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Separations Hard on Military Families; Some Returning Vets Homeless; Mother Welcomes Mourns Son Killed in Iraq

Aired May 28, 2007 - 22:00   ET


RANDI KAYE, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Randi Kaye at the CNN Broadcast Center in New York -- just a quick check of the news right now.
A somber President Bush presided over Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. The president declared, it is our country's destiny to emerge victorious in the war on terror.

For the first time in 27 years, diplomats from the U.S. and Iran are holding face-to-face talks. Today's session in Baghdad explored ways of stabilizing Iraq. Both sides say the talks were businesslike, and that they found broad agreement.

Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan is calling it quits. Sheehan says she's become exhausted by the personal, financial, and emotional toll of being what she calls the face of the American anti-war movement.

In other news, Spanish police took some incredible pictures as they arrested 16 people today on suspicion of recruiting jihadist volunteers to fight in Iraq and other countries.

Now, tomorrow, on "AMERICAN MORNING," an exclusive, first-ever interview with the tipster who broke open the Fort Dix terror case. He's revealing his identity, and telling the story of how he alerted authorities after looking at the video of the suspects allegedly practicing to attack the fort.

Tune in during the 7:00 hour on "AMERICAN MORNING" tomorrow morning.

I'm Randi Kaye.

A.C. 360 starts right now.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks for joining us.

They survived combat. Now, they're coming home, where, for some, new battles await.


ANNOUNCER: War changed them forever. Now cutting-edge technology is giving them new lives.

TIM JEFFERS, SUFFERS FROM TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY: I'm not going to be sitting in that wheelchair all -- all my life. ANNOUNCER: Treatment for post-traumatic stress also goes high- tech, technology that recreates the terror of war, so convincing it left 360 M.D. Dr. Sanjay Gupta shaking.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Totally helpless, and really, really scared.

ANNOUNCER: One family's sacrifice, bigger than most.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Are you crying because it was so hard when they were away?

ANNOUNCER: Her parents went off to war at the same time -- as hard as it was, why they're willing to do it again.

He almost died in Iraq, but the battles at home have been even tougher.

JOE RAICALDO, HOMELESS IRAQ VET: At that point, I gave up. I simply gave up.

ANNOUNCER: Jobless and homeless after serving his country -- but tonight, new reason for hope.


ANNOUNCER: Across the country and around the world, this is a special edition of ANDERSON COOPER 360: "Coming Home."

Reporting from the CNN studios in New York, here is Anderson Cooper.

COOPER: Well, many of us remember what it was like when U.S. troops came home from Vietnam. We have all heard the stories of brave men who served their country and found themselves blamed for an unpopular war.

Thankfully, that is not the way it is today. Even those who oppose the war in Iraq are quick to say they support the troops, respect and honor their sacrifices.

We watched them return, and, along with their friends and families, we celebrate their homecomings.

The wars they have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are unlike any conflicts in recent history. And the challenges some of these vets are now facing when they come home are unprecedented.

For instance, incredible medical advances are allowing our troops to survive wounds that would have killed troops in past wars. These lifesaving technologies, in turn, have created new challenges for veterans, who now must find ways to adapt to new lives.

In the hour ahead, you will meet some remarkable men and women. They have come home from war changed, but determined. Their stories are filled with courage, even those who have lost the most. That's where we start, with two young men whose injuries are a signature of this war, and so is their resolve.

Here is CNN's Dan Simon.


DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Brett Miller might have lost a lot of his memory, but not his love for music.

BRETT MILLER, SUFFERS FROM TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY: The guitar kind of gives me an opportunity to kind of not feel so alone, kind of gives me the opportunity to do something right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And bring your head back to center.

SIMON: Tim Jeffers is learning how to walk...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good. Let's make a right turn. We're going to head on down the hall.

SIMON: ... for the second time in his life.

JEFFERS: When you are the victim, it is kind of like, why me? Why did it have to be me?

SIMON: Tim, a 22-year-old Marine, and Brett, a 31-year-old Oregon National Guardsman, both suffer from traumatic brain injury, the signature injury for America's troops in Iraq. The reason? IEDs, improvised explosive devices, the enemy's signature weapon. The two were wounded last year in separate attacks.

JEFFERS: I have never seen, as far as I know, the enemy face to face. And, to me, it's kind of like, if they knew me as a person, they probably wouldn't have done that, because I think I have a good personality, and I am -- I'm good to everybody I meet.


SIMON: It was because of the number of people like Tim coming back from Iraq that VA created rehab centers for those with multiple devastating injuries.

