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Decade of War Takes Major Physical, Mental Toll on U.S. Troops, Families

September 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Millions of Americans have served in the all-volunteer military since 9/11, with many repeatedly returning to the battlefield. Gwen Ifill reports on how this past decade of war has led to increased stress on America's troops and their families, and how today's uniformed warriors are coping with previously unimagined challenges.

ANDREW ROSS, Tucson, Ariz.: I think we’ve seen what the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that our troops are more than capable, are more than prepared, are incredible at their jobs, and they’re well-funded. They’re taken care of.

JULIAN WRIGHT, Washington, D.C.: I just really hope that the military is able to help the veterans come back, help them transition back into society and give them the mental health that they’ll need.

CONSTANCE MARSHALL, Washington, D.C.: Yes, I think too few people are carrying the burden, that’s why so many of our young men and women doing four and five tours because we do not have enough people volunteering for the military.

GWEN IFILL: Ten years of war have meant 10 years of sporadic victory and setback and increased stress for America’s all-volunteer army. The scars at the Pentagon go deeper than the impact from the plane that crashed there on September 11th.

This has not been like past civil wars, world wars and declared and undeclared conflicts. Today’s uniformed warriors are coping with new, previously unimagined challenges. Thousands have returned to the battle front time and again, a different type of warfare that often resulted in mental as well as physical injury.

And their families were left to deal with absence, loss and grief.

RACHEL NOLEN: See how fast you can go.

GWEN IFILL: Rachel Nolen was 17 years old when the 9/11 terrorist attacks triggered a chain of events that would change her entire life.

RACHEL NOLEN: Are you ready?

GWEN IFILL: Eight years later, her husband James was killed on his second deployment to Afghanistan.

RACHEL NOLEN: They knocked on my door on a Sunday night about 8:30, I was about four and a half months pregnant with Jamie. And I saw them walk up my front — the driveway.

GWEN IFILL: That must be the walk-up that you live in fear of.

RACHEL NOLEN: Oh, yes. Once I saw them step out of that car, I knew.


GWEN IFILL: Today at her home near Fort Bragg, Rachel raises 9-year-old William and 15-month-old Jamie alone.

RACHEL NOLEN: Good girl.

GWEN IFILL: Tends a garden planted in her husband’s memory and copes with the invisible wounds of a decade at war.

Could you read it?

RACHEL NOLEN: It says, if loved could have saved you, you would have lived forever.

GWEN IFILL: More than 6,200 service troops were killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, more than 755 of them from Fort Bragg, the most evidently populated Army installation in the U.S.

No one knows how to count the ripple effects of those casualties, among them the grieving spouses and children.

RACHEL NOLEN: Everybody says well after this point, this amount of time you should be OK. After a year I should feel fine. After a year I was not fine. I didn’t feel better, you know. I still missed him just as much I did as the day that he was killed.

GWEN IFILL: This is a community where everyone instantly knew their lives would be transformed by the terrorist attacks.

HEATHER KAISER: Don’t pull my flowers out, though.

GWEN IFILL: Heather Kaiser watched in shock while living on an army base in Germany.

HEATHER KAISER: I think that I realized right then that something pretty sad was going to happen, and watching it unfold was incredible, being away from our own country and seeing what was going on.

And here’s a knife.

GWEN IFILL: She is not new to the uncertainties of military life. Her father served in Vietnam and her oldest son just left home for West Point. She’s now raising her second son alone while her husband Rick, an Army colonel, is in Afghanistan.

HEATHER KAISER: I think we all thought that it was not going to be this long. And I didn’t think that we all realized that we were going to lose so much. And we all have lost a lot. We’ve lost many friends and many family members, but I don’t think that it stops us from wanting to do more.

My husband would do this for the rest of his life if he could defend his country. And I know my son will do the same thing.

GWEN IFILL: When we visited, Sgt. Major Tonya Griffin was preparing to leave for her second wartime deployment. She went to Iraq in 2003, this time it’s to Afghanistan.

SGT. MAJ. TONYA GRIFFIN, U.S. Army: Our job is not complete until our senior leaders, the president of the United States, tells us it’s complete. And we’ll stay until it’s done, until our mission is complete, because we don’t quit and we don’t give up.

