January 19, 2024

Warren, Ernst, Tillis Press Pentagon to Protect Service Members from Blast Overpressure

Warren, Ernst, Tillis Press Pentagon to Protect Service Members from Blast Overpressure

Blast Overpressure Can Lead to Depression, Crippling Headaches, Hallucinations, and Suicide

Letter Text (PDF)

Washington, D.C.  – United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, asking him to provide updates on steps the Department of Defense (DoD) is taking to better understand and address the effects of blast exposure on service member mental and physical health during training and operations. The letter follows November 2023 New York Times investigations that found high levels of traumatic brain injury (TBI) among artillery gun crew units deployed to fight ISIS, likely sustained due to blast overpressure, and that service members are still training on weapons with known risks of brain injury. 

“We write to learn more about the Department of Defense’s current efforts to protect service members’ brain health, particularly in ensuring that military operations do not result in blast overpressure that can lead to depression, crippling headaches, hallucinations, and suicide,” wrote the lawmakers. 

TBI was the “signature wound” of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While many of those injuries were due to the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), researchers also found blast waves produced by even minor explosions could result in TBI. A New York Times investigation found that  the U.S. decision to rely on airstrikes and artillery batteries to target ISIS rather than sending a larger number of ground troops, meant that a small number of troops had to, “fire more rounds per crew member… than any American artillery battery had fired since at least the Vietnam War.” The Times reported that despite military guidelines stating that firing the rounds are safe, gun crews experienced a range of symptoms during deployment, including throwing up, increased irritability, and waking up “feeling hungover and stagger to the guns like zombies.” and after deployment, including hallucinations, increased heart rates, and depression. The reporting described service members who knew that something was wrong, but were unable to receive proper treatment. 

A Marine Corps review of one unit confirmed that after firing “an unusually high number of artillery rounds” in 2017 that Marines “suffered a higher rate of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) than the rest of the artillery community” and that “this operational tempo could result in the artillery community suffering injuries faster than combat replacements can be trained to replace them.” This review also revealed that knowledge of how to mitigate blast overpressure and recognize its symptoms “is extremely limited” and the long-term effects of these blasts “are seemingly ignored.”

To assess the effectiveness of current policies and identify opportunities to support the DoD in its efforts to address causes and effects of TBI, the lawmakers are asking DoD to respond to a set of questions by February 27, 2024, and provide their staffs a briefing on the Warfighter Brain Health Initiative and the Department’s latest efforts to address TBI by February 1, 2024. 

Senator Warren has led efforts to measure blast exposure and develop protocols that protect service members: 

  • In May 2019, Senators Warren and Ernst introduced the Blast Pressure Exposure Study Improvement Act, which would require more frequent progress reports from DoD regarding the longitudinal study and added two feasibility assessments to the study.
  • Senator Warren introduced an amendment in the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (Sec. 734) that required DoD to establish a longitudinal medical study examining the effects of blast pressure exposure. 
  • In May 2018, Senators Warren and Ernst introduced the Blast Exposure and Brain Injury Prevention Act to improve research on TBIs, speed up the development of therapies to treat TBI, and strengthen DoD’s capacity to track and prevent blast pressure exposure.