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Traumatic brain injury in veterans precursor to Alzheimer's

Navy veteran says 'mind erasure' created traumatic brain injury
Jim Leer
Posted at 10:05 AM, Jan 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-03 19:14:13-05

CINCINNATI — What happened on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that Jim Leer says caused a mind erasure technique to be used on him and others aboard the USS Maddox?

Leer served as a radioman on the U.S.S. Maddox, knowing pretty much everything going on within every operation — often way ahead of the other sailors. For example, Leer said he remembers when the coordinates came across the airwaves for the ship’s next encounter in July 1969.

“That was the wildest bunch of traffic shooting back between us, the Pentagon and the National Security Agency,” Leer said.

Leer said the coordinates were passed on to his executive officer who, after checking the maps himself, came back to Leer and his fellow radio operators.

“You guys sure about this because there's nothing on our map there,” Leer said he remembers being asked.

He’s careful not to go into too much detail about what they encountered on the small island as he has obvious concerns government black suits will be knocking on his door.

Leer said the crew on board of the Maddox were ordered to their quarters and were not allowed to look outside. Those who were involved or had information, he said, had a mind erasure technique used to attempt to eradicate the event from their minds.

“One of the areas of my brain where a lot of it was affected, it's affected my ability to remember my kids growing up,” Leer said. “That's what's really so tough. I found a picture album and I was looking through that, I just started crying. I could not remember any of that.”

The VA requires corroborating evidence to help with service-connected claims, but Leer said proving what he went through became a major challenge as the event was not documented.

“The VA asked me multiple times, you know, did anybody else on the Maddox have memory problems or whatever,” Leer said.

As for the incident Jim Leer experienced, we may have to wait until someone within the small group involved who is still living writes about it. WCPO checked for the USS Maddox ship logs from that period along with other ship activity data and found no record within the National Archives.

Jim and his wife say PET scans and some medical documentation submitted over the years tied to his brain injury have disappeared without a trace. While they were able to corroborate the story enough to satisfy the VA to get benefits, the information does not go any further than that.

The memory issues were ultimately classified as a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, and Leer said the VA approved benefits after what was a lengthy process. Now, he’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, believed to be a direct result of the TBI.

“What we have found is that veterans who have TBI and also post-traumatic stress disorder have a 60% increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease,” said Melissa Dever, program director of the Alzheimer's Association in Cincinnati.

Dever said the personality changes within those with a TBI and/or PTSD can evolve, and when they do, the veteran and their family may not see the changes as a sign of Alzheimer’s.

“They're thinking, well, they're stressed, they're, you know, maybe they've been sick, and so we make all of these excuses and don't always recognize those early signs,” Dever said.

For Leer’s wife, Donna, that’s exactly what she thought when her husband began to change behavior.

“There were times when he would come from one part of the house to the other end, I would be there with my sons or something, and he would just stand there in a doorway. And we said, 'Well, what? Did you have a question,'" she explained. She says he would look confused and say, ‘I don't know.’ It's like that was the very beginning, but at that time, we couldn't identify what it was. We just thought it was a sporadic kind of, you know, he's just not feeling good, or he's tired or whatever.”

She found getting educated more about the disease has helped her and her family better understand what is going on with Leer's journey with Alzheimer’s.

Dever said it is important for veterans with a TBI or PTSD to ask for a cognitive test to create a baseline measurement to compare with as time goes on.

“Keep very detailed notes about what you're seeing so that when you go to that appointment, you can articulate exactly the changes that you're seeing, rather than just saying, 'Well, I'm seeing some differences.' You can really state what those differences are to say, 'I want to be tested to ensure,'” Dever said.

She emphasizes that educating yourself about the disease can benefit everyone and that their office can do a family care plan for free.

“We have been working with the Cincinnati VA more and more because of this very issue, and then also we cover Ross County in Chillicothe, Ohio, and we've been working with that VA as well,” she said.

Those interested in further details can call her office at 1-800-272-3900 or go to alz.org/Cincinnati for more information.

If you have a veteran story to tell in your community, email homefront@wcpo.com. You also can join the Homefront Facebook group, follow Craig McKee on Facebook and find more Homefront stories here.

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