CINCINNATI (WKRC) – Suicide among our members of the military and our veterans is now at its highest level ever, reaching an average of 24 deaths a day. Several scientific and medical studies link many of these suicides to physical brain damage suffered by combat vets.
In this Spotlight on America, Local 12’s Chief Investigative Reporter Duane Pohlman examines an innovative medical treatment that heals injured brains and investigates why the military and the Veterans Administration (VA) have yet to approve it.
For Sgt. Major (SGM) Simon LeMay, who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan five times from 2003 to 2013, he and his U.S. Marine brothers went through hell. On patrol outside Marjah, Afghanistan, on Jan. 14, 2010, LeMay’s best friend, Sgt. Chris Hrbek, was killed when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated. Just weeks before, LeMay was 5 feet away when another IED was triggered by the step of another SGM when he and the Marines were on patrol. “He stepped on a pressure plate and lost both of his legs,” LeMay recalled. LeMay and other Marines rushed to save his SGM, who would be saved that day. LeMay was traumatized by his losses but avoided life-threatening injuries. And while he appeared to have avoided serious injury, a silent killer was in his head.
INVISIBLE WOUNDS OF WAR
“I’ve had multiple IED exposures that have led to traumatic brain injury,” LeMay described in a humble, matter-of-fact tone. Sgt. Major Simon LeMay deployed to Afghanistan five times between 2003 and 2013. He said he was exposed to multiple IED detonations that left him with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). (LeMay Family)
When LeMay returned to Temecula, California, he says he was disoriented and numb, struggling to simply speak clearly. Military doctors diagnosed his TBI, treating his symptoms with therapy, electrodes and pills, but nothing was helping. LeMay says he descended into a deep depression, turning to alcohol and pain pills. “I was lost,” LeMay explained, adding, “I just really didn’t have a desire and will to want to keep going each and every day.”
UNDER A BED WITH A 9MM
In 2012, LeMay was inside his home in Temecula and decided he couldn’t go on. “I decided I had enough and I took a 9 mm that I owned and I crawled underneath the bed skirt under the bed to try and end my life,” he said. He says he placed the gun to his head but was stopped by his wife, who found him. “She crawled underneath the bed with me and took the gun from me and talked me out of it,” said LeMay. LeMay says, at one point, he crawled under his bed with a gun in order to end his life, but his wife, Cate, found him and was able to talk him down. (LeMay Family)
HBOT AND TBI
The suicidal episodes continued without hope of being cured until his uncle and aunt, Jim and Cynthia LeMay, stepped in, convincing him to try hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), which he was told had already healed thousands of combat veterans with TBI.
Developed for treating divers with the bends, HBOT uses pressured chambers to push 100 percent oxygen, usually at one-and-a-half to two times atmospheric pressure, into the body.
LeMay’s suicidal episodes continued without hope of being cured until his uncle and aunt, Jim and Cynthia LeMay, stepped in, convincing him to try hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), which he was told had already healed thousands of combat veterans with TBI. (LeMay Family)
Growing medical and scientific research reveals this therapy delivers the oxygen to damaged sections of the brain, with MRIs revealing brains lighting up with activity after treatment. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves HBOT for treating 14 injuries and conditions but has not approved it for TBI or other brain injuries. The Department of Defense (DoD) AND VA have been testing HBOT for years but have yet to approve it for treating combat vets with brain wounds. When asked why it isn’t being approved yet, Ndidi Mojay, a media relations spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs wrote:
VA has used the HBOT since 2017 as a treatment option for patients with persistent post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. VA also uses hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat carbon monoxide poisoning, divers’ sickness, enhanced healing of some wound problems, skin grafts, heat burns, crush injuries and other acute health-care issues that involve too little blood flow to a part of the body.
There is insufficient medical evidence to recommend HBOT as a treatment for traumatic brain injury. Instead, VA offers TBI treatment options that are evidence-based and consistently demonstrate positive, long-term improvements.
Recommendations for evidence-based treatment of TBI are summarized in the VA/DoD Clinical Practice Guidelines which can be accessed at this link: https://www.healthquality.va.gov/guidelines/Rehab/mtbi/
GROWING EVIDENCE – READ THE STUDIES:
- Wolf-Cifu Study
- Cifu-Hart Study
- JAMA Miller HOPPS Study
- Weaver BIMA Study
- Wolf, et al Reassessment of data in Study #1
Despite the absence of formal approval, numerous DoD studies over the past several years have revealed combat vets with brain wounds do get better with HBOT. Dr. George Wolf was the medical director of one of those studies. In both his study and later paper, “Cognitive function in a traumatic brain injury: hyperbaric oxygen randomized trial,” Wolf showed that there was quantifiable improvement when HBOT was used on those with brain injuries.
Dr. Paul Harsch, who was among the first to argue for HBOT to treat brain injuries, says he’s frustrated with the military’s refusal to accept it. “What we’re all taught in medical school is there is nothing you can do for brain injury,” Dr. Harsch said, noting, “We can treat brain injury.
According to veterans’ groups, including TreatNOW.org, which is dedicated to preventing suicide among our veterans, more than 4,000 combat vets with brain injuries have received HBOT, with 8 of 10 showing improvement.
NOT JUST SOLDIERS
“I was losing it all because of a brain injury,” retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Patt Maney said, recalling the moment in Afghanistan in 2005 when his armored Toyota SUV hit an IED. Maney suffered brain damage in 2005 after his armored Toyota SUV hit an IED.
The explosion threw the truck into the air. Maney suffered brain damage that left him depilated. He clearly recalls the moments when he couldn’t walk, talk or think clearly. “I could read words, but I couldn’t process what they meant,” Maney recalled.
He was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to recover, but he says there was not much improvement over the next 15 months. Doctors there told him to be patient.“Their advice was, ‘tincture of time,’” Maney explained, adding that time did little to heal his brain injury. Powerful people, including the former Secretary of the U.S. Army, Martin R. Hoffman, pushed to get the military to approve Maney to get HBOT treatments.
GRAVE INJURIES TO GAVEL
After 120 sessions, Maney did not return to the military, but he did return to the bench in Ocaloosa County, Florida, where, as a judge, he initiated Veteran’s Court, which helps military veterans avoid criminal prosecution. Maney says he sees brain injuries in many of the vets who come before his bench. Maney is doing so well, he just announced his candidacy for the Florida House of Representatives.
“I’m a survivor thanks to hyperbaric oxygen therapy,” Maney stated.
HOPE AND CRAZINESS
LeMay, who just retired from the Marines, is continuing to receive HBOT at Extivita in North Carolina, which are administered for free because he can’t receive assistance from the military. He says the sessions have not only cleared his head, they’ve given him hope. “I found myself looking to a future,” LeMay said, holding back a smile.
But more than a million veterans with TBI continue to suffer, while the military and VA continue to study whether HBOT works. To LeMay, that thought moved his muted smile to determination to continue his mantra of helping others. “I think it’s just absolutely crazy that we can’t give everybody the chance that I’ve had,” LeMay said.