If war is hell, how hellish should training be?

First there was Agent Orange Syndrome. Then Gulf War Syndrome. Next up: training syndrome. Specifically, shoulder-mounted cannon training syndrome.

Over the years, the Veterans Health Administration has been accosted with large numbers of veterans claiming service-related illnesses. Unlike injuries from explosives or bullets, vets claim these syndromes on empirical evidence. Eventually, VA has conceded and granted medical benefits.

Today, VA lists 14 diseases linked to the Vietnam-era herbicide. Most of them are cancers in various parts of the body. In fact, Vietnamese people themselves claim illnesses from the defoliant sprayed by U.S. aircraft.

For years after the 1990-1991 Operation Desert Storm, veterans claimed a variety of illnesses. After long resistance, VA recognized Gulf War Syndrome, more or less. It doesn’t use that term. But it’s willing to treat veterans who don’t have to prove a cause-and-effect.

Treatment is neither easy nor cheap. It has scale. Some 850,000 Vietnam-era veterans who were actually in Vietnam may still be alive.  Some 700,000 saw active duty in Desert Storm. Not that every one will have symptoms or file a claim, but the numbers are significant.

Now evidence seems to point to a new syndrome — traumatic brain injury occurring during training. Both the Army and Marine Corps regularly train a portion of their troops to use really big rifles. More shoulder-mounted cannons, these guns fire with a great deal of force. They include a version of the Carl Gustav recoilless rifle.

The Center for a New American Security’s Paul Scharre combed through Army records to establish this connection. In my interview with him last month, Scharre, a former Army Ranger, noted CNAS did the study at the Army’s behest. The basic problem is the shell has such a large firing charge, it causes concussions. CNAS recommends limiting the use of full charges during training and redesigning helmets to reduce the effect of concussive blast.

Training shells can substitute in some exercises. I found one video of Marines training with these weapons in which they went through the protocols but used no charge. Pulling the trigger produced just a click. But Scharre said there’s no getting around at least some use of full power shells in training.

Now the Wall Street Journal details the stories of two former service members who have persistent symptoms of traumatic brain injury. Both are having a hard time getting VA to provide disability benefits. One reason is that the Army and Marines don’t keep detailed logs of how many shells an individual fired during training. So cases are hard to prove. But former Marine Parker Dial reports that during training, blood came from his ears after firing a shoulder rocket twice in fast succession.

VA should give benefits to those injured in service, whether in training or otherwise. But the services must do more than maintain their training status quo and leave it to VA to clean up.

Scharre’s report notes that a full head helmet with a face shield can reduce concussion effects. Surely some vendor can develop a new helmet and get it into production. Recall how quickly a gigantic mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle got developed and rushed into production midpoint in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A top-notch motorsport helmet retails for maybe $500.

A revised training protocol for these weapons would also help. Some in Congress are calling for more detailed record-keeping of shots fired. CNAS recommends firing limits, more time between firing full shells, and holding commanders responsible for meeting safe metrics. All of this would take time to implement.

You don’t become a better baseball pitcher by lobbing whiffle balls at 30 mph. You don’t become a better race car driver scooting your Civic in the Wegman’s parking lot. And you don’t become an effective troop by only training with blanks. Still, this seems like a good area for reform.

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