Healing the invisible wounds of war

Soldiers after they come home from iraq/afghanistan

WALTER REED ARMY MEDICAL CENTER - Since 2003, more than 4,400 Americans have died in Iraq. Many who survive combat face a new battle at home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Their spouses often suffer along with them. CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports the military is now taking steps to help military wives.

Sgt. David Romanowsky suffered multiple concussions during two tours in Iraq. His wife Gayla has been dealing with the aftershocks ever since.

"A lot of times I would feel like I'm holding all of this in," Gayla said. "I don't know how to take care of my husband. He can't get out of bed."

She is one of 12 stressed-out military wives brought together at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

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"I was happy finally when they called and said they are starting something up," she said. "Finally you're not alone - there's other people that feel exactly the same way that you do."

Living with the dual scourges of their husbands' brain injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they see what the rest of us don't.

"Night terrors, outbursts, severe anxiety," said Army wife Katelyn Taylor.

"I think the sadness that he felt was the worst part for me," said Marine wife Amanda Redhead. "That's very hard for me to see my husband cry and get upset and just know there's nothing I can do for him."

Army wife Mary Dawn Jenkins said, "the expectations I had was for him to come home and be the man that I married but I don't think that man will ever come back home."

"He is still very loving and caring you know," said Air Force Wife Kelly Heliker. "It's harder for him to be loving and caring to people who he loves and cares about. But I know he loves me. He just doesn't show it."

The 12 women in the room are married to servicemen who deployed overseas a total of 55 times. Their stories are not at all unusual.

Get help for PTSD

Now retired, Marine Sgt. Hector Media came home from Iraq with PTSD.

"I put my wife through hell," Hector said.

"Did your wife say, 'Hector, what's going on here,'" Martin asked.

"She asked me and I would say well nothing and she is like 'no, since you came back you're not the same person anymore.'"

Hector's wife, Sharlsie, agreed. "All we had to do pretty much was just look at each other and start fighting. He just didn't like anything."

Soldier takes huge risk to get PTSD help

Sharlsie Medina had been married to Hector for 12 years but she didn't recognize the angry man who came home from Iraq.

"It didn't even take much to make him angry," Sharlsie said. "You could almost kind of look at him wrong and he would sort of snap." Sharsie said. When her husband snapped he would yell, and slam a door.

"My wife kind of drew the line," Hector said. "She said, I mean, 'you don't do something about it I'm leaving.'"

But when Hector went looking for help he was not satisfied with what he found. He would talk with a psychiatrist for 15, 30 minutes. Hector describes the meetings as, "How do you do? How do you feel? You have any suicide thoughts? No? Ok. You need to refill your meds? Yes. Ok, here it is. Here's your meds and off we go."

The Medinas worked it out even though it took Hector six years to find a program he liked and there was no help Sharlsie. Now there's this program for the spouses -- but it's only a pilot and only for a dozen at a time.

Deployment Health Clinical Center

Col. Charles Engel, who set up the program, says the military is only now coming to grips with the effect brain injuries and PTSD can have on families.

"We've been at war for a decade at this point and on some level even for those of us who are in it it's sort of shocking that we continue to learn as we go," Engel said. "Sometimes we've got to swallow hard when we realize that we're this far in and we're just seeing some things."

To date, the military has diagnosed 78,000 cases of PTSD. But the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has cited estimates based on Veteran's Administration data that put the real number close to 800,000. To catch up with numbers like that, he says, there will have to be programs like this in communities all over the country.

"There's so many people out there who are missing out and it's hard because you don't want to see other people going through what you went through," Army wife Katelyn Taylor said.

There will be still more. The military's latest mental health survey of combat troops in Afghanistan found 20 percent - one in five - suffering from acute stress, depression or anxiety.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.