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The lasting toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

The lasting toll of war
The lasting toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan 05:02

This week, Scott Pelley reported on the families who held the home front while their spouses, fathers and mothers fought in the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

About 600,000 American veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Symptoms can include anxiety, fear, irritability, and depression.

Through their reporting for this week's story, Scott Pelley and the 60 Minutes team found some symptoms of PTSD are, in a sense, contagious: some family members living with veterans who have been diagnosed, like children and spouses, often experience similar symptoms, such as anxiety and depression. 

One of the courageous families that shared their story with 60 Minutes was the Rotenberry family. 

Chuck Rotenberry was a Marine who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. During his second deployment, Rotenberry recalls being on a patrol when a fellow Marine stepped on an IED, gravely wounding the soldier, and sending Rotenberry 20 feet, knocking him out. Rotenberry remembers making his way to injured Marines and providing life-saving aid.

Rotenberry came home to his children and his wife, Liz, who was pregnant with their fourth child. He was suffering with a brain injury and PTSD.

"He was hiding in, you know, back rooms…and I'd find him crying, and he didn't understand why he was crying," Liz said. 

Their son, Kristopher, who was 7 years old at the time, pitched in. Over the years, he tried shielding his dad from triggers and his sisters from the trauma. By age 12, the weight had grown, and he recalled attempting suicide. 

"I kinda decided that, you know, my family'd be better off without me here," Kris told 60 Minutes. 

In an interview with 60 Minutes Overtime, Pelley revisited his reporting on soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last two decades, and the impact their deployment and PTSD has had on their families.

Starting in 2005, Pelley and 60 Minutes followed an Iowa National Guard Unit for nearly two years from the moment they were called to serve to the eventual extension of their tour in Iraq. 

One of the guardsmen was Denver Foote, who had been in the National Guard for seven years leading up to his deployment.

His wife, Shannon Foote, was in labor with their first child, Landen, when the call to war came on Denver's cell phone. She told Pelley she was going to be a "super mom" while her husband served overseas. 

But she struggled, working to support herself and Landen, living with her in-laws, and battling depression. When Denver's tour was extended, she was devastated.

"I don't think the amount of time that he's been over there is fair. And I haven't really seen any progress," she told Pelley in an interview.

Pelley wondered if depression was common among the other military wives. "Everyone I've talked to, it's really pretty common," she said.

In 2009, Pelley embedded with a company in the 2nd battalion of the 8th Marines for a story called "Golf Company." The company was based in Helmand province, Afghanistan. At the time, the United States was experiencing the highest number of casualties in the region.

Second Lieutenant Dan O'Hara from Chicago was a platoon leader. Two of his Marines had been killed. Pelley asked O'Hara how the soldiers can distinguish the enemy from the civilians in the local population.

"For the most part, you don't until they start shooting at you," O'Hara said. 

In 2012, 60 Minutes reported on veterans living in Harris Country, Texas who had returned home from war with PTSD and broken the law for a story called "Coming Home." 

Kevin Thomas, a Marine who had served in Iraq, told Pelley that he was on a nighttime patrol with other soldiers when they received a call over the radio saying a helicopter had crashed. What he saw was seared into his mind.

"What did you see?" Pelley asked Thomas. 

"Wreckage, carnage, bodies…25-30 Marines. Brothers. Family," he said. 

Six months later, Thomas returned home to his family in Houston. He said he started drinking heavily and becoming avoidant, isolating himself in his home. He was totally unaware of what was happening to him. 

He lost his job and his family's trust. His aggression was on a hair trigger. Eventually, he hit his then-wife and was charged with felony assault. 

"I was angry about unfinished business in Iraq. I wanted to go back in," he told 60 Minutes.

A court for veterans who are first-time felony offenders helped Thomas find treatment at a VA hospital as part of his probation. It also helped him get into college.

60 Minutes cameras were with Thomas and his two sons when they went out for ice cream. One of them asked him what it was like in the Marines. Pelley asked Thomas, "When he's a little bit older, what are you going to tell him about your experience?"

"I'm going to tell him that my experience and my career in the Marines was great. It's the best thing I ever did in my life," he said tearfully. 

Tragically, Kevin Thomas died in a car accident seven months after "Coming Home" aired on 60 Minutes. He was 36 years old. 

"The most important thing for the nation to remember is that these veterans of these wars, their children, and their spouses are still living through this," Pelley told 60 Minutes Overtime. 

"And that is something that none of us should ever forget."

The video above was produced by Will Croxton and Brit McCandless Farmer. It was edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger. 

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