During my 13-year career as a Marine Corps infantryman, my primary weapons system was the MK-153 Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon, commonly known as the SMAW. This weapon is basically a hand-held rocket launcher that produces a booming, violent report when fired, as its name indicates, from the shoulder. A recent study by the Center for a New American Security found that, “these bazooka-like weapons pose a hazard because they are powered by an explosion just inches from the operator's head”. The blast overpressure generated by this type of rocket launch is substantial and has, according to this study, been associated with short term cognitive deficits. This means that the dizziness and nausea I felt after a day of sustained firing was most likely attributable to the huge explosions going off right next to my right ear. This indicates that I probably sustained multiple concussions during my time as a SMAW gunner. This implies that I, most likely, am presently dealing with the repercussions of some form of traumatic brain injury (TBI). What does this suggest about my future?
I am not looking for sympathy here. I made the conscious decision to enlist in the Marines and would do it again without blinking an eye. I would not be the man I am today if I never took that short, fun trip to Parris Island in 1996. My service informs my existence. I would never trade it...not for anything, not for any reason. However, these days I notice that I pause in conversation to search for words that I used to be able to effortlessly snatch out of thin air. I sometimes need to critically think through tasks that were once child’s play. I was a voracious reader as a younger man; now, I find that my attention wanders if I try to chop through a good book in one sitting. These things may just be the vagaries of my advanced age of 46. They may have nothing to do with “the cumulative effects on the brain of repeat heavy weapons firing”. But, what if they do? Where does that leave me?
It leaves me to wonder if some of the idiosyncrasies I’ve picked up over the years are attributable to a little touch of TBI. I was always irritable...ask anyone...but, nowadays it tends to grow to outsized proportions. And it lingers. Too much bright light for too long makes my head hurt. I applied for a position with the state some years ago and was not hired because I failed the hearing test. Repeatedly. It is presently 3:23 am. I have not been to sleep tonight and probably will not go. Again, I ask for no sympathy, only understanding. If I am a step slow or a fraction off or drop a comma in the next paragraph, please do not judge me poorly. I think I may have hurt my head.
The findings in the Protecting Warfighters from Blast Injury study are fascinating and the suggestions made to mitigate some of the damage seem reasonable. The science behind this research is constantly evolving and may lead to any number of future outcomes. I hold out the sincere hope that the SMAW gunners of today and tomorrow are positively affected by the changes that are sure to come to equipment, weaponry and tactics moving forward. I am perfectly willing to be a part of that positive change; I plan to donate my brain to science when my time here is done so that it can be studied as well. I can only hope that my fellow service members are not living with ailments that they cannot understand and are not able to shake. Call me if you are...I might have some experience with what you are going through.