The only thing remarkable about their deployments was the sheer number of artillery rounds they had fired

Thursday, November 9th, 2023

An investigation by the New York Times found that many of the troops sent to bombard the Islamic State in 2016 and 2017 returned to the United States plagued by nightmares, panic attacks, depression and, in a few cases, hallucinations:

Interviews with more than 40 gun crew veterans and their families in 16 states found that the military repeatedly struggled to determine what was wrong after the troops returned from Syria and Iraq.

All the gun crews filled out questionnaires to screen for post-traumatic stress disorder and took tests to detect signs of traumatic brain injuries from enemy explosions. But the crews had been miles away from the front lines when they fired their long-range cannons, and most never saw direct fighting or suffered the kinds of combat injuries that the tests were designed to look for.

A few gun crew members were eventually given diagnoses of PTSD, but to the crews, that didn’t make much sense. They hadn’t, in most cases, even seen the enemy.

The only thing remarkable about their deployments was the sheer number of artillery rounds they had fired.

The United States had made a strategic decision to avoid sending large numbers of ground troops to fight the Islamic State, and instead relied on airstrikes and a handful of powerful artillery batteries to, as one retired general said at the time, “pound the bejesus out of them.” The strategy worked: Islamic State positions were all but eradicated, and hardly any U.S. troops were killed.

But it meant that a small number of troops had to fire tens of thousands of high-explosive shells — far more rounds per crew member, experts say, than any U.S. artillery battery had fired at least since the Vietnam War.

Military guidelines say that firing all those rounds is safe. What happened to the crews suggests that those guidelines were wrong.

The cannon blasts were strong enough to hurl a 100-pound round 15 miles, and each unleashed a shock wave that shot through the crew members’ bodies, vibrating bone, punching lungs and hearts, and whipping at cruise-missile speeds through the most delicate organ of all: the brain.

More than a year after Marines started experiencing problems, the Marine Corps leadership tried to piece together what was happening by ordering a study of one of the hardest-hit units, Fox Battery, 2nd Battalion, 10th Marines.

The research was limited to reviewing the troops’ medical records. No Marines were examined or interviewed. Even so, the report, published in 2019, made a startling finding: The gun crews were being hurt by their own weapons.

More than half the Marines in the battery had eventually received diagnoses of traumatic brain injuries, according to a briefing prepared for Marine Corps headquarters. The report warned that the experience in Syria showed that firing a high number of rounds, day after day, could incapacitate crews “faster than combat replacements can be trained to replace them.”

The military did not seem to be taking the threat seriously, the briefing cautioned: Safety training — both for gun crews and medical personnel — was so deficient, it said, that the risks of repeated blast exposure “are seemingly ignored.”


The military for generations set maximum safe blast-exposure levels for eardrums and lungs but never for brains. Anything that didn’t leave troops dazed was generally considered safe. But that has recently changed.

Today, shooters wear hearing protection, even when shooting relatively low-power guns, like pistols, alone, outdoors, but it wasn’t that long ago that a machine-gunner was supposed to tough it out. The military didn’t address the problem until a new technology made it impossible to ignore.


  1. Adept says:

    The Army commissioned a study on this problem a few years ago. It might be of interest: Neurological Effects of Repeated Exposure to Military Occupational Levels of Blast.

    Granted, they didn’t come to much of a conclusion, but they laid out the problem.

    This is very true:

    “Helmets (e.g., Advanced Combat Helmet), are typically designed to protect the wearer from head trauma due to projectiles rather than blast exposure and may sometimes even amplify blast exposure”

    The solution — such as it is, and if indeed a “solution” is required — probably lies in the adoption of a sealed helmet for artillery and heavy weapons crews. Something to prevent blast waves from making contact with, and flexing, the human face and skull. (See also: Skull Flexure from Blast Waves.) EOD techs are already issued such things, but they expect big blasts. An artilleryman variant could be much lighter.

  2. Isegoria says:

    A few years back they found that literal shell shock wasn’t like an ordinary concussion:

    Perl and his lab colleagues recognized that the injury that they were looking at was nothing like concussion. The hallmark of C.T.E. is an abnormal protein called tau, which builds up, usually over years, throughout the cerebral cortex but especially in the temporal lobes, visible across the stained tissue like brown mold. What they found in these traumatic-brain-injury cases was totally different: a dustlike scarring, often at the border between gray matter (where synapses reside) and the white matter that interconnects it. Over the following months, Perl and his team examined several more brains of service members who died well after their blast exposure, including a highly decorated Special Operations Forces soldier who committed suicide. All of them had the same pattern of scarring in the same places, which appeared to correspond to the brain’s centers for sleep, cognition and other classic brain-injury trouble spots.

