May 6, 2013 12:08 pm
In the past few years, it’s become clear that the NFL has a problem with brain injury. Repeated, low level head trauma can cause serious long term side effects on players, and the league has committed research money to figure out how bad those side effects are and what can be done to avoid them. But for all you hear about the football players, the largest group of people dealing with traumatic head injury—soldiers—often goes unnoticed.
60 Minutes recently ran a piece about the thousands of soldiers who return home from combat with traumatic brain injuries. Many don’t even recognize what exactly they’re suffering from:
Last year, the Department of Veteran Affairs proposed new regulations to help veterans get health care and compensation for those injuries—problems like Parkinsonism, seizures, dementias, depression and hormone deficiencies. The New York Times reports:
Since 2000, more than 250,000 service members — some still on active duty — have received diagnoses of traumatic brain injury, or T.B.I., according to the Defense Department. Though T.B.I. is commonly viewed as resulting from blast exposure, the vast majority of those injuries were diagnosed in nondeployed troops who were involved in vehicle crashes, training accidents or sports injuries.
The organization American Veterans with Brain Injuries (AVBI) was founded in 2004 to address the growing numbers of veterans returning with these brain injuries. They put together this slide show to give a face to the thousands of veterans dealing with the side effects:
In the 60 Minutes piece, veterans explain why these brain injuries are so subtly terrible. One soldier told reporters, “If I could trade traumatic brain injury for a single-leg amputation I’d probably do that in a second.” The military is so used to treating visible wounds, the 60 Minutes story argues, that it forgets about the ones it can’t see. “In the military, concussion was an invisible — and therefore neglected — wound.”
Since the military wasn’t dealing with it, Arnold Fisher, a long time patron of the military, decided to create a foundation for these veterans called Make it Visible. They build health centers for veterans around the country. “People say to me the government should be doing this. Yeah, the government should be doing this, but they’re not. So we do it,” he told 60 Minutes.
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May 2, 2013 10:37 am
Most of us spend our time on the internet looking at cat videos and long lists of animals in different types of sweaters. But some people, like soldiers, actually use the internet for critical work—communicating with one another, controlling objects and weapons and calculating positions. As important as the internet has become to soldiers, they’re not exactly in locations where setting up an internet connection is easy, and DARPA is looking for ways to make the battlefield internet better.
Normally, soldiers use something like Mobile ad hoc networks (MANET), a way to build a network without cable lines or infrastructure. Made up of a set of nodes, the MANET structure simply sends information between individuals, rather than going through a main router like your internet does. But the number of nodes that MANET can deal with tops off at about 50, and there are often more than 50 soldiers moving about at a time.
Citing 20 years of failure in adapting internet-based ideas task, DARPA is soliciting research paper abstracts that look elsewhere, and they’re dreaming big. A small, 50 node network is useful, but with more nodes a much larger force could benefit from increased battlefield awareness on a tremendous scale, and could do so as events unfold, rather than waiting for information sent up to headquarters to be sent back down again.
In its call for research help, DARPA frames the problem this way:
Are large scale Mobile Ad-hoc Networks (MANET) possible? If so, what problems does the industry have to solve and what software needs to be developed? DARPA’s goal is to field MANETs with 1000- 5000 nodes. But it is difficult to field a MANET with 50 nodes. Why is this? DARPA plans to host a symposium to explore this question.
What they don’t want, they say, is a tweaked version of what they already have. “It is not about redesigning or rearchitecting the Internet; there are other ongoing efforts focused here. It is not about developing protocols for use in commercial applications or in areas with well supported, ubiquitous infrastructure,” the report explains.
Now, the idea of a battlefield internet isn’t new, of course. And some argue that thinking of each soldier as a node in a network is misguided. David Axe at the Center for Public Integrity writes:
By transforming every soldier into a communications node, capable of transmitting and receiving large volumes of data from many sources, Army leaders imagined they could chart the path to an era of high-tech wars in which information was as important as bullets and shells.
But in doing so, the planners went the wrong way, according to independent analysts. Instead of repairing their communications problems with lighter, easier-to-use radios, and a simpler network, they chose heavier, more complex devices.
