For Wounded Soldiers, A Place "Where Miracles Happen" -- And It's Not The VA

Mary Walsh is a producer for CBS News based at the Pentagon.
(AP / file)
Corey Briest was an emergency medical technician in Yankton, South Dakota when he deployed to Iraq with the Army National Guard. He was the unit medic and so when his convoy was hit by an IED he moved forward to treat the wounded. It was the second IED that sent shrapnel into Corey's skull, damaging his brain so badly that doctors weren't sure he would survive.

That was Dec. 4, 2005. Four months later, when CBS News national security correspondent David Martin and I met him in a VA Hospital, Corey could signal "thumbs up" to indicate great pain, but he couldn't talk, couldn't walk. He was being treated at what the VA called a new "state of the art" poly trauma center -- but all Corey's wife Jenny wanted was to get him out of there. There were staff shortages, she said. Corey wasn't getting the therapy he needed.

Looking impossibly young, but drawn by fatigue and worry, Jenny wasn't about to give up on the man she called the love of her life. The VA was preparing to send Corey to a nursing home and Jenny had promised him that would never happen.

So she found a private hospital in California – Casa Colina – where Jarod Behee, another brain injured soldier, had made what seemed to be a miraculous recovery.

One year after our first story on Corey Briest for the CBS Evening News, David Martin and I traveled to California to see how he was doing. I can't tell you the shock and thrill to see Corey, therapist by his side, walking down the sidewalk. Corey can talk now and although he will never fully recover from his severe injuries, he can play with his children; he can have dinner at the family table.

As Jenny said, "My biggest wish was to have him home with his family . . . he sits right here with his kids and he loves it."

Families of the wounded soldiers and marines we met at Casa Colina said this is a place where miracles happen. The dedication of the staff is evident; there is careful attention and positive reinforcement. But the VA also has dedicated medical professionals. So what's the difference between the two institutions?

One is a much smaller, more flexible enterprise. There's less bureaucracy at Casa Colina; the mandate for its staff to adapt constantly to meet patients' individual needs.

Doctors at Casa Colina don't see that as working miracles. They say that the volume of injured coming out of this war is overwhelming the VA system. And private institutions like Casa Colina are standing by ready to help in any way they can – if the bureaucracy can figure out how to make that work.

Here's the question that tortured Jenny Briest while Corey struggled for recovery in a VA hospital: "He was injured in combat and this is the best care we can give him?"