This hospital in Palo Alto is one of four such facilities in the country.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Fifteen more. Come on, 15 more. Go. Go. Go.

SIMON: Here, Tim spends his days learning how to use his new legs and cope with a reflection he barely recognizes. He wears a helmet because doctors removed part of his skull to allow his brain to swell.


JEFFERS: This is me when I was 18. I was a senior in high school.

SIMON: Doctors are confident, with more surgery, he will look much closer to the way he did. Tim remembers when he woke up in the hospital and realized his legs had been amputated.

JEFFERS: It was one of those things where it was like, I need my mom over here, because I really wanted to cry. I was like -- I was scared, like, how in the hell could someone take my -- my damn legs?

SIMON: Looking at Brett, you wouldn't know there was anything wrong, his physical wounds healed, for the most part. But, a few months later, he realized his short-term memory was shot.

He told me that he probably won't even remember this interview. He also worries that his 8-year-old daughter won't understand why her father acts so differently now.

MILLER: I started to realize that I was forgetting a lot of things. People -- people weren't kind of -- it seemed like they weren't acting normal, but, in a way thought, well, maybe it is me.

SIMON: To keep track of people he meets and what he does each day, this former firefighter and college instructor records everything in his memory book. It's all backed up on a handheld computer that patients here jokingly refer to as their brains.

MILLER: If I could choose injuries, if there is one thing that I would lose, it wouldn't be my mind. Every day is a new page, nothing on it.

SIMON: At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, of those wounded in a blast or explosion, four out of 10 also had traumatic brain injury. Nearly 2,000 cases had been treated at hospitals around the country.

For Brett, it was caused by shockwaves from an IED, the force so powerful, it rattled his brain against the surrounding skull. The injury is not visible. That's why doctors fear, other soldiers may have the same problem, but not know it.

As for Tim, he stepped on an IED, and was unconscious for three- and-a-half weeks.

(on camera): Many of the injuries doctors are seeing here would have been fatal only a few years ago, their lives saved by advancements in body armor and battlefield medicine. But there are also the wounds you can't see, the emotional ones.

(voice-over): Families are often the next to fall victim. Psychologist Harriet Zeiner says nearly two-thirds of the severely wounded will wind up divorced in less than a year.

HARRIET ZEINER, CLINICAL NEUROPSYCHOLOGIST: These are young people, and these are people who are being left while they are healing from a traumatic brain injury, which they need all the support they can get.

SIMON: Tim and Brett were both single, but, one day, each hopes to marry.

MILLER: If I can find a girl who is willing to hang out with a guy who is going to forget to call her every day.


SIMON: Brett still has a sense of humor.


SIMON: So does Tim. He knows he's lucky, and, at only 22, still has the optimism of youth.

JEFFERS: These legs aren't cheap. And I look at those and think, I'm not going to -- I'm not going to let those legs go to waste. I'm going to use those. I'm not going to be sitting in that wheelchair all -- all -- all of my life.

SIMON: As for Brett, nine years older, he worries about the rest of his life. He tries to be upbeat, but wonders, what happens next? After all, he had been a firefighter for years, and he knows that's over. He figures he can no longer hold a job where people's lives depend on him.

Both are ready to go home, uncertain about what they will find, but convinced that, with these injuries, in another war in an earlier time, they wouldn't be going home at all.

Dan Simon, CNN, Palo Alto, California.


COOPER: Those guys are incredibly brave.

You know, the war follows a lot of service men and women home in less obvious ways, in flashbacks and nightmares, depression, and anxiety attacks.

Thankfully, today, the military knows what to call these psychological battle scars and how to treat them. That is a huge advancement from the days when post-traumatic stress disorder was wrapped in mystery and known as shell shock or combat fatigue.

Roughly one in six troops returning from Iraq suffers from PTSD -- one in six. The military is doing more than ever to catch it and treat it, offering screenings before, during, and even after deployment. But, still, PTSD is life-changing for those who have it.

And, for those who don't get the treatment they need, who don't reach out for help, it can be life-threatening.

Here is the story of one soldier from the 10th Mountain Division in New York.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) COOPER (voice-over): An early morning last May in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a neighborhood wakes to a mass lockdown. A police sniper takes aim, a bomb squad stands by, and a SWAT team prepares to storm a house.

Inside, an Iraq war vet, Matthew Vargas, sits alone, threatening to kill himself.

