The pressure wave left Christina Cain dazed and disoriented for at least a few seconds. It was November 2009, and Cain’s truck had just been hit with a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Nobody was killed, but Cain was left with a mild traumatic brain injury, something that affects her classroom experience today.

Student veterans like Cain may have the opportunity to receive help with injuries like TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder from the University of Montana's proposed Neural Injury Center.

Several years ago, faculty in the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science realized student veterans weren’t staying enrolled in school. After investigating further, they found that veterans either weren’t connecting with other students or that they were struggling from issues caused by neural damage.

“As we’ve come to look into the problem more, a lot of them are suffering with sub-clinical signs of PTSD and TBI; so that things such as being able to organize your class schedule, being able to show up to classes on time, subtle cognitive deficits that we call executive functioning, they were struggling with, and in many cases unbeknownst to them," said Charles Leonard, a neuroscience professor and the proposed director of the NIC. 

To combat the issues student veterans face, Reed Humphrey, physical therapy professor and chair of the school, put forward the Neural Injury Center, a collaborative effort between researchers. 

The proposed center will serve two purposes. It will help veterans identify issues caused by neurologic injuries and connect them with community resources. Second, it will provide collaboration and communication between researchers to study the science behind the mental problems veterans can face.

“We’re going to be a centralized location for evaluation, for screening," Leonard said.

He also hopes to involve veterans in ongoing studies about these kinds of injuries. Leonard said he hopes these studies will be beneficial to both researchers and veterans.

UM’s faculty Senate approved the NIC last week, and it is expected to go in front of the Board of Regents in January.

More than 600 veterans are studying at UM. Len Leibinger, director of the UM Veterans Education and Transition Services office, said it’s common for a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan to struggle with some type of neurological injury.

Cain, now a junior studying biology, said she has many friends who haven’t sought help from VETS office, fearing a diagnosis of TBI or PTSD could jeopardize their future employment. The NIC will offer anonymous screenings to identify these problems.

As trends are identified, Leonard said the center may start clinics to assist with veterans’ issues.

To start, the NIC will launch a website to spread word about the program. The website will also serve to identify any veterans willing to volunteer for ongoing scientific studies. Any veterans who use the website will have the opportunity to provide feedback on what they want out of the program.  

Leibinger said UM received $350,000 for veterans services this year and $85,000 of that is going toward funding the NIC to help students like Cain.

“Especially in the veteran community you have a lot of people who have a TBI,” Cain said. “(The center) would benefit a lot of us, and I think there needs to be more research into (these injuries).”

Cain said she has also sustained several concussions that may contribute to her current trials, but it’s hard to distinguish between the effects of the concussions and the TBI.

She received help from Veterans Affairs for her trauma and paid out of pocket to see neurologists in Missoula about her TBI. But she said she still struggles in the classroom.

“A big thing that I have, and I think it’s true for a lot of vets, I have a really hard time staying focused in lectures because there’s a lot of other things going on in the classroom,” Cain said.


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