But DARPA says that the real issue is increasing the number of nodes. If each soldier can become a node, the issue of complexity of battle becomes less of an issue. Mark Rich, a program manager at DARPA, said, “A MANET of a thousand nodes could support an entire battalion without the need for manual network setup, management and maintenance that comes from ‘switchboard’-era communications. This could provide more troops with robust services such as real-time video imagery, enhanced situational awareness and other services that we have not yet imagined.”
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April 29, 2013 1:57 pm
Margot Woelk, now 95, is the last surviving member of a team tasked with keeping Hitler alive as he hunkered down in the Wolf’s Lair in the final chapters of World War II. For nearly all her life, says the Associated Press, Woelk kept quiet about her wartime activities. But now, in her old age, she wants to talk, and her stories are filled with details of life in Hitler’s fortress and about living a life of “constant fear.”
Woelk was the sole survivor of the Nazi leader’s poison paranoia. In her mid-20s, she was swept away from her home in Ratensburg (now Ketrzyn, Poland), “drafted into civilian service” to join 14 other women in the dictator’s wartime bunker where she and the others were charged with taste-testing the leader’s meals.
As the war dragged on, food supplies in much of German-occupied territory suffered. Within the Wolf’s Lair, however, “the food was delicious, only the best vegetables, asparagus, bell peppers, everything you can imagine. And always with a side of rice or pasta,” said Woelk.
“He was a vegetarian. He never ate any meat during the entire time I was there,” Woelk said of the Nazi leader. “And Hitler was so paranoid that the British would poison him — that’s why he had 15 girls taste the food before he ate it himself.”
But each meal brought fear, says Woelk. “We knew of all those poisoning rumors and could never enjoy the food. Every day we feared it was going to be our last meal.”
Nearing the end of the war, after tensions mounted following an unsuccessful attempt on Hitler’s life from within the bunker, Woelk fled. When Soviet troops took the Wolf’s Lair a year later, the other taste testers were all shot. But the end of the war was not the end of Woelk’s ordeal, according to the AP. She suffered abuse at the hands of Russian troops long after the war ended, she says:
“For decades, I tried to shake off those memories,” she said. “But they always came back to haunt me at night.”
…Only now in the sunset of her life has she been willing to relate her experiences, which she had buried because of shame and the fear of prosecution for having worked with the Nazis, although she insists she was never a party member.
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April 26, 2013 4:04 pm
In a letter to Congress, writes the Guardian, the White House stated that officials believe, with “varying amounts of confidence,” that the chemical weapon sarin was used in the ongoing conflict in Syria and that the use of this type of weapon “would very likely have originated with” supporters of Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government. The link between the use of sarin and al-Assad is not completely firm, though, and the U.S. Intelligence community is looking for more proof of what’s really going on.
Sarin, wrote Smart News previously, is a nerve agent first developed in 1938 Germany. “A colourless, odourless gas with a lethal dose of just 0.5 mg for an adult human,” sarin, “can be spread as a gaseous vapor, or used to contaminate food. The CDC says that symptoms can arise within seconds, and can include, like VX, convulsions, loss of consciousness, paralysis, and death.” And according to a 2002 article from the New York Times, sarin “dissipates to nondeadly levels after a few hours.”
How exactly are investigators supposed to figure out what’s going on in Syria? According to the Guardian, the United Nations will carry out analyses of soil samples collected in Syria to try to figure out if sarin gas was used. But, says Wired‘s Danger Room, there is another way to check for sarin.
The U.S. military tests for evidence of nerve gas exposure by looking for the presence of the enzyme cholinesterase in red blood cells and in plasma. (Sarin messes with the enzyme, which in turn allows a key neurotransmitter to build up in the body, causing rather awful muscle spasms.) The less cholinesterase they find, they more likely there was a nerve gas hit.
The problem is, some pesticides will also depress cholinesterase. So the military employs a second test. When sarin binds to cholinesterase it loses a fluoride. The pesticides don’t do this. This other test exposes a blood sample to fluoride ions, which reconstitutes sarin if it’s there, in which case it can be detected with mass spectrometry.
Blood samples are drawn from a pricked finger tip into a 10 milliliter tube. They can be kept fresh for about a week before they have to be used in the blood analyzer, a gizmo about the size of a scientific calculator that produces varying shades of yellow depending on the cholinesterase level.
