- The Washington Times - Monday, November 11, 2019

Iraq War veteran Zachary Muñoz suffers from chronic back pain and the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury, but he knows he is lucky to be alive.

A bomb exploded under his military vehicle in 2007, throwing the former weapons intelligence team member against the window, injuring his head, shoulder and back. The ground below the vehicle contained about 200 pounds of homemade explosives, he later learned.

Two years earlier, Mr. Muñoz had injured his back when he slipped on ice trying to move a large ammunition box filled with grenade shells, contributing to his current chronic pain.

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About 44% of military service members experience chronic pain after combat deployment, compared to only 26% of the general population, a JAMA Internal Medicine article shows.

Dr. Suneetha Budampati, executive physician for the National Spine and Pain Centers, said that service members can experience extreme physical and mental strain, combat injuries and post-traumatic stress — each of which can contribute to chronic pain.

To honor and thank veterans, the National Spine and Pain Centers offered free spine exams Monday to men and women who have served in the military.

“They’ve really put themselves in harm’s way, and I don’t think anyone chooses to get injured and to suffer with chronic pain for the rest of their life,” Dr. Budampati said. “If a veteran is out there defending my freedom and my civil liberties and my way of life, the least I can do is give back with the training I’ve had.”

Mr. Muñoz, who has been treated by Dr. Budampati for two years, has tried various treatments to ease his back pain including steroid injections, radiofrequency therapy and medications.

Arnald Gabriel, who served in World War II, also has visited the pain centers for treatment. He spent 200 days in combat and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, where he lost two colleagues in the same machine gun squad.

A former machine gunner, Mr. Gabriel recalled how he had to cart around 64 pounds of gear through Europe between 1944 and 1945. He said the chronic pain he experiences in his lower back is partially due to carrying the heavy military equipment.

After World War II, he spent 34 years as a military band director with the Air Force until he retired in 1985. He said he has been experiencing chronic back pain since the 1990s.

To help treat his back pain, Mr. Gabriel receives steroid injections at the pain center’s clinic in Arlington, Virginia, once a month.

“A lot of people are living with pain who are too reluctant to have it assessed,” he said. “Many of us live with pain and do nothing about it, but we should.”

Michael Anderson, a Desert Storm veteran who sustained a severe injury to his neck, said he encourages veterans to seek treatment outside of the Department of Veterans Affairs if they can afford it.

Another regular visitor of the spine and pain center, Mr. Anderson said he has been able to keep his pain at a manageable level, helping him live a more normal life after his time in the military.

Despite his injuries, Mr. Muñoz said he has no regrets about serving in the military and expressed gratitude for his fellow veterans and those on active duty.

“I can’t thank any veteran enough for what they do and what they’ve done for us,” he said. “I have a huge love and respect for any and every branch.”

“Now that I’ve served and I got two little kids, it means a lot to me to know that there’s new generations of veterans signing up and protecting us and keeping the fight away from here, away from my kids,” he said. “It means everything.”

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