MARY LOU MUNOZ, MOTHER OF MATTHEW VARGAS: That day, he wanted to die. Matthew attempted suicide in my garage that morning. He had a cord wrapped around his neck when I went in the garage. He was too heavy for the cord, and it broke. And he was on the -- on the garage floor when I found him.

COOPER: Vargas' family couldn't believe it had come to this. After months of seeking help for him, rescuers had at last arrived, but they had come with guns drawn.

MUNOZ: And I said, why are you here now? Where have you been? And then I started thinking, oh, you are too late.



A. VARGAS: What's his name? Do you know his name?


A. VARGAS: Matt.

COOPER: Five months before the standoff, home on leave with his family, Matthew Vargas went AWOL, refusing to return to Fort Drum in Upstate New York, and, from there, back to Iraq.

His wife, April, remembers how withdrawn he had become and why.

A. VARGAS: He just -- kind of just started isolating himself. And I would ask him about it. And, finally, he said that, when he got shot, it just was an eye-opener for him, like he could never see his daughter again if he went back.

COOPER: It was a firefight after an ambush near Abu Ghraib. Three insurgents were killed. Private Vargas took a bullet to the chest. His Kevlar vest saved his life. The family believes his brush with death touched off his depression and a diagnosis from the family doctor of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

When Vargas started isolating himself in the house, the family knew he needed help.

MUNOZ: He's only 23 years old, and he said that he was already dead inside. He would just say that he was a killer machine now. That's the way he described himself.

COOPER: Days before he was scheduled to redeploy to Iraq, his mother and wife say they repeatedly called Fort Drum and a local military chaplain, but Matthew's sergeant was blunt.

MUNOZ: "Tell Matthew he needs to be on the plane, and he better be back in New York."

And he wouldn't speak to me. He wouldn't talk about it. He said, "We have all been through a lot." And he just hung up on me.

A. VARGAS: I was surprised they didn't help. They are so quick to getting you signed up, telling you all the benefits. And, when he was getting deployed, I had all these support groups. But, when I needed help the most, it seemed like nobody was there.

COOPER: In an e-mail, a Fort Drum spokesman told CNN: "Vargas' claim that he was not afforded assistance for his perceived mental and emotional needs is ill-founded. His chain of command was not given the opportunity to evaluate his condition and render any necessary assistance, due directly to his willful and unlawful absence from his unit."

The spokesman went on to say, "Soldiers who ask for help get some of the best care that can be had."

On the day of the armed stand off, Vargas' father, Marty, a CNN engineer, caught the first flight to Albuquerque.

MARTY VARGAS, FATHER OF MATTHEW VARGAS: I didn't even want to get on the airplane, because I was afraid that things would happen while I was on the airplane, and, as soon as I got off the airplane, they would tell me that my son was shot dead.

Matthew had told me once that he had nothing left to live for anymore, that his country gave up on him, and he felt maybe his family gave up on him, too. At that time, I kind of felt that he was already emotionally dead.

COOPER: By the time Private Vargas' father landed, the nine-hour standoff was over.

COMPUTER VOICE: You have one old message.

COOPER: There was a message on his voice mail.


MATTHEW VARGAS, U.S. SOLDIER: It's Matthew. I don't know if my Dad's in town yet or not, but tell him that I love him. And I will try to call back when I can.


MARTY VARGAS: I think he had given up at that point. It was his goodbye.

I think he needs to see that we're here for him.

COOPER: It was not Matthew Vargas' last goodbye. He surrendered shortly after the house was tear-gassed, walking out unharmed.

The following day, his family tried to visit him in jail.

MARTY VARGAS: I'm so thankful today -- I really am -- that he is alive, and that we can help him now.

COOPER: In June, Matthew Vargas was charged with desertion, but ultimately convicted of a lesser charge, going AWOL. His family says he continues to struggle with depression. The terms of his discharge make him ineligible for unemployment benefits.

Vargas might be able to get medical benefits, including counseling, if he applies to the Veterans Administration. But he has told his family he's not ready to take that step.

MARTY VARGAS: Well, we will go in and see what happens.

I know that the rough road is not over for my son. I hope that the military will step up and acknowledge that Matthew does have a problem. And it's not one of fear. It's one of the psyche.

No, I think they...

COOPER: A Vietnam Veteran himself, Marty Vargas speaks from experience.

MARTY VARGAS: In war, you hear people screaming, crying. You hear a lot of sounds that you are not really used to. And these sounds and visuals come back to haunt you for the rest of your life.


COOPER: Well, Matthew's case is obviously an extreme one, complicated by the fact that he was absent without leave.

