U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) on May 17 unveiled the bipartisan Blast Exposure and Brain Injury Prevention Act of 2018, S. 2883, in an effort to protect servicemembers from brain damage during combat and training.

S. 2883 would require the U.S. Secretary of Defense to submit a plan to improve research and development on therapies for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder and to document information on blast exposures in the service records of military personnel, among other purposes, according to the congressional record.

“Traumatic brain Injury (TBI) is a nearly invisible, yet very serious physical trauma with long-term effects that has become prevalent among hundreds of thousands of service members in recent years,” said Sen. Ernst, who in 2014 became the first female combat veteran elected to serve in the U.S. Senate.

After receiving an undergraduate degree from Iowa State University, Ernst had joined the U.S. Army Reserves. In 2003, she served as a company commander in Kuwait and Iraq, leading 150 Iowa Army National Guardsmen during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Ernst retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard after 23 years of military service.

“As a grateful nation, it is our job to ensure the safety and health of our men and women in uniform as they defend our country,” said Sen. Ernst, the original cosponsor of S. 2883, which was introduced by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

S. 2883 would improve research on TBI among servicemembers and strengthen the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) capacity to monitor, track and prevent blast pressure exposure, according to a summary provided by Sen. Ernst’s staff.

Since 2000, more than 370,000 servicemembers have received a first-time TBI diagnosis, most often resulting from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center.

“The Blast Exposure and Brain Injury Prevention Act addresses the serious threat posed by TBI in combat and in training, and will provide the Department of Defense with greater guidance to treat, but most importantly prevent TBI,” Sen. Ernst added.

Sen. Warren said it’s important that DOD “better understand how to prevent and treat blast exposure in order to give our service members the care they need and deserve.”

While TBI is mainly associated with blunt physical head injuries, recent research indicates that blast waves from minor explosions also may produce TBI, according to a one-page information summary provided by Sen. Warren’s office. Such blast overpressure, which is caused by shock waves that exceed normal atmospheric values, according to the summary, harms the brain by moving it around inside the skull and by damaging it at the sub-cellular level.

Battlefield IEDs cause blast pressure exposure, but it also occurs during smaller concussive events, such as when soldiers are firing artillery and other heavy-caliber weapons, the summary says. The DOD needs to be able to collect sufficient data on such events during soldiers’ military service to better inform their TBI prevention research, the senators said.

S. 2883 has been referred to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee for consideration.