In an act of common sense, U.S. troops deploying overseas will now undergo computerized neurological screening before they leave. The aim is to have a baseline measurement of a soldier's brain function in case she or he is wounded. Since a battlefield injury in Afghanistan or Iraq is likely to involve a roadside bomb and a traumatized brain, anything that can improve the treatment of such injuries is highly welcome.
Not to mention long overdue. The invasions of those two countries began in 2001 and 2003, and it wasn't long before brain injuries emerged as the persistent affliction. A study this year by the RAND Corp. found that nearly one in five service members, or about 320,000 people, were likely to have suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq or Afghanistan, but that the majority had never been evaluated for one.
There is no excuse for the delay. As long ago as 1997, after the first Gulf War, President Bill Clinton signed a bill requiring the military to "accurately record the medical condition of members before their deployment." That law was prompted by the mysterious outbreak of ailments known as Gulf War syndrome, and by the bitter legal battles over when and how soldiers had fallen ill.
The test being introduced this summer is called Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics, or ANAM. It measures things like reaction time and memory. It takes 15 to 20 minutes to administer, and is considered a big improvement over pen-and-paper questionnaires. Since brain injuries can manifest themselves in subtle, ignorable ways, like irritability and dizziness, a sophisticated diagnostic tool is essential.
Some advocacy groups are worried that the military might abuse the test to deny future benefits to veterans, by spuriously sniffing out pre-existing conditions. It seems just as likely that the test results could protect soldiers whose claims of mental impairment after battle are challenged.
The Pentagon should spread the test widely and administer it objectively.