The U.S. military is trying to figure out whether certain heavy weapons are putting U.S. troops in danger.
The concern centers on the possibility of brain injuries from shoulder-fired weapons like the Carl Gustaf, a recoilless rifle that resembles a bazooka and is powerful enough to blow up a tank.
A single round for the Carl Gustaf can weigh nearly 10 pounds. The shell leaves the gun's barrel at more than 500 miles per hour. And as the weapon fires, it directs an explosive burst of hot gases out of the back of the barrel.
For safety reasons, troops are trained to take positions to the side of weapons like this. Even so, they get hit by powerful blast waves coming from both the muzzle and breech.
"It feels like you get punched in your whole body," is the way one Army gunner described the experience in a military video made in Afghanistan. "The blast bounces off the ground and it overwhelms you."
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military recognized that the blast from a roadside bomb could injure a service member's brain without leaving a scratch. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops sustained this sort of mild traumatic brain injury, which has been linked to long-term problems ranging from memory lapses to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Also during those wars, the military began to consider the effects on the brain of repeated blasts from weapons like the Carl Gustaf. And some members of Congress became concerned.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, a congresswoman from upstate New York and a member of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, says she was once told of a soldier whose ears bled after using the Carl Gustaf.
"Obviously," Slaughter says, "we have to know. What kind of damage is that doing to soldiers in training and on the battlefield?"
The military got some hints about the risks of firing heavy weapons from a program it launched in Afghanistan.
In 2011, the Army equipped thousands of troops with blast gauges — coin-sized sensors worn on the head and shoulders.
The gauges, made by a company in Slaughter's district, were designed to measure the intensity of a blast from a roadside bomb. But they also revealed worrisome levels of blast exposure in some troops who were merely firing certain heavy weapons.
Last year, the military quietly pulled the blast gauges from wide use, saying they hadn't been useful in detecting brain injuries. Slaughter thinks that was a mistake.
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