Invisible wounds of war

Tens of thousands of servicemen and women are dealing with lasting brain damage as the Pentagon scrambles to treat these invisible wounds

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The following is a script from "Invisible Wounds" which aired on May 5, 2013. David Martin is the correspondent. Mary Walsh, producer.

We all learned a lot in recent years about the dangers of head injuries from contact sports like football. We now know that a hard hit can cause brain damage that only becomes apparent after an athlete's playing days are over. Football is violent, no doubt, but it's nothing compared to war. And just as the National Football League has struggled to come to grips with head injuries so has the military - but on a much vaster scale.

An estimated quarter million servicemen and women have suffered concussions over the past decade of war. Tens of thousands -- no one knows the precise number -- are dealing with lasting brain damage. The Pentagon, which did not recognize the problem until the war in Iraq was almost over, is now scrambling to treat these invisible wounds. And soldiers suffering from them sometimes end up wishing they had a wound people could see.

Ben Richards: If I could trade traumatic brain injury for a single-leg amputation I'd probably do that in a second.

You heard that right -- retired Army Major Ben Richards would rather endure the disfigurement and disability of losing a limb than live with the aftershocks of the concussions he suffered in Iraq. The first one happened on Mother's Day 2007 when his armored vehicle was rammed by a suicide car bomber.

Ben Richards: Everyone that was in the vehicle, walked away with a pretty significant concussion. My head hurt for about a week. I was nauseated for a week. Literally couldn't see straight.

David Martin: So what do you do when you have symptoms like that?

Ben Richards: Go out again and fight the next day.

David Martin: What are you doing going back into combat? I mean, you've got men you're responsible for...

Ben Richards: Exactly. That's why I went back into combat.

In two months of fighting, seven of the 17 armored vehicles under Richards command were destroyed. Richards had a second vehicle blown out from beneath him just weeks after the first.

Ben Richards: Once again we all walked out with all of our parts and pieces.

Richards had no visible wound but he had suffered an injury that would end his Army career and very nearly ruin his life.

Farrah Richards: He spent a lot of time by himself in closed rooms.

Farrah Richards could see her husband was a changed man when he came home but couldn't see why.

Farrah Richards: As a spouse, I wasn't thinking "he has traumatic brain injury." That wasn't even something that I really knew about.

Doctors at Ft. Lewis, Washington, told Richards he was simply suffering from post-traumatic stress, a diagnosis that would hang over him for four years.

Ben Richards: If you have post-traumatic stress disorder and you are not improving through counseling, then it's your fault.

David Martin: You're not trying hard enough?

Ben Richards: It was my fault that I wasn't getting better.

Not willing to give up on a promising young officer, the Army promoted Richards and gave him his dream job: professor at West Point. But he found himself blanking out in the middle of class. He got this evaluation from the head of his department: "Major Richards can't teach . . . unable to accomplish any aspect of his job . . . unable to come to work on most days. . . suicide risk high."