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Back from the Battle

Aired October 25, 2008 - 20:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, I'm Anderson Cooper in New York's Time Square, where MTV and CNN have teamed up to salute our veterans who are home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and also those who are still currently serving. We got some remarkable stories tonight of this brave men and women, the lives they live now and the challenges they're going to face in the future. We've also got some great musical acts performing inside the Nokia Theater. We'll bring you all of that on this 360 special, "Back from the Battle.
It is standing (INAUDIBLE) inside the Nokia theater, and for good reason MTV's concert for the brave is honoring our heroes who've been fighting two wars. CNN is partnering with MTV for the show tonight.

On the stage, tonight, Kanye West, Linkin Park, Kid Rock, just some of the artists celebrating the brave men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are standing up for a new generation of vets to make sure that they get the support, the care and respect they deserve. We're giving you a front row seat.

Along with the music, a message and a mission. Three out of four young Americans know someone who's serving or has served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The too often veterans who've left the frontlines are coming home to face new battles. Some have life-altering injuries, wounds. Others are reuniting with families and friends, trying to resume school or finding a job or coping with starting over again. None want your sympathy, but they deserve your attention. We're going to bring you some of their amazing stories tonight.

We begin with one vet. CNN's Michael Ware, first man on the frontlines during the fight of Fallujah, one of the deadliest battles in the war. His name is David Bellavia, a former staff sergeant. He won the Silver Star and the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq, now an author and a veterans' activist. David is trying to help other vets as they come home. Take a look.


MICHAEL WARE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After surviving deaths, it can be hard to come home again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here's what we are going to do.

WARE: Staff Sergeant David Bellavia raising his rifle knows how that feels.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get back! Get back! Get back to position. STAFF SGT. DAVID BELLAVIA, U.S. ARMY (RET.): I know when I walk down a street, I'm constantly thinking like I'm -- you know, what's going to happen when that window opens up. Once you know what the hardships of war are, you're hyper vigilant, you're hyper alert. And a man can't do that forever.

WARE: Bellavia fought in this, the battle of Fallujah in 2004 in intense house to house combat. He has a slew of medals of bravery, plus a nomination for America's highest award, the Medal of Honor. But after what he said was the hell of combat, his innocence is gone.

BELLAVIA: If you've been shot at before, you've heard the crack, you've heard the lines, you realized that no matter what happens, there are far better soldiers than I am, they got hit. They lost their lives. It is a crap shoot. It is total luck.

WARE: Out of the army now, he carries the survivor's guilt and seeks to return to his life.

BELLAVIA: You can never really enjoy it again. What's tranquility after you've been, you know, seen a rocket with vine and you lost 37 guys, you know. I mean, it -- yes, it's with you every day.

WARE: He's trying to make his experiences and those of his fighting generation mean something. For him, that meant writing a book and creating a group, Veterans for Freedom, to help other soldiers transition home again.

BELLAVIA: We have guys that legitimately need help -- traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress, college money, whatever. We appreciate all the help, but the reality of the matter is our legacy and the fact that the way we are perceived as a veteran is far more important than any sort of care package you can give us.

WARE: The best thing America can do to help its troops he says is stop victimizing them.

BELLAVIA: I coached my son's soccer team and I had parents come up to me saying, you know, we are really uncomfortable, you know, with you around kids because, you know -- you know, you use language or you might be prone to rage or you might be -- like, whoa. You know, what is this all about? I'm good to go.

WARE: He also says soldiers need much better care when they come home beyond the veterans' affairs system.

BELLAVIA: We can get these guys every -- literally, set up a coordination center when they come home and help them in every aspect, instead of them going to the VA, feeling like a number, feeling like a cog in a machine.

WARE: And if Washington or the community are helping these kids transition home enough says Bellavia, then it's up to the veterans themselves. BELLAVIA: We need to come to reality, grow up and realize that you know what, there are things that we can do right now that can literally change the world, change our country and we can take these horrible experiences to make sure that our kids don't go through it, you know, and we can actually make a difference.

WARE: And that he says is the veteran's ultimate fight.

BELLAVIA: Our generation is going to be judged by how -- not only how we fought but how we conduct ourselves when we come home.


COOPER: And Michael Ware joins us now. It's rare that you're able to actually follow someone from the battlefield and then hook up with them again. I mean, this report is a great thing to be able to follow up that long.

WARE: It is (INAUDIBLE), it's something unique. And after what some of us went through in that battle, like many others says there is a bond that is established.

COOPER: That battle was an extraordinary battle. I mean, it was unlike any the U.S. has seen in many, many, many years.

WARE: In so many ways, it's the defining battle of the Iraq war. Now, the Iraq war is many conflicts and many firefights. I mean, soldiers getting turn out all the time. But in terms of two forces, opposing each other, street-to-street -- and, I mean, not just house- to-house, but room-to-room. The battle of Fallujah was it. Otherwise, it's hit-and-run gorilla combat. And in that battle where David and I met and we are still friends today.

COOPER: What did David do?

