Marines who suffered battlefield concussions in Iraq and Afghanistan may now qualify for one of the nation's most familiar military honors, according to a new policy.
Corps officials announced last month that Marines who sustained mild traumatic brain injuries in combat are now eligible to receive the Purple Heart. The Purple Heart is awarded to servicemembers across all branches of the military who were wounded or killed by enemy fire.
Under the new policy, Marines can qualify for the medal if a medical officer determines he is not fit for full duty "due to persistent signs, symptoms or findings of functional impairment for a period greater than 48 hours from the time of the concussive incident," according to the order.
The recent revision, retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001, eliminates the requirement that the medal only be awarded for mild traumatic brain injury if the Marine lost consciousness.
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The policy shift represents recent advances in medical research and the Corps' own understanding of combat-related brain injuries, said Maj. Shawn Haney, spokeswoman for Manpower and Reserve Affairs in Quantico, Va.
"I could suffer a TBI and lose consciousness, and you can be in the same blast, not lose consciousness, and still suffer from a worse case of TBI," Haney said.
Considered by medical experts to be the "signature wound" of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, traumatic brain injury can result in nausea, dizziness, speech problems and memory loss. It has been linked to cases of clinical depression and suicide among servicemembers, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center.
Explosions are the leading cause of TBI for active-duty military personnel in war zones, according to the center.
Haney said it is unclear how many former and active-duty Marines are now eligible for the medal, but press reports indicate thousands may qualify.
About 29,000 Marines have been diagnosed with varying forms of TBI since Sept. 11, 2001, according to Stars and Stripes. Only 9,470 have received Purple Hearts during the same period, the newspaper reported.
"We have awarded Purple Hearts for mild TBI in the past," Haney said. "We have no way of knowing exactly how many (Marines are now eligible), but going forward, we're going to be awarding a lot more."
The Army announced a similar policy change last month.