But post-traumatic stress comes in many forms and many degrees of severity. And there is help out there. Through the VA, most discharged veterans are entitled to at least two years of mental health services at no cost, including individual and group therapy, plus medication to treat the symptoms.

If you're a veteran with combat stress or know one that needs help, the Department of Defense has this 24/7 hot line, 800-342-9647, or you can log on at

It often takes months for PTSD to surface. A soldier who returns from war and seems fine is still at risk. Here's the "Raw Data."

In one study, just 4 percent of vets had PTSD one month after returning home form war. After four months, the rate was 9 percent. At seven months, it was 12 percent. Fully 78 percent of those soldiers with PTSD or depression at seven months showed no signs of either condition at one month.

When PTSD strikes, it can be devastating, as we just saw. The question is, could reliving the trauma that caused it help tame it? Coming up: a fascinating new treatment for PTSD, an elaborate video simulation that looks, sounds, even smells like real combat. It's called Virtual Iraq.

And, next, on this special edition of 360, our Dr. Sanjay Gupta tries it out.


GUPTA (voice-over): I am very uncomfortable right now, especially as I -- I'm trying to get this thing to get us out of here as quickly as possible. Every time I hear a new noise, I can feel my heart starting to pound. I can -- I have a little bit of the shakes with my hands.




BILL WALDEN, VIETNAM VETERAN: My name is Bill Walden. I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1967. And, then, in October of 1970, I got orders to go to Vietnam.

Once I got over there, I said to myself, I'm going home. I got a wife and a daughter. I will do what I have to do. I will do my job, but I intend to be in the 12 months and going back home.

The men and women that are coming home today, the first thing I would say to you is that, welcome home, and -- and thank you for your service. Don't -- don't hold it in. Don't repress it like some -- some of our -- my fellow comrades did. Come right out and say it.

You know, if there's -- we will do what we can to get you the -- the help, if you need help. Or maybe just a good cry or a good laugh is all you really need.


COOPER: The Veterans Administration estimates that 15 percent of Iraq War veterans have experienced some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is treatable. The key is talking with someone about it. Soldiers with PTSD are typically treated with some form of talk therapy, and, if necessary, antidepressant medication.

The military is also working on a new kind of treatment that's based on a popular video game. It's called Virtual Iraq. And it allows soldiers to relive their combat experiences, often in excruciating detail.

360 M.D. Dr. Sanjay Gupta visited a test site to see for himself how it works himself.


GUPTA (voice-over): I was experiencing the reality of war, but, in fact, it was virtual reality of war.

(on camera): Helpless, totally helpless, and really, really scared, because I thought I was going to die. And I didn't want to die like that.

(voice-over): I wasn't ready for what would happen. It was perhaps as unnerving, as intense, and as disturbing an experience as I could imagine.

(on camera): Every time I hear a new noise, I can feel my heart starting to pound. I can -- I have a little bit of the shakes with my hands.

(voice-over): Here at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, therapists use video game technology to help Iraq vets overcome PTSD. They take the vets back virtually to the place where their trauma began.

It's an electronic deja vu. They feel as if it's real, the sights, sounds, vibrations, even the smells of the Iraq War, but in a safe environment.

I experienced it for myself with the help of Dr. Maryrose Gerardi at Emory University in Atlanta, one of the therapy's test sites. I was quickly brought back to my time covering the war in Iraq.

MARYROSE GERARDI, EMORY UNIVERSITY: Right now, you are sitting in the Humvee. I would like you to just move ahead slowly.

GUPTA (on camera): That is wild.


GERARDI: You can certainly stand up, if you would like, but please be careful. Now, as we go along, what I can do is add stimuli along the way that, hopefully, would elicit some of your specific memory, for instance...

GUPTA: Helicopters flying overhead.

GERARDI: Mm-hmm. I'm going to give you something that's a little bit more disturbing.

GUPTA: That is really frightening. You -- you have no idea what is -- what is happening right now.

Just two of our vehicles have just looked like they have exploded. I can't tell if the other vehicles are trying to get out of there as quickly as possible. I can feel my heart rate just starting to pound.

It looks like we just took some gunfire. More gunfire.

GERARDI: Now I would be asking you, if you were working on a specific memory, to be recounting your memory and confronting that memory. GUPTA: Well, there was one time when we were -- we were driving along, and, all of a sudden, our convoy came under fire.

GERARDI: What happened next?

GUPTA: It was nighttime, and, so, all these tracer fire, I guess, hitting the front of the convoy in front of us.


GUPTA: And we all just ducked down into the -- into the truck as low as we could go. You're literally just sort of covering your head, and...

