Repeated blast exposure linked to brain damage in Navy SEALs, military lab finds

“This isn’t a surprise. I think maybe this is the first time we’ve had a collection of brains, but we didn’t need that collection of brains to know that this was happening," a doctor told NBC 7

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When soldiers fire their weapons, the kickback is a lot stronger and damaging than previously thought. A military lab found that repetitive low-level blasts in training — not enemy fire or combat — are likely the cause of brain damage in special forces like the Navy SEALs, The New York Times first reported.

NBC 7 spoke with a doctor who says the finding is not a bombshell revelation but just proof of what many in the mental health industry have already been seeing and treating.

“In those energy intense blasts, there’s different levels of density and timing, so the brain is a fluid-filled tissue that’s moving and rattling inside the brain, essentially, and it can cause inflammation, scarring patterns," Dr. Karen DeCocker, director of advanced practitioners DNP, PMHNP, CNM at Stella Center, told NBC 7.

DeCocker has treated Navy SEALs, Delta Force, Rangers and elite soldiers for years.

“The suffering of the change in their cognitive functioning, their anxiety levels, depression levels, when you’re not sleeping,” said DeCocker, describing the many symptoms of brain damage.

The Times reported at least 12 Navy SEALs have died by suicide in the last decade. Most of their brains showed visible damage from repeated blast exposure.

“This isn’t a surprise," DeCocker said. "I think maybe this is the first time we’ve had a collection of brains, but we didn’t need that collection of brains to know that this was happening."

At the Stella Center, including a newly-opened location in San Diego, physicians treat injuries in the brain using several techniques like ketamine infusion therapy to stop the fight or flight response. They also use the Dual Sympathetic
Reset or DSR, which are anesthetic injections next to the sympathetic nerves in the neck that regulate heart rate, blood pressure and sweating. There are more treatments, but not all are covered by insurance or the VA.

“Oftentimes, they’re left to very nominal kinds of things like, 'Try this medication. Try this medication and this medication and this medication,' and patients are not getting better because we’re not treating the biological pieces like the scarring in the brain,” DeCocker said. “It’s a real travesty that 90% of our special operators are treated by organizations that care about them, not the veteran system or the private healthcare, or anything like that.”

While the VA has made strides to address the blast exposure, DeCocker hopes that more work will be done to connect veterans and active military — really anyone that needs help — with resources.

NBC 7 reached out to the VA communications department and is waiting to hear back.

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