Veteran says traumatic brain injury misdiagnosed at Louisville VA Hospital

Purple Heart recipient from Louisville battles VA for injury benefits
Published: Jul. 4, 2016 at 7:02 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 7, 2016 at 12:57 PM EDT
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Dawn Lankford (Source: Jeff Knight, WAVE 3 News)
Dawn Lankford (Source: Jeff Knight, WAVE 3 News)
Dr. Stephen Spanbauer (Source: Jeff Knight, WAVE 3 News)
Dr. Stephen Spanbauer (Source: Jeff Knight, WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - For retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Kyle Lankford, everyday life is a struggle.

"To lose your memories, in a way is to lose yourself," Lankford said.

Lankford said a brain injury he suffered in combat was brushed off by the Louisville VA Hospital. His story is coming to light as the Department of Veterans Affairs says thousands of U.S. veterans may have been given improper exams for traumatic brain injuries.

His whole family feels the impact.

"He forgets our children's birthdays," said his wife, Dawn. "He still thinks when you ask his address, that we live at the address at Fort Campbell, the address we were at when he was deployed."

+ Louisville VA may have given improper exams for TBIs

The combat medic was deployed to Iraq in 2008 when a roadside bomb hit his vehicle, seriously injuring all four soldiers inside.

"The IED hit my side, hit my window glass, knocked me unconscious," Lankford said. "It threw our gunner down, knocked him unconscious, set our vehicle on fire. And that's what I was awarded the Purple Heart for."

Records provided by Lankford show the Army approved his medical retirement in 2010 for a number of medical issues resulting from that attack, including traumatic brain injury, or TBI. But when Lankford went to the Louisville VA a year later to apply for disability benefits for that TBI, the VA said he didn't have one anymore.

The VA gave Lankford disability benefits for other injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, but not TBI, as the VA deemed Lankford's memory problems were related to seizures. Lankford said he only started having seizures after his TBI, but the VA would not relent.

"And to suffer with this and the VA not acknowledge it, and to own up for it and to take care of it, it's very disheartening," Lankford said. "And it makes me angry."

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Lankford is mad because he believes he was misdiagnosed by the VA and that his examination was not done by someone who was qualified to recognize the signs and symptoms.

He might be right. The Department of Veterans Affairs now says 24,588 veterans making disability claims for TBI between 2007 and 2015 were not evaluated by a specialist like a neurologist, psychiatrist or neurosurgeon. Instead, they were checked out by a general physician or in some cases, a physician's assistant or nurse practitioner.

At least 28 of those cases came from the Louisville VA Hospital.

"I think if you used the term 'unqualified clinician,' they're gonna be upset," said Dr. Stephen Spanbauer, chief of compensation and pension for the Louisville VA Hospital.

But Spanbauer said just because a veteran wasn't seen by a specialist doesn't mean a traumatic brain injury was misdiagnosed. Still, the Department of Veterans Affairs is now sending a letter to all veterans who were not evaluated for TBI by a specialist. The letter allows them get a new TBI evaluation, this time by an expert, and resubmit their TBI claim.

VIDEO: Watch Eric Flack's report 

Lankford and his wife said they expect to receive one of those letters and eventually the TBI benefits they wouldn't have gotten had this widespread problem never come to light.

"They just seem to push it off,  under the rug, and hope that you don't say anything," Dawn Lankford said of the VA.

The Louisville VA says veterans affected by the review for possible re-evaluation began being notified on June 28th.

Send WAVE 3 News Troubleshooter Eric Flack a message on his Facebook page or email him.

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