  3. Isegoria says:

    While ballistic protection provided by helmets has increased significantly since WWI and saved many lives, the modern Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH) did not perform quantitatively or qualitatively better for overhead primary blast at the crown of the head.

  4. Adept says:

    Yeah. Helmets have come a long way from WWI in their ability to protect against ballistic threats (bullets, fragments, shrapnel, etc.) and they’re also way better at protecting their wearers from blunt force trauma, e.g. collisions with a hard surface, on account of their improved padded liners. When it comes to blast wave protection, though, it’s not clear that they’ve improved at all, as you note.

    In fact, it’s not even entirely clear that wearing a modern helmet is better than wearing no helmet at all. See “Factors Contributing to Increased Blast Overpressure Inside Modern Ballistic Helmets” at:

    To summarize: A bare headform was tested alongside a few headforms wearing combat helmets, including the supposedly rifle-rated ECH and the “AirFrame” — a helmet marketed as one that “can reduce the damaging effects of explosive blast waves.”

    Surprisingly, the bare headform performed best by a slight margin, and the “AirFrame” exhibited the worst performance of all by a considerable margin. (!)

    Blast wave performance will improve when it’s added as a requirement to military helmet specifications and rigorously tested for. But, despite blast injuries accounting for 88% of all head and neck injuries in OIF/OEF, I wouldn’t hold my breath. The military has a history of optimizing helmet performance for the wrong things.

    …A light sealed artilleryman’s helmet would probably be a good idea, though. (Or even a coif-like hood — for soft body armor does a good job at damping blast waves.) I ought to try and pitch it and get those darpabux.

  5. VXXC says:


    We can’t do OSHA on the battlefield. But people can and do make a living SELLING THE GOVERNMENT the OSHA solutions.

    The sealed helmet concept would be nice for the lab, the factory, etc.

    Why don’t you try running around and doing the labor a gun crew does or any soldier in a war zone and come back to us on the sealed helmet concept?

    This reminds me of the individual soldier air conditioning unit, a largish can sized apparatus with hoses that went under the body armor to cool us off in our body armor, it’s great if you can just stand there — my platoon tried it.

    Ain’t gonna work so well in combat.

    Then there was the Robbie the Robot suit for gunners…yes, that was real too…

    Then there’s the truly horrific spectacle of soldiers NOT WEARING THEIR SEATBELTS, a favorite peeve of that most peevish of creatures our Sergeant Majors.

    Then there’s the safety belts so we can be seen…


    Are there any other experiments you wish to conduct Doctors Strange?

    As for using artillery instead of infantry…we just got a refresher course on that one in Ukraine, but you’re welcome to lead by example. As it happens we need infantry. Lots.

    And lots more.

  6. Bob Sykes says:

    Considering the volume of Russia’s artillery fire in Ukraine, one has to wonder about the condition of the Russian gun crews.

  7. Freddo says:

    The Russians have a much wider front, and must at least account for enemy counter battery fire or drone activity, so presumably firing at lower intensity and possibly also lower volume per crew.

    But commonly available video footage of the Ukraine front lines do not show any particular care being given on concussive trauma by artillery crews.

  8. VXXC says:

    “…any particular care being given on concussive trauma by artillery crews.”

    I wonder what some think war actually is.

    This is going to be one helluva learning curve for the West. No, you don’t have to sign up. You don’t have to deploy. It’s deploying to you.

    No, no particular care or fuxx are given. We give the fux we can.

    Later, if you make it home or to a hospital far enough and resourced enough to care, they may..

  9. Jim says:


    The federal government has no legitimacy left to spend. What will they do, move me to a closed-air prison from an open-air one? If they send me conscription papers, I will return to sender.

    That isn’t a joke, by the way.

    1. Don’t open any letter from Selective Service. You mustn’t break the seal.
    2. Black out the mailstream barcode and write “return to sender” on the face of the envelope.
    3. Put it back in the mailbox.

    And don’t ever take any paper from anyone you don’t know.

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