GERARDI: Mm-hmm.

GUPTA: ... making sure your helmet chin strap is on as tight as it can be.

GERARDI: Mm-hmm.

What were you feeling at that point?

GUPTA: Helpless, totally helpless, and really, really scared, because I thought I was going to die. And I didn't want to die like that.

I am very uncomfortable right now, especially as I -- and I am trying to get this thing to get us out of here as quickly as possible. Every time I hear a new noise, I can feel my heart starting to pound. I can -- I have a little bit of the shakes with my hands.

GERARDI: Mm-hmm.

What I would be doing also at this point, Sanjay, is asking you to rate your level of anxiety on a scale from zero to 100.

GUPTA: Ninety. I don't feel good at all right now.


But the goal, as we had talked about, is to confront the fear memory in a safe place. You don't want to avoid it. Confront it, and find out that you can habituate to that level of anxiety, and be OK with it.

GUPTA: I have to tell you, I was stunned by my reaction. I mean, I know it's only a simulation, but my reaction was so powerful.

What I didn't show you was that I went through that simulation two more times. And I can't say that it ever really got any easier, but I did feel more in control. And, from what the psychologists tell me, that's the goal: Face your fears, until you can control them, maybe even defeat them.

Now, this therapy is only available on a limited basis, but it does seem to be very effective at treating our warriors who are coming home.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, Atlanta.


COOPER: Well, PTSD isn't the only problem our service men and women face when they come home.

Remember, they have been separated from their loved ones for nearly all of their tour of duty. That separation and the stress of combat is tough on relationships, and especially marriages -- coming up, husbands and wives changed by combat struggling to reconnect, and how the military is helping them do that.

You are watching a special edition of 360, "Coming Home."


MELANIE GRAY, HUSBAND DEPLOYED FOR 15 MONTHS: One time, he said to me, he said, "You know, I know, hon, you are used to being in charge, but I'm back, and your service is no longer needed."


KAYE: Your service is..

GRAY: Yes.

KAYE: ... is no longer needed.

M. GRAY: That's what he said to me.

And I go, "Do I look like one of your soldiers?" (INAUDIBLE)


KAYE: You said that?

M. GRAY: He said...







ERIC "DOC" NAEGELY, VIETNAM VETERAN, 4TH INFANTRY DIVISION: Well, when I went to Vietnam, I was 20. I was with the 4th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne. I was a combat medic. Dealing with death as a medic, you think about the ones you've lost, and you try not to think about it, but it's always there. And that's what the Iraqi guys are going to deal with this when they get back.

Yes, it's going to be a long road, and it's a long hard road. And just don't give up. You've already been through a war. And this is only secondary. You've already gone through the worst part.

You survived. You came home, and now you have to start taking care of yourself so you can take care of your family.


COOPER: Well, taking care of your family isn't easy when you're far from home. Long deployments are incredibly hard on military families.

It's hard to overstate the sacrifice that our servicemen and women make when they leave their families behind. I mean, imagine being deployed halfway around the world for 12 months with little more than e-mail to stay connected to your spouse. Even the strongest marriage would be strained.

CNN's Randi Kaye has one family's story and how the Army was able to help them.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Melanie Gray is happy to finally have her husband home after his 15 months in the Middle East, but home doesn't feel as good as it did before Master Sergeant Sheldon Gray went to Iraq.

MELANIE GRAY, MILITARY WIFE: Before deployment we did everything as a family, you know. We went away together, you know. When you saw one, you saw the other. I mean, it was all about our family.

KAYE: Today the grays and their three children find themselves struggling to return things to the way they used to be, but in this house communication is complicated by the ghosts of war and a long separation that is fracturing military families around the country.

M. GRAY: I felt like I was living the life that we were supposed to live together, and then he was living a totally different life that I didn't understand.

I felt like a single parent, a single person, you know, like everything was up to me. I had to get it right. It didn't matter what it was: the trash, you know, the bills, the kids.

KAYE: Like many soldiers upon return, Master Sergeant Gray became a stranger in his own home.

(on camera) What was it like when you first got back?

MASTER SERGEANT SHELDON GRAY, U.S. ARMY RESERVE: Getting back was -- it's almost like tip-toeing into a haunted house.

KAYE (voice-over): Unsure how to be a husband and father, unsure how to talk to his wife.

M. GRAY: One time he said it me, he said, you know, "I know, hon, you're used to be being in charge, but I'm back, and your service is no longer needed."

KAYE (on camera): Your service is no longer needed.

