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Local Program Treats Marines Suffering from Brain Injuries

More and more Marines are returning from the war in Iraq with brain injuries. Recovering from such trauma can be a long and frustrating process. Some Camp Pendleton Marines are getting back on track w

More and more Marines are returning from the war in Iraq with brain injuries. Recovering from such trauma can be a long and frustrating process. Some Camp Pendleton Marines are getting back on track with help from a special program at Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

Keene Sherburne used to love pushing the envelope on his snowboard. These days, the Marine lance corporal is lucky if he can perform the simplest of physical tasks.

A couple of times a week, Sherburne gets to throw punches with a recreational therapist. It’s part of an outpatient brain injury rehab program at Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas.


The fact that Sherburne’s here at all is something of a miracle. Last spring, the 20-year-old was on patrol in Iraq, just outside of Fallouja. Suddenly, a bomb exploded under his vehicle.

Sherburne: And it picked up my Humvee and just tossed it like a toy. As it got flipped over, I got blown out of the turret. The gunner behind me said I got blown like 30 feet in the air.  

Military surgeons have done an exceptional job rebuilding Sherburne’s shattered face and shoulder. He suffered no visible wounds to his brain. But Sherburne says he still can’t think straight.

Sherburne: I have a hard time putting stuff together in my brain a lot. Sometimes when I’m talking, I have a hard time actually getting what I’m trying to say out there. When it comes to reading, I can’t read more than a paragraph before my brain just gets jumbled, and kind of like spins.

Troops Suffering from Brain Injuries

Of the 24,000 wounded troops who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan (as of March 1, 2007), about one-third suffer from some degree of traumatic brain injury

An estimated 30 percent of the troops who engaged in active combat for four months or longer in Iraq and Afghanistan are at risk of potentially disabling neurological disorders


For the first time, the U.S. military is treating more head injuries than chest or abdominal wounds.

Traumatic brain injury, caused by a blow or jolt to the head, often results in severe disability, at times permanent brain damage.

(Information from Department of Veterans Affairs)

Sherburne is one of a number of Marines with brain injuries who are getting help at Scripps Encinitas. Marines are initially screened and treated by naval physicians, and then get referred to Scripps.

Jessica Martinez is Scripps’ lead occupational therapist. She says people who’ve suffered brain trauma face a number of challenges.

Martinez: They have short-term memory loss, they have migraines. They have poor endurance. They have problems with their attention, paying attention to one thing, or to two things, you know shifting between one task and another. Many of them have post-traumatic stress disorder as well.

At Scripps, injured Marines are brought to the hospital three days a week. They get occupational, physical, and speech therapy. Marines get counseling, as well.

Building back Marines’ memory skills is perhaps the toughest task. Scripps therapists use a variety of approaches.

Angie Lehmann and Marines: So what I think we’re going to do is, we can go around and each say something that you might like to put in your pack, and then maybe we’re going to randomly ask you to remember what people said. I’d bring sunblock….

Major general John Paxton Jr. is the commanding general of the 1st Marine division at Camp Pendleton. He says the Corp. is becoming more vigilant about brain injuries. For example, he says commanders in Iraq will order someone who’s been exposed to a blast to go off patrol for awhile.

Paxton Jr.: Maybe a second one will happen, and then we’ll send them in for an advanced of screening and treatment, and maybe either sit them down longer or prohibit them from going out at all.

The goal of the Scripps treatment program is to get Marines ready to go back to active duty. Since the program began last year, 70 percent of these Marines have returned to full-time status.

Therapist Jessica Martinez knows her patients might get hurt again.

Martinez: But you know, our goal is to do what makes them happy. These guys want to get back to their jobs, they want to get back to combat. They’re disappointed when they can’t be deployed. Those are what their goals are, so that’s what we focus on, and if success for them is going back to their unit and being deployed, then that’s success for us.

Keene Sherburne would like nothing more than to get back with his platoon. But that’s not going to happen. He’s getting a medical discharge.

Sherburne is looking forward to going to college, and starting his own business. But he misses his boys.

Sherburne: To watch my buddies going back to Iraq, without me, is probably the worst thing. I mean we came in together. And it just wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

The Pentagon says about 20 percent of front-line combat troops in Iraq have received concussions. Researchers say the vast majority of those who’ve suffered brain trauma still feel the effects months after the injury.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.