Special Report: Heavy Impacts and Hidden Scars


VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — When you’re a SEAL, you don’t have to be at war to feel the effects of war. Ever since their beginning in the early 1960s, they’ve worked with underwater demolition, weapons, the potential for hard landings from aircraft, and the jostling of boats on rough seas.

And that’s just the training.

The commanding officer of about 900 SEALS based at Joint Expeditionary Base – Little Creek in Virginia Beach says the tradition has always been to push forward.

“Before, if you got what we call ‘get your bell rung’ and you’re a little dizzy after a blast or something that happened, you might just say well I’m not gonna tell anybody about that and keep going,” said Captain Jamie Sands. “I don’t want to be viewed as weak, or I don’t want to slow down the train.”

Dr. David Cifu says he has seen that attitude too. He studies brain injury among veterans for the Veterans Administration and the VCU Medical Center.

“Sometimes in the heat of battle or activity or peer pressure, (SEALs) will brush off what clearly to everyone else in the world would be a traumatic event and they’ll say ‘no, I’m good.’ “

But now with greater awareness of the need to monitor brain health the Navy has begun neuro-cognitive awareness testing, or NCAT.  

“The biggest change was our senior leadership in the force, they just get it. “

Some of the testing involves questions about self-awareness, matching numbers and symbols, and recognizing visual patterns. Every SEAL, based both here and in San Diego, must get baseline brain metrics, and then get re-checked every two years.

“The NCATs are screening devices,” said Captain Gary Hoyt, a Navy psychologist based in San Diego. “They do not take the place of any clinical evaluation. They’re purely screening devices to track change over time.”

The re-check would happen sooner if the operator is involved in a blast exposure or other traumatic event. Cifu says the program would be even better if the regular screenings happened more often.

“I would advocate no less than once a year for these evaluations.”

When a SEAL from Little Creek gets a concussion he would go to Portsmouth Naval Hospital. Sands says the Navy has streamlined that process.

“We want to make it agile, so that individual can move quickly between the hospital, and not have to come off the proverbial train and maintain his status as a warfighter.”

Officers say the new ethic from the head of Special Warfare, Admiral Tim Szymanski — that people are more important than hardware — is changing minds.

“He has said hey 50 percent of the force is family. And he’s really talking about we want to make sure that you’re doing well after your career,” Hoyt said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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