WASHINGTON - The number of U.S. troops who have suffered wartime brain injuries may be as high as 360,000 and could cast more attention on such injuries among civilians, Defense Department doctors said Wednesday.
The estimate of the number injured - the vast majority of them suffering concussions - represents 20 percent of the roughly 1.8 million men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where blast injuries are common from roadside bombs and other explosives, the doctors said.
The estimate came in a Pentagon news conference on activities planned this month to bring attention to brain injuries. The doctors said the number could be as low as 180,000, based on estimates that between 10 percent and 20 percent of troops might have received such injuries.
The previous high estimate offered publicly was 320,000 in a study released a year ago by the private Rand Corp. It was based on about 1.6 million who had done tours of duty in the wars from late 2001.
Though so-called "traumatic" brain injury can range from a mild form such as concussions to severe forms with penetrating head wounds, officials said the majority of injuries among troops are the mild form.
The overwhelming majority heal - and heal without treatment - but an estimated 45,000 to 90,000 troops have suffered more severe and lasting symptoms, said Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, the head of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
The Army alone spent $242 million last year for staff, facilities and programs to serve troops with brain injuries, said Lt. Col. Lynne M. Lowe of the Army surgeon general's office.
Sutton said that, as in previous wars, the research and other work being done by the military will eventually benefit the civilian world. Whether the injuries occur while people ride bicycles, play football, skateboard or ski, "we know that this is an issue across the country," she said.
"In the past ... it was difficult to get this on the radar screen," said Dr. James Kelly, director of the National Intrepid Center for brain injuries and psychological health. "Brain injury was not recognized as a problem ... of any consequence and was, especially in the sports community, often dismissed or trivialized."
"I think that now you're seeing it being taken very seriously," Kelly said. "The wartime experience has been a big part of that."