M. GRAY: Yes, that's what he said to me, and I looked at him and I go, "Do I look like one of your soldiers?"

KAYE: You said that?

M. GRAY: He said that.

S. GRAY: Yes, I said that.

KAYE (voice-over): While there are no overall statistics on military marriages, the Army does keep track of its own, and between 2001 and 2004, the relatively low number of divorces in the Army had nearly doubled, even though the number of troops remained the same.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not your problem or my problem but...




KAYE: Saying a strong relationship at home means a stronger soldier overseas, the Army began offering weekend retreats like this one to returning veterans and their spouses, helping them learn how to readjust to married life after spending more than a year apart.

The program, called Strong Bonds, has counseled more than 30,000 couples, and it seems to be working. The Army says its divorce rate is now dropping.

CHAPLAIN MACK GRIFFITH, U.S. ARMY RESERVE: The Army recognizes that the person and the relationship, marriages and relationships with children is critical to the effectiveness of the soldier. In fact, we say we recruit a soldier, but we retain a family.

S. GRAY: I guess one of the things I feel...

KAYE: Melanie and Sheldon Gray decided to give the retreat a try after a friend recommended it. In just two days, they say, their communication improved.

M. GRAY: I learned to be more patient and to actually hear when he says stuff, because I wasn't hearing him. You know, I just wanted stuff done. This is my life. I mean, I didn't go away. He did, you know, so for him to come back and want something to be explained I'm like OK, whatever. I've been here doing this. Not a big deal.

KAYE: What is a big deal is they have identified their issues, and with the help of the Army are already working to resolve them.

S. GRAY: So what did you hear about the news this week?

KAYE: For some, returning home is like fighting a second war, and for the Grays it is a battle they plan on winning.

M. GRAY: There are a lot of people getting divorces, you know, so I was afraid, you know, that that could happen to us, too. And I wanted to do whatever we could do to make sure that we end up being, you know, on the other side of the statistic.

KAYE: Randi Kaye, CNN, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.


COOPER: Well, it's great that things seem to be working out for them.

For kids, of course, the separation is especially hard. Tens of thousands of children in the U.S. have at least one parent serving in Iraq. That's tough enough, but imagine having two parents in combat at the same time.

Coming up, you'll meet a family that made a very difficult decision. We'll tell you why they did it, and despite the toll it took on their kids why they said they'd do it again when this special edition of 360, "Coming Home", continues.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Let me give you a tissue, OK. I'm sorry I made you cry. Are you crying because it was so hard when they were away?



COOPER: It's estimated that more than 100,000 children have at least one parent serving in Iraq. For these young Americans the war comes home every day as they worry and wait for their moms and dads to return. Imagine if you were a child how hard that would be.

Well, you're about to meet some kids who had both parents in Iraq at the same time. We've talked a lot about sacrifice in this hour. Well, the sacrifices that this family has made and may make again are truly extraordinary.

Here's CNN's Gary Tuchman.


TUCHMAN (voice-over): Eric and Heidi Erickson are back home after they both spent more than a year in Iraq, while their three children, Nathan, Taylor and Nicholas, stayed behind in Nebraska.

(on camera) When they came home, how did you feel?


TUCHMAN: Was it the happiest day of your life? And how do you feel right now?


TUCHMAN: Tell me why you're sad right now.

T. ERICKSON: Because they went.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Husband and wife are both in the Army Reserve. They could have gone to Iraq at different times, but with four grandparents available to take care of their children, they came to this decision.

HEIDI ERICKSON, U.S. ARMY RESERVES: His feeling was if he didn't go when I went, then he would go the next rotation and him, and I wouldn't see each other for three years.

TUCHMAN: So off they went. Sergeant Heidi Erickson drove a gun truck. Sergeant Eric Erickson drove a truck that hauls armor.

And then one day...

ERIC ERICKSON, U.S. ARMY RESERVES: We were driving through the town, and as soon as we come around the corner, it started, the gunfire, everything.

TUCHMAN: The blast shattered his ear drum.

And then 12 days later...

H. ERICKSON: As soon as I passed the first truck parked on the side of the road, the middle one blew up, and it was a huge explosion.

TUCHMAN: Glass lacerated her face. The couple recovered in Iraq and decided not to tell the family back in their quiet home town of Central City, Nebraska, what happened so they wouldn't be scared. But the grandparents and the children already were.

PATRICIA GREGG, GRANDMOTHER: I worried that the kids might be without one or both parents at different times, yes.