There is still a lot of uncertainty around this news, both about what happened and what, if anything, to do about it. At least there are relatively specific tests that can be done to sort out the first question.
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April 19, 2013 12:55 pm
On Monday afternoon, four hours after the annual Boston marathon began, two bombs exploded in the area just around the finish line, killing three and injuring nearly 200 people. Four days later, one suspect in the bombing attack is dead, and, as of this writing, the city of Boston is in lockdown mode as a manhunt is underway for a second. Authorities have identified the bombing suspects as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, two brothers who moved to the area roughly a decade ago from Makhachkala, Dagestan, a region that is part of the North Caucasus that forms southwestern Russia.
The area has been a hotbed for conflict in recent decades, including terrorist bombings carried out elsewhere in Russia. Starting in 1994, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the First Chechen War broke out. It was during this time that the Tsarnaevs would have grown up. The Council on Foreign Relations:
In the early 1990s, following the Soviet collapse, separatists in the newly formed Russian Federation Republic of Chechnya started an independence movement called the Chechen All-National Congress. Russian President Boris Yeltsin opposed Chechen independence, arguing that Chechnya was an integral part of Russia. From 1994 to 1996, Russia fought Chechen guerillas in a conflict that became known as the First Chechen War. Tens of thousands of civilians died, but Russia failed to win control of Chechnya’s mountainous terrain, giving Chechnya de facto independence. In May 1996, Yeltsin signed a ceasefire with the separatists, and they agreed on a peace treaty the following year.
But violence flared again three years later. In August 1999, Chechen militants invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan to support a local separatist movement. The following month, five bombs exploded in Russia over a ten-day period, killing almost three hundred civilians. Moscow blamed Chechen rebels for the explosions, which comprised the largest coordinated terrorist attack in Russian history. The Dagestan invasion and the Russian bombings prompted Russian forces to launch the Second Chechen War, also known as the War in the North Caucasus. In February 2000, Russia recaptured the Chechen capital of Grozny, destroying a good part of the city center in the process, reasserting direct control over Chechnya. Tens of thousands of Chechens and Russians were killed or wounded in the two wars, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced.
The First Chechen War (so-called, though not actually the first) broke out in 1994, causing more than 300,000 people to flee the region as refugees. The Second Chechen War added to this emigration.
The Chechen’s (or Nokhchi in their own tongue) bid for independence, however, has stretched back hundreds of years. “The Chechens have evidently been in or near their present territory for some 6000 years and perhaps much longer,” says University of Berkeley professor Johanna Nichols. “There is fairly seamless archaeological continuity for the last 8,000 years or more in central Daghestan.”
PBS has a detailed look at the history of the region, tracing the lands change of hands from the 1400s onward, from the Mongols to the Ottoman Empire to the Russians under Ivan the Terrible in 1559.
In 1722, says PBS, “Peter the Great, ever eager for trade and military routes to Persia, invaded Chechnya’s neighbor Daghestan.”
Repulsed by the Daghestanis and Chechen mountain warriors, Russia fell back again, but would press on for the next 50 years with sporadic raids on Chechen and Daghestani territory. In 1783, Russia finally gained a strategic toehold in the Caucasus with the recognition of Georgia, Chechnya’s Christian neighbor to the south, as a Russian protectorate.
In 1784, led by Muslim leader Imam Sheik Mansur, the Chechens took back their land. This struggle went back and forth through the 19th and 20th centuries. Starting in the late 17th century, says Berkeley professor Nichols, the Chechens largely converted to the Sunni branch of Islam. “Islam is now, as it has been since the conversion, moderate but strongly held and a central component of the culture and the ethnic identity,” according to Nichols. Muslim beliefs are common throughout the region, as well as in nearby Turkey.
In 1944, in the midst of World War II, “Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered the Chechens and their Ingush neighbors — some 400,000 people — to be deported to Central Asia and Siberia for “mass collaboration” with invading Nazis.” Evidence to support Stalin’s charges,” however, “remains limited.”
Over the centuries, the motivations for war have varied, from invaders wanting a trading path through the mountains to religious holy wars to pure political oppression.
*This post has been updated for clarity.*
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