Marines may face memory loss and brain from firing rocket launchers

Firing ultra-powerful rocket launchers could leave US Marines with memory loss and brain damage and with few options to receive proper care.

Currently, the majority of military men and women tested and treated for traumatic brain injuries at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs served in combat.

But a growing number of service members say that just participating in training exercises where they fired launchers and set off explosives have left them with physical and neurological problems.

However, due to the lack of studies on the subject, they often pay for scans and test to diagnose a TBI directly out-of-pocket.

Two former Marines told NPR that they fired hundreds of rounds during military drills over a span of two years and now struggle with balance, concentration, spatial awareness and memory. 

Firing ultra-powerful rocket launchers could leave US Marines with memory loss and brain damage (Pictured, a Marine fires an M72A7 rocket launcher in October 2017)

Several studies have been done to show the short-term of effects of firing these heavy-duty weapons.

A 2016 study published in the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology found that service members who were exposed to more blast exposure from these high-grade weapons suffered problems with memory and reaction times.

Another study published in the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation in 2015 found that repeated exposure to low-level blasts showed symptoms similar to a concussion, including nausea, lightheadness and confusion. 

There have been no little to no research however o any type of long-term brain damage that is sustained.

Chris Ferrari and Daniel, gunners in the Marine Corps who trained all over the world, told NPR that they believe they did suffer injuries that have impacted them decades later.

During their time in the Marines in the 1990s, the pair would often fire a type of weapon known as the Mk 153 Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon, or SMAW for short.

It has a range of as far as 550 yards and has the power to destroy objects such as bunkers or tanks.

The pair told the radio station at they felt their brains ‘rattle’ during the hundreds rounds they fired over the course of two years.   

Hearing loss is common among military men and women, and therefore there is a limit on how many times a weapon can be fired in a day as well as required hearing protection.

But there have never been any protocols issued due to a fear of brain damage in service members.   

Daniel told NPR that when he was serving in the Marines, nobody in top command ever discussed safety during the exercises.

‘I remember they were saying you’re only allowed to shoot three of these things a day because it’s, like, really bad for you,’ he said.

‘And then I would shoot three and then [Chris] would shoot three. And then the guys 10 feet from us would shoot six and then the other team would shoot six.’

Chris said he would experience several headaches and the inability to concentrate. Daniel added that sometimes he would feel dizzy and nauseous.   

Neither of the men has fired one of the weapons or set of explosives in almost 20 years but both say they suffer from problems. 

Daniel says his memory is not as good as it used to be while Chris says he has trouble concentrating and controlling emotions. 

Both have trouble keeping their balance and lose their sense of spatial orientation.

Then there’s the problem of care. The Department of Veterans Affairs currently gives priority treatments to those who can prove their medical problems are linked to their service.

Because of the lack of studies conclusively proving that firing weapons leads to long-term brain damage, Daniel says he has been asked by the VA to pay out of pocket for various tests.

Dr Joel Scholten told NPR that there are current studies being done to see if the guidelines at VA of who gets tested for traumatic brain injuries should be changed.

‘In the next iteration, will we or should we expand to include training exposures?’ Scholten says. ‘Possibly so.’