TUCHMAN (on camera): Let me give you a tissue, OK? I'm sorry to have made you cry. Are you crying because it was so hard when they were away?

(voice-over) After they recuperated, the couple came back home. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The president of the United States of America.

TUCHMAN: And both were awarded Purple Hearts.

The parents reunited with their family and reflected about what their children went through.

H. ERICKSON: It was the third month and the fourth month where they started to get really upset and "When are you coming home, Mommy." And then my baby started talking, and that was -- that was really difficult.

TUCHMAN (on camera): Were you afraid they were going to forget who you were?

H. ERICKSON: I knew my older children wouldn't, but I was worried about the baby. I really was.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Having two parents in Iraq at the same time is rare. The Pentagon tries to avoid the scenario, but an estimated 115,000 American children have at least one parent in Iraq.

ANGELA HUEBNER, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, VIRGINIA TECH: Young people need -- of all ages, need predictable environments. And military deployments make -- put a big wrench in that and really makes for a lot of changes, both good and bad.

TUCHMAN (on camera): The Erickson family's life here in Central City is now back to the way it used to be, but that could soon change. Because it may surprise to you learn that both parents expect to be sent back to Iraq.

(voice-over) And they say they're ready for it.

H. ERICKSON: Because I believe in all the good we're doing over there. It's -- I believe it's a worthy cause.

TUCHMAN: And despite all they've been through, they're ready to do it again, together.

Gary Tuchman, CNN, Central City, Nebraska.


COOPER: Their sense of duty is inspiring.

You know, we like to think that every soldier, Marine, sailor and airman who comes home can quickly restart their life, get a job, move back home, but sadly that is not the reality. Hundreds of thousands of vets from previous wars are homeless right now, living in shelters or on the streets.

Already some vets from Iraq and Afghanistan are homeless, as well. In a moment, you'll meet one homeless soldier. He almost died in Iraq but now says he's facing even tougher battles here at home. We'll be right back.


JOE RAICALDO, HOMELESS IRAQ VET: I'm going to say you should be treated like a human being, for God's sake. That's all I want. And I think about all the other veterans from other wars, and they're still fighting to this day. It's just -- it's horrible.




KENNETH HERRMAN, VETERAN: My name is Kenneth Herrman, and I was stationed with the 196th Light Infantry, southwest of Danang (ph) at a small village called Hepta (ph).

I left a part of myself in Vietnam. When one is in combat, I think when you leave, your soul stays where you were fighting, and you're not the same person when you return.

And one of the things you have to be aware of is that the war has changed you. It's giving you the ability to be able to capitalize on your experiences, to readjust your priorities in life, to recognize the value of life and the preciousness of relationships between people.

It's a difficult journey, and it's a struggle, but it's well worth the effort.


COOPER: Well, coming home can be a difficult journey, for some more than others. Whether it's physical wounds or emotional ones, some returning servicemen and women lose their way and wind up homeless.

There is help for them, but sometimes reaching out is a hard thing to do. Finding the help can be difficult. This is one veteran's story.


COOPER (voice-over): There are two things National Guard Corporal Joe Raicaldo never dreamed he'd see: the sun setting over Iraq and the sun setting over his '98 Plymouth, the car he now calls home.

RAICALDO: I never thought, like, after the ball was dropped, you're out here in this parking lot. I never thought I'd be here.

COOPER: The long road to get here, a parking lot in Jones Beach, New York, began two years ago in Iraq.

(on camera) So you were in this lane here? RAICALDO: Yes, actually in that top piece in that gun turret.

COOPER (voice-over): Joe was the gunner in this Humvee when his vehicle took a sharp turn and flipped. His body was nearly crushed underneath.

RAICALDO: I just remember I couldn't move anything. I couldn't breathe. I was bleeding. You know, I just felt blood all over me, my face. And I squeezed out the words, "Get a medevac fast," because I thought that was it.

COOPER: Joe suffered traumatic brain injury, broke his back, all his ribs and shattered his left arm. He was unconscious for days.

RAICALDO: They told my sister they're going to fly her out there; I wasn't going to make it.

COOPER: But to the surprise of his own doctors, he survived. Over many months, doctors pieced him back together, using metal rods and screws to fuse his spine and metal plates to hold his shattered arm together.

(on camera) You have a lot of metal?

RAICALDO: A lot of metal. Probably built a small Eiffel Tower over there in hardware.

COOPER (voice-over): Today every step hurts, but Joe remembers when he could run on this beach for miles.

RAICALDO: Me and my friend, we used to go eight miles that way.

