ProPublica (which is awesome investigative journalism! Send them money! Unless you don’t have money, in which case don’t!) has been running a series called Brain Wars: How The Military Is Failing Its Wounded.
Traumatic brain injuries are the “signature injury” of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan: roadside bombs release shockwaves that ripple through soldiers’ brains. Although they leave no marks, traumatic brain injuries can have serious mental and physical effects lasting for a lifetime.
The American military, however, has shamefully failed to support soldiers with traumatic brain injuries. Although 115,000 soldiers have suffered traumatic brain injury according to military statistics, ProPublica investigations show that tens of thousands have gone undiagnosed. Some soldiers with traumatic brain injuries have been denied the Purple Heart, which is supposed to recognize injury in combat, because their wounds “weren’t serious enough.” The Pentagon’s primary health plan, Tricare, refuses to cover cognitive rehabilitation therapy, despite its endorsements by top neurologists.
The military is an incredibly masculine organization. Even as it has included women within the military (not without a fight, of course), it has kept its adherence to the traits of hegemonic masculinity: courage, hierarchy, strength, toughness, authority, violence. Many of these are positive and necessary for fighting and winning.
However, in addition to the positive traits of masculinity, the masculinization of the military has preserved many of its most destructive traits. NSWATM has covered, ad nauseam, the gender conditioning men receive to “tough it out,” to not go to the doctor, to refuse to take care of their health, because injury means weakness and weakness is unmasculine. The military’s attitude towards soldiers with traumatic brain injury exhibits the same nasty belief. If they were real soldiers (compare: real men), they wouldn’t have these injuries– particularly injuries they might as well be making up, since no one can see them.
One of the key insights, to me, of the concept of hegemonic masculinity is that maleness is not privileged; certain kinds of maleness are privileged. Nowhere is this more true than war. War is old men talking and young men dying, white men talking and men of color dying, rich men talking and poor men dying. Hegemonically masculine men can send (some) less hegemonically masculine men off to die for their wealth or glory or political power. And in general they don’t give a fuck what happens to the disposable men once they’ve been used up.
But now it’s gender-equal! Now poor women and young women and women of color can die for the greater good of hegemonically masculine men too! We are also free to ignore their injuries once they return! Yaaaaaay!
The “disposable male” has become the “disposable soldier.” This is the wrong fucking kind of gender equality.
Commendably, thanks to ProPublica’s investigation work, many of the problems suffered by soldiers with traumatic brain injuries have been ameliorated. The director of the Defense Center for Excellence, which researches and treats brain injuries and PTSD, unexpectedly stepped down. More that 70 US senators and representatives have called for Tricare to cover cognitive rehabilitation therapy; congresspeople in districts close to Fort Bliss, covered in ProPublica’s story, have sent a letter demanding answers from medical officials about the treatment of soldiers. New guidelines on the award of the Purple Heart will make sure that soldiers with traumatic brain injury are not denied the medal they deserve.
Most shockingly to me, new Pentagon policy states that soldiers must have 24 hours rest after a mild traumatic brain injury (also known as a concussion) and a complete neurological exam after three concussions in a year. I’m not sure whether I’m more pleased that they’ve created this policy or disappointed that this is apparently new. The health of our soldiers should be one of the military’s first concerns, as opposed to its hundred and first.
However, I encourage the Americans in our audience to write to their congresspeople about the importance of proper treatment for soldiers with traumatic brain injuries and to encourage them to keep the pressure up on the Pentagon.