National Geographic : 2015 Feb
FROM THE EDITOR Healing Our Soldiers Susan Goldberg, Editor in Chief PHOTO: LYNN JOHNSON The Art of Recovery A longtime Army flight medic, Perry Hopman suffered blast- force injuries while caring for other soldiers. Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert “Bo” Wester (Ret.) was an explosive ordnance disposal technician in Iraq. He faced hundreds of IEDs without incident and a few with grievous consequences. “Most of my injuries are invisible, and the rest are hidden,” he says. Army Maj. Jeff Hall (Ret.) was 35 feet from a car bomb when it went off in a crowded marketplace north of the city of Baghdad. He didn’t lose his arms or his legs or suffer visible wounds. But “I am just not the same human being as I used to be,” he says. Brain injuries caused by the shock waves generated by explosions have become the signature injury of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, leaving hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers and veterans with a life-altering list of de- bilitating conditions, including headaches, seizures, sleep disorders, and memory and cognitive difficulties. The range of symptoms and their similarity to PTSD can complicate diagnosis and treatment. It’s a mystery that has dogged soldiers and scientists since World War I, when exploding artillery shells left men “shell shocked.” Even today “there is no consensus within the medical community about the nature of blast-induced injury or by what mechanism blast force damages the brain,” Caroline Alexander writes in this issue. “As of now, the only wholly reliable method of directly examining the biological effects of blast force on the human brain is autopsy.” Which doesn’t do much for vets like Wester and Hall, who struggle daily. If there isn’t a cure, at least there are ways to cope. At Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, soldiers at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence paint masks that help them reveal their inner feelings. Some were initially dismissive: “Number one, I’m a man, and I don’t like holding a dainty little paintbrush. Number two, I’m not an artist. And number three, I’m not in kindergarten,” said Army Staff Sgt. Perry Hopman. Today he says, “I was wrong ... I think this is what started me kind of opening up and talking about stuff and actu- ally trying to get better.” Major Hall agrees. He painted a gruesome, bloodstained mask—part of the skull missing, brain exposed. “I had seen a person who looked like this,” he explains. “I don’t know why, but that’s what needed to come out of me.” The artwork, he says, is a silent testimony to pain that speaks volumes yet has the capacity to heal. “You can’t put it into words that people will believe, or if you do put it into words, they get tired of it. But the art just expresses itself. It relieves the soldier, because you get tired of trying to explain what is going on in there. The artwork is like a printed page—it is there if you want to read it.” We invite you to read our soldiers’ masks and the stories they tell.