GWEN IFILL: Do Americans get that?

TONYA GRIFFIN: I hope they do. And we’ll stay there as long as — whatever the sacrifice and the risks are, that’s what we’ll do.

GWEN IFILL: One of the sacrifices for Griffin, a mother of two, her marriage.

TONYA GRIFFIN: I’m divorced. I’m divorced because of the separation — the separation not only for deployment but military assignments. So, there is a great sacrifice other than just going to war and fighting and protecting our country. It’s a personal sacrifice, as well.

GWEN IFILL: Sacrifice for Dan Nevins has translated into learning to walk again. In 2001, he just completed eight years of active duty, including a stint at Fort Bragg, when his girlfriend called him at home in California to tell him to switch on the television just in time to watch the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

STAFF SGT. DAN NEVINS (RET.), U.S. Army: My first instinct was, I wanted to go back to active duty. I was furious. I was just enraged and full of anger and I wanted nothing more than to go fight that enemy.

GWEN IFILL: His National Guard unit deployed to Balad, Iraq, in February 2004. Ten months later while on patrol, an IED exploded under his Humvee as he sat in the back seat.

DAN NEVINS: When I opened my eyes, I was outside of the truck and my legs were still caught in the twisted and burning metal that used to be the floorboard of the Humvee. I didn’t really understand how bad I was hurt yet. I kind of looked to the front seat where Mike was driving, and ….

GWEN IFILL: He wasn’t there.

DAN NEVINS: Yes. I knew that he didn’t make it.

GWEN IFILL: Nevins is now a double amputee, among the thousands who would have died without the advanced medical treatment not available in previous wars.

But for Nevins and thousands of others, survival has also meant facing other challenges

What Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, calls invisible wounds.

GEN. PETER CHIARELLI, U.S. Army: When I look at my most severely wounded portion of my population, it’s about 8,900 folks who have a single disqualifying injury of 30 percent or greater, 66 percent have traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress. Those numbers are huge. And we’re going to live them for a long, long time.

GWEN IFILL: Chiarelli says the biggest change has come with the additional pressures put on an all-volunteer army where many have returned to the front lines as many as half a dozen times.

GEN. PETER CHIARELLI: If you told me ten years after the fact less than one percent of the population of United States could do what it’s done for ten years and have the retention rates that we have today, I would have probably told you that there’s just no way a volunteer force can stand up to that. I have kids on three, four, five, six deployments.

GWEN IFILL: But there are costs. Post-traumatic stress disorders and suicide rates have soared along with efforts to encourage soldiers to seek treatment sooner.

GEN. PETER CHIARELLI: We have screening before soldiers deploying. We have screening when soldiers redeploy, but the real, real advantage we have today is that we are beginning to break down the stigma.

GWEN IFILL: But has the stigma really gone away?

GEN. PETER CHIARELLI: No, but are we better off than we were after World War II? Yes. Are we making headway in getting at the stigma? I really believe we are.

GWEN IFILL: Dan Nevins says healing from the mental and emotional injuries is often as tough as the physical recovery.

STAFF SGT. DAN NEVINS (RET.), U.S. Army: I was very quick to anger early on. A lot of this is post-traumatic stress coupled with a traumatic brain injury. Had the lack of the ability to process information as quickly as I could before. It was incredibly tough for my family to get used to the new me, and it’s hard to say because my marriage didn’t survive.

GWEN IFILL: Nevins credits his recovery to a non-profit organization called the wounded warrior project, which encourages rigorous physical activity to help overcome the wounds of war. Nevins now golfs, bikes and last year he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, all on his two prosthetic limbs. He has adjusted, but he has mixed feelings about whether America has.

DAN NEVINS: You have a whole generation of returning wounded warriors with some very unique challenges and they kind of require a little bit of patience and a little bit of tolerance as they reintegrate. I think it’s very helpful for the employers out there and co-workers that are receiving this new generation of warriors that they just kind of take a second away to really learn about what it’s like to be a service member and what the realities of combat are and just put themselves in their shoes just for a minute.

GWEN IFILL: Those combat realities extend to the home front as a decade of war has redefined lives and livelihoods for the survivors…

WOMAN: Come on, you can do it. You can do it.

GWEN IFILL: …the still grieving and the still fighting.