons known to deliver shock waves well above safety thresholds were still widely used. Training did not involve basic safety measures. And Special Operations forces were not issued blast exposure gauges needed to track the threats they faced.

So DoD, and Congress, both have lots to do.  

Here’s my agenda to address this problem.

First, we need to establish mitigation strategies specific to the service member roles that are most at risk for blast overpressure.

Second, we must require DoD to create Blast Exposure and Traumatic Brain Injury Logs for all service members and integrate these logs into their VA and DoD health care records. 

Third, the Department of Defense should partner with innovative, evidence-based programs like Home Base to help service members get the care they need.

I’m going to brag a bit here: Home Base is a nonprofit organization founded by Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Red Sox to take care of the invisible wounds of veterans, service members, military families, and families of the fallen. Home Base has clinics in Massachusetts and in Florida, Ranking Member Scott’s state. Home Base has a Comprehensive Brain Health and Trauma Program specifically designed for Special Operations veterans and service members where it has been leading innovative treatment for veterans with co-occurring substance abuse and mental health conditions. 

As we work through this year’s NDAA,  I want to support this program’s work. I appreciate Dr. Zah-font from Home Base joining us today.

One more item:  we need to make sure that DoD sets a threshold on the maximum number of rounds that service members can safely fire and that this includes consideration of exposure limits over an extended period of time. 

DoD must do its part, and Congress must do ours.

To our witnesses, welcome, and thank you for appearing. We will have two panels today. The first panel consists of outside witnesses to provide their perspective on where DoD and the services are falling short on protecting service members from blast overpressure: Dr. Samantha McBirney, Professor of Policy Analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School; Dr. Ross Zafonte, Chief of Traumatic Brain Injury and Health and Wellness Programs at Home Base; Frank Larkin, Chief Operating Officer of Troops First Foundation and Lead of the National Warrior Call Day Initiative

The second panel will consist of officials from the Department of Defense and Walter Reed to hear how DoD is tackling this issue: Dr. Lester Martinez-López, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs; 

Kathy Lee, Director of Warfighter Brain Health Policy at DoD; Captain Carlos Williams, Director of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

Now I will turn to Ranking Member Scott for his comments to open this hearing.