Exclusive: Florida VA program helps elite warriors heal unseen wounds of war

Program aims to heal troops’ invisible wounds

A unique Florida veterans affairs program treating traumatic brain injuries, as well as the wear and tear of multiple deployments, is changing perspectives about asking for help. The Post-Deployment Rehabilitation and Evaluation Program (PREP) at a hospital in Tampa aims to treat physical injuries and the mental health of service members.

After eight major deployments since 9/11, Green Beret Sergeant Major John Fischetti knows better than most the physical and emotional cost of service.

"One of my first deployments to Afghanistan, we had a very rough go of it, heavy fighting," he told CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge who gained first-time access to the specialized program.

Fischetti lost a lot of his team.

"At the time, I didn't realize how traumatic it was to me and then years later, I'm still thinking about it," he said.

It is rare to hear directly from special operations forces like Fischetti who told CBS News it can be hard to ask for help because it is in their DNA to put the mission and their teammates first. More than half of the service members who have been through PREP are from special operations forces.

"There's a lot of misunderstanding with the younger soldiers," he said. "They think that if they tell the command or they tell somebody that they have a problem, that that's going to look bad on them."

This week, the Pentagon said 109 U.S. service members suffered traumatic brain injuries last month in an Iranian missile strike on an air base in Iraq.

It's estimated that about 20% of service members have traumatic brain injuries, said Dr. Bryan Merritt, the PREP medical director.

PREP uses virtual reality technology to retrain the brain after battlefield trauma impairs balance and an underwater treadmill to reduce chronic pain and rebuild confidence.

For many service members, the in-patient program is also the first time they've met with a therapist. Service members stay in the program for six to 12 weeks for what doctors call a holistic approach.

"I use the expression, it's like I'm peeling an onion, you take a layer at a time, and each layer you'll find a different problem in that and you'll have to find that solution," Dr. Steven Scott said.

The program is helping many, like Fischetti, in the Special Operations community. In his first television interview as Deputy Commander for Special Operations Vice Admiral Tim Szymanski said these warfighters have much more to offer, and getting the help is not a "career killer." 

"Folks are coming forward, and we're showing that they can return to duty," he said. "The testimonial is the people going through it, and taking it back to their team mates ... It's a trust factor."

Szymanski added, "It may be a life changer. I think for the people who have been through the program it is a life changer."

For Merritt, even if the service members don't return to duty, seeing them with families after they go through the program makes it worth it.

"Because that's what's going to be with them regardless of their future in the military," he said.

The program currently only has a dozen beds at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital, but there is new momentum to expand.

"I plan on pushing forward and becoming a command sergeant major and being able to influence my soldiers on the front lines and to help them to get the help they need," Fischetti said.