COOPER: Joe can't lift more than ten pounds, so he couldn't go back to being an auto mechanic. Instead, he took a job with the National Guard, patrolling Penn Station in New York.

He says he lasted six months before landing in the hospital again with back pain and a bone infection.

RAICALDO: At that point I gave up. I simply gave up. I know I can't work. I have no income coming in. I'm finished.

COOPER: What he had coming in was $218 a month from a disability check. So it wasn't long before Joe, at age 50, ended up homeless.

RAICALDO: This is my clothes closet here.

COOPER (on camera): The trunk is your closet?

RAICALDO: Yes, forgive me. The maid never showed up this morning. I'm going to fire her when I get home.

COOPER (voice-over): Joe says he's looked for part time work with no luck.



COOPER: He has one sister and a few friends who've offered to help, but he's too proud to accept it and too proud to stay in a shelter.

So he spends most days alone, a stranger in his hometown of Hicksville, New York, on Long Island. One possible reason for his withdrawal: Joe was recently diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

RAICALDO: I just don't belong. I don't feel I belong anywhere around here.

COOPER: Joe is one of an estimated 600 homeless veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. That's not many, compared with the 200,000 or so from all wars who are currently homeless.

But these vets are showing up even more quickly than after Vietnam, a war that left nearly 70,000 homeless, an even greater number than died in combat.

CHERYL BEVERSDORF, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL COALITION FOR HOMELESS VETS: If the experience with Vietnam is any predictor, I am very worried about the numbers of homeless veterans where people at risk of being homeless who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

COOPER: The Department of Veterans Affairs is working to avoid a repeat of what happened after Vietnam.

JIM NICHOLSON, SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: There was a delayed effect with a lot of veterans after Vietnam. We know that. We've studied it. We've learned from that. And so that's why we're trying to intervene now right away.

COOPER: The V.A. spent more than a billion dollars on homeless programs last year, but some veterans still fall through the cracks. Misclassified, as the V.A. now says Joe was, unable to receive full compensation.

(on camera) You feel sort of like you got lost in the system?

RAICALDO: Absolutely. Lost -- I'm still lost. I'm still dizzy from what happened.

COOPER (voice-over): And sick and tired of fighting for benefits. Last month, though, Joe's persistence began to pay off. His disability status was raised from 20 percent to 60 percent, or $873 a month.

But as Joe puts it, in New York, that is just enough to either afford an apartment or eat, not both.

RAICALDO: I'm disgusted. And it's not because I'm a veteran or a soldier or somebody who served. That means nothing. You know, we choose to go. No one forced us to go.

I'm just saying that you should be treated like a human being, for God's sake. That's all I want. And I think about the other veterans from other wars, and they're still fighting to this day. And it's just -- it's horrible. And I had to live it.

COOPER: It was only after CNN made repeated inquiries about this case that the V.A. called to inform us that Joe would finally be granted full 100 percent disability status, retroactive to March and worth $2,600 a month. Meaning he may actually get to sleep in a real bed very soon.

When we called Joe with the news, he said he'll believe it when he gets the first check.

The war in Iraq may have broken his body, but it's the fight here at home that's come close to breaking his spirit.


COOPER: Coming up next on this special edition of 360, a mother welcomes her lost son home.


COOPER: Thankfully, the vast majority of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan come home and come home safely. More than 3,000 American troops have died, however, in both conflicts, and for their families coming home means something very different.

This letter was posted on our "Coming Home" web page by Linda Hendrickson, a mom in Purcell, Oklahoma.

She writes, "Our son, Specialist Robert T. Hendrickson, assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division from Ft. Hood, Texas, came home one year ago, February 7, 2005.

"Rob did not come home with flags flying, signs, cheering crowds, family members waiting to run across a tarmac. Rob came home quietly, in a mahogany coffin draped with the American flag.

"We embraced him as best we could, knowing we would not see him again after his service.

"Rob was a son, a brother, a father, an uncle, a cousin, a grandson. He went where he felt he needed to go.

"We've huddled around each other and his 7-year-old son Dillan (ph) to support and embrace each other as best as we can." She goes on to say, "People ask us what do we need? What can they do? Our response has been to hug your kids, hug each other and remember that life is precious."

If you'd like to write about your experiences coming home, you can contribute to the "Coming Home" web page at, or you can check out the 360 blog, where we also have resources for veterans.

We hope you've been as inspired as we have by the courage of the veterans in tonight's program. Their sacrifices have been heroic, and we thank them and their families and all of those who are and have served. Good night.



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