Coming Home: Diagnosing 'deployment trauma' at VA Boston

BOSTON -- There was an exact moment that marked a turning point in the life of Lt. Col. Michael Moricas.

“It wasn't for very long. But it was long enough,” said Lt. Col. Moricas.

It happened on a dark night in Afghanistan.

For a moment, he's back there again.

“That changed me forever,” he said.

The aftermath of a village unintentionally hit by mortar fire left him traumatized. When he returned home to Rhode Island, the personal battle had just begun.

“I didn't even know that beginning … until a couple of years after I came home, because I really didn't think of how things were effecting me,” Moricas explained.

It was veteran Wally Musto who convinced Moricas to take part in a study that could help with his internal battles.

The Translational Research Center for Traumatic Brain Injury and Stress Disorders (TRACTS) program at the VA Boston Medical Center in Jamaica Plain was designed in part by researchers Regina McGlinchey and William Milberg.  It’s a cutting-edge study that takes a comprehensive look at how the effects of war impact how the brain functions.

More than 600 soldiers have participated in the study, the only pre-requisite was having either served in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The initial thought was to see how many soldiers were coming back from war with traumatic brain injuries, but that soon changed.

What they found was the closer a soldier was to a blast from a bomb or improvised explosive device (IED), the greater level of psychological and physical trauma on the brain. And almost half the soldiers interviewed said they were within 10 meters of a blast.

“If people were exposed to a blast at a relatively close range, we can see changes in brain structure, brain function and cognition years later,” explained Dr. McGlinchey.

Fifteen percent of the study’s participants had a combination of concussion, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been called "deployment trauma."

“When a concussion occurs in an individual where we can diagnose depression and PTSD at the same time, the effects are devastating,” Dr. Milberg said.

Soldiers that experienced deployment trauma had trouble with substance abuse, homelessness and finding steady work.

“What it's really telling us is that we need to approach treatment in a unique kind of way, because all those things are going to need to be targeted simultaneously for anything to be affected," Dr. McGlinchey said.

It's that comprehensive approach that has helped Lt. Col. Moricas cope with his PTSD.

“When I did find myself here, I received help that I didn't know that I needed, but I know now,” Moricas said. “Help is available to you and there’s no shame in that.”

With this study, that's the message he wants others to know.

The researchers say the impacts of war show up elsewhere too. They found soldiers in their early 30s with cardiac conditions, diabetes, high blood pressure and other symptoms they are just starting to understand.

TRACTS is an ongoing program and is always looking for more participants.

If you know someone that would be interested in being part of the study, click here.