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

CBS All Access
This video is available on CBS All Access

Ben Richards: I was in such a bad place mentally that I was really looking for a way out. I don't think I was ever suicidal. But I was...I was thinking of ways that I could break my leg or something because two weeks in the hospital, that was a better option for me.

In the military, concussion was an invisible -- and therefore neglected -- wound. It took an outsider -- Dr. David Hovda, director of the Brain Injury Research Center at UCLA -- to prove to the Pentagon that even a mild concussion can result in serious injury.

David Hovda: And the thing that was remarkable about this particular image was that this was the face of the hidden wound that people didn't see.

The brain on the right shows normal activity. The one on the left is a UCLA football player who had suffered a concussion which left him dazed, but able to answer simple questions. The one in the middle is a patient in an unresponsive coma.

David Hovda: We scanned both of those individuals.

The nearly identical images showed Hovda for the first time the physical damage even a relatively mild concussion can cause.

David Hovda: This was so stark, it looked people in the face and they said, "This is the face of concussion."

Pete Chiarelli: That was a eureka moment for me, absolutely a eureka moment, because that's what we were experiencing down range with our kids.

Retired Army General Pete Chiarelli served two tours as a combat commander in Iraq but admits he was clueless about brain injury when he became the number two man in the Army in 2008.

Pete Chiarelli: I had no idea that traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress were, in fact, the two largest categories of injuries that we had.

Chiarelli found that traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress accounted for 36 percent of the disabling injuries suffered by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Amputations accounted for 10 percent.

David Martin: What did you think when you first saw those numbers?

Pete Chiarelli: It just absolutely floored me. I couldn't believe it.

Desperate to do something, General Chiarelli brought Dr. Hovda to the Pentagon to brief the military medical establishment.

David Hovda: So I gave my shtick and then a couple of the, of the medical doctors stood up and they said, you know, "We really appreciate you coming here, but what you're advising us to do is bad medicine." And I said, "What do you mean bad medicine?" And they said, "Well, if you take an individual out of the, of theater, of a, of a battle and let them rest because they've had a concussion before you put them back in, they're going to believe that they're brain injured and you're going to make them worse."

David Martin: Bad medicine . . . among doctors those must be fighting words.

David Hovda: Yeah, I was very--I was very shocked when I heard that.

Pete Chiarelli: There's a stigma associated with anything that occurs above the neck with the brain. And that same stigma was something that I saw in the military.

David Hovda: And General Chiarelli called me on the phone and he said, "Now you understand our problem. Now you understand how bad it is."

Chiarelli didn't wait for the argument to be settled. In late 2009, he issued new orders to all Army units in Afghanistan - any soldier with a concussion had to be held out of the fight until he was fully recovered.

Pete Chiarelli: But, the problem is, if you have a second concussion before the first one is healed, then we see cognitive issues. Long-term cognitive issues can develop that cause all kinds of issues.