Tampa researchers hope to improve military combat helmets by studying high school football players

TAMPA - Retired US Army soldier, Greg Amira, shipped off to Iraq in 2006, where he survived 3 IED explosions.

"In a joking way, we'd say you get the 'wuh wuh wuhs'," he remembered. "Because after the hit, you hear, 'wuh wuh wuh'."

Doctors diagnosed Amira with a traumatic brain injury, or TBI.  Not because any objects hit his head, but because of the force of the blast.

"It causes a shearing event, which means the brain doesn't move as fast as the skull around it," explained Dr. Joseph Gutmann, senior researcher for James Haley Veterans Hospital.

"Because the brain doesn't have any bone inside of it, it tries to rotate like Jello in a bowl," explained Dr. Gutmann's research partner, Dr. John Lloyd.

Though TBI is a common injury in veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, doctors have only recently begun to study it.

"Sometimes you have words you can't get out of your mouth," Amira said. "You're confused. You're constantly forgetful."

Thanks to recent medical advances, combat veterans' bodies are surviving blasts like never before, but their brains still present a mystery.

"We knew that concussions were bad," Dr. Gutmann said. "We knew damage was being done."

But just how bad, Dr. Gutmann says, no one really knew, so he and Dr. Lloyd turned to football.

Those helmets have holes that allow pressure to escape, unlike military helmets that essentially turn into parachutes.

"It can literally drag that soldier back very forcefully," Dr. Lloyd said.  "Current helmet technology is not based upon the current war but the previous war."

By studying high school football players in Florida, the team is able to measure the speed of a head's rotation for the first time. They attach sensors to players' heads, and a computer in their padding. It records the velocity at which their heads twist upon impact.

Their hope is to develop new helmets to better protect soldiers like Amira, who hasn't read a book in 7 years because he can't retain any information. He often blacks out, and admits he's late to everything. Sometimes, he says, he wishes he'd lost a limb instead.

"Being able to read again, being able to sit through a two-hour movie without turning to my daughter and asking, 'Who is that?' and she's like, 'Shh!'" he laughed.

But Amira's first TBI didn't come from war.

"You run to a catastrophe," Amira said. "You don't run away."

The first blast he survived came on 9/11, while helping people escape the World Trade Center attacks.

"We put ourselves in harm's way on purpose," he said. "It's just instilled in you to go out and help other people. In doing so, you might get harmed yourself."

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