Bill in Congress Would Force Action on U.S. Troops’ Blast Exposure

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Lawmakers from both parties plan to introduce a sweeping bill in Congress on Wednesday that would force the military for the first time to track and limit troops’ exposure to damaging shock waves from firing their own weapons.

Routine exposure to blasts in training and combat was long thought to be safe. But research suggests that over time, exposure to repeated blasts can cause microscopic brain injuries that lead to profound mental problems, like mood swings, insomnia, substance abuse, panic attacks and suicide.

The bill, known as the Blast Overpressure Safety Act, would order the military to begin recording troops’ individual blast exposures in training and regularly give exposed troops neurocognitive tests to check for signs of possible injuries. It would also require military medical personnel to be trained in recognizing injuries from repeated blast exposure, which are currently often misdiagnosed as behavioral health issues, if they are diagnosed at all.

Senators Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa, plan to introduce the bill in the Senate on Wednesday. Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, plans to introduce a similar bill in the House.

“The Defense Department is not meeting its responsibilities to prevent traumatic brain injuries from blasts,” Senator Warren said in an interview. “We are beginning to understand the scope of the threat, and how devastating the injury can be. But the Department of Defense is not moving with the urgency they need to use.”

The bill would also force the military to change how it designs new weapons. A number of heavy weapons now in wide use produce shock waves far more powerful than are considered safe under current military guidelines. The bill would require the military to modify some existing weapons to reduce the strength of their blasts, and take into account, for the first time, the need to minimize brain-damaging blast waves when acquiring new weapons.

The military currently uses a guideline for what blast strength is safe that Pentagon officials openly admit is flawed and not based on evidence. Large numbers of troops exposed to weapons that the guideline says should be safe have suffered blast injuries. The bill would require the military to update the guideline and publicly post blast intensity data for weapons.

It is not the first time that Senators Warren and Ernst have pushed the military to take blast exposure seriously. A 2018 law introduced by the two senators required the military to measure the blast intensity of its weapons and study the effect of blast exposure on troops’ brains. A 2020 law, also introduced by them, required the military to start documenting service members’ blast exposure in their records.

But in the years since those laws were enacted, the military’s response has often been halting and bureaucratic, and few changes have been made to protect troops on the ground.

Even some relatively simple tasks have not been accomplished. The military is now months behind in submitting a congressionally mandated report breaking down suicide risk by occupational specialty — data that may have important implications for understanding the risks of blast exposure.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in February, Senator Warren expressed her frustration to Pentagon officials. “I want to be a partner, but a partner that urges you to move faster,” she said. “We need to do better for our troops, and we need to do it right now.”

In a 15-page letter to Senator Warren this month, the Defense Department laid out a number of new regulations and training initiatives aimed at reducing blast exposure, and said the military was “committed to ensuring the health and well-being of our service members, particularly in promoting warfighter brain health.”

But soldiers and Marines who work with heavy weapons said in recent interviews that they have seen few changes in the field.

Exposure to blast waves can have a disastrous effect on people who have dedicated their lives to military service. Career soldiers often receive the most exposure, and late in their careers begin to fall apart. Their erratic behavior may be seen by commanders and medical workers not as symptoms of brain injury but as willful misconduct. Many of the affected troops are punished, forced out of the military and denied veterans’ medical benefits.

The new bill would require an outside audit by the Government Accountability Office to detail what the military is doing specifically to address the risks of blast exposure. And it would instruct the watchdog agency to determine which military occupations are most at risk of blast exposure, and whether troops who seek help for their injuries face retaliation.

“We’ve had years to study the problem, we’ve collected the data,” Senator Warren said. “Now it’s time to do something about it.”

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