For Families of Fallen Heroes, Questions About Last Moments Linger

By John Kelly
Monday, May 25, 2009

The Navy doctor had told everyone he would speak frankly, and he did.

"Some of the things I'm going to talk about may have you relive some things you don't want to relive," said Capt. Charles Blankenship.

Two women, and then a third, got up from their seats and left the hotel conference room. Everyone else stayed. It must have been the quietest, saddest room in America.

The name of Saturday morning's seminar was "Did My Loved One Suffer?" and was part of the annual gathering of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a support group for the families of military personnel killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. About 1,200 TAPS people are spending Memorial Day weekend at National Harbor.

Blankenship, from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, went through a PowerPoint presentation describing medical facilities in the war zones. He explained the difference between KIA (killed in action) and DOW (died of wounds). When he was finished, it was time for questions. Hands all around the room went up.

"My son was killed in an IED [improvised explosive device] incident," said a gray-haired man sitting near the front. "I wondered if you could address the question of the concussive effect of a massive blast as it relates to loss of consciousness."

Blankenship explained that the overpressure wave from the explosion probably knocked the soldier out, rendering him unconscious before the fragmentation injuries that took his life a split second later.

A woman asked about the helicopter crash that killed her son.

A sudden acceleration/deceleration usually tears the body's major vessels, Blankenship said. But even before that happened, the G-forces would have caused her son to black out. "He probably didn't have any idea," Blankenship said.

"My son wasn't killed in combat," said another woman. "He drowned in a lake in Alaska. What did he feel?"

"He probably had a period of time when he panicked," Blankenship said. "There's a point at which you lose control of everything and then you're euphoric."

A woman raised her hand. Her son was in the turret of a Humvee in Iraq when the road underneath gave way and the vehicle rolled upside down into a canal.

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