WARE: In that battle, something that David did to save the lives of the 20 ought men he was with earned him a nomination for America's highest award, the Medal of Honor. When al-Qaeda fighters lured his platoon into the house and we were with them, they ambushed his men six feet away. And eventually, the platoon was pushed outside. It was David who went back inside and single handedly killed six al-Qaeda fighters, sometimes hand-to-hand.

COOPER: Does he seem different now than you met him in -- obviously, it's a different situation.

WARE: Anderson, everybody is different. I mean, that's the thing. Whether you are nominated for the Medal of Honor, or whether you'd never leave the war of your forward operating base, once you've been in that stuff, it stays with you forever. And I mean -- I remember one vet, right when he came home that once certain dark chambers of the heart are opened, they can never be closed again. So, David is not the same man he was when he went to war. None of this ever will be.

COOPER: I mean, everybody has their own war, everybody sees their own slice of the war, one soldier once said to me. But there is a commonality of experience. I mean, the bond that people share.

WARE: I mean, there really is a brotherhood, a fraternity. Now, you know, that can be over played and that can be devalued, the way people throw that word around. But in combat, that's what these kids are fighting for. There is a noble accord. They're wearing the flag on their sleeve but at the end of the day, Anderson, it's you fighting for me and me fighting for you. I want to make sure you get home, and I'm watching your back, and I know you, my brother, are doing the exact same thing.

COOPER: And that's what a lot of the vets here tonight are saying, they want to see for the vets who are returning home that same sense of us looking out for them and them looking out for us, and people looking out for each other.

WARE: And it's a very hard thing, because no matter how much people try back home, unless they've been there, there's going to be a distance. People cannot understand. And in fact, many of these veterans hope that their love ones never do understand. They don't want their love ones going through what they've been through.

So, want such a thing that protects their love ones, it's also the thing that forever will keep a certain distance. So, it's just about hoping that people can come to understand and find a way for these guys to eventually make their way home, because home is never the same again, Anderson.

COOPER: It's nice to have you back home as well. Michael Ware --


WARE: My pleasure. Thank you.


COOPER: Appreciate it.

From coming home to heading back. Our military is under enormous pressure. We all know it's stretched thin. And that's when some veterans have been called back to serve even though they thought their obligations for the military had ended. There about to be one man who's answered that call despite the difficulties that's placed on his family. Reporting the story for us, our newly named veterans' affairs correspondent, Chris Lawrence.


CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN VETERANS AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Chris Brown is 44 years old. He is an attorney, municipal court judge and father of three children with his high school sweetheart, Christine. He coaches sports teams and helps with homework. But next month, Chris will be fighting the war in Iraq.

CHRIS BROWN, DEPLOYING TO IRAQ: I really do think that we would get to the point where they would need to activate me. LAWRENCE: Word came late this August when a FedEx package arrived in the mail from the Army. Inside were orders for Chris to deploy to Iraq for up to 400 days.

CHRISTINE BROWN, CHRIS'S WIFE: I was in shock. I thought there has some kind of mistake because it would be very rare for a 44-year- old man to receive orders when he has been out of service for about 12 years.

LAWRENCE: Chris has been to Iraq before. He fought in the Persian Gulf War.

CHRIS BROWN: Being younger and more full of myself and feeling that I'm invincible, my attitude and my desire was to hurt as many bad guys as I could.

LAWRENCE: When he returned, Chris's priorities changed.

CHRIS BROWN: I put myself out of what I considered to be the Army and I was on this inactive ready reserve list.

LAWRENCE: The army said 65,000 soldiers are in the IRR, the Individual Ready Reserve. 5,000 are currently mobilized. Chris assumed his active military service was over. Now, suddenly, both his family and his country needed him.

CHRIS BROWN: It forced me to confront an issue. And the issue is do I take every opportunity I can to try to get a deferment or try to avoid serving my country, or do I honor what they are asking me to do. If I were to try to find a way to avoid it or seek a deferment, I would have to live the rest of my life knowing that I didn't honor and stand up and be counted when I was asked to serve.

LAWRENCE: And that's a lesson he wants to teach his children. We were with Chris and his family the day he left.

CHRIS BROWN: What I explained to them is dad has an obligation as we all do to serve our country. And when you are asked to meet that obligation, you need to do it.

LAWRENCE: Matt, Danny and Mallory will learn about service and sacrifice.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: I will take care of my brother and sister a little bit more.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Try to do things without him being there for me.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: If he didn't go, someone else's parent had to go.

LAWRENCE: Chris doesn't see service as exceptional.

CHRIS BROWN: There are so many other families who have lost loved ones, who's fathers are never coming home. And those are the families who should be getting attention.

LAWRENCE: And those are the families that Chris will be fighting for. Chris Lawrence, CNN, Ventnor city, New Jersey.


COOPER: Coming up next on BACK IN THE BATTLE, the war within.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: PTSD is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which I define as a sane person's reaction to an insane position.


COOPER: Thousands coming home and facing a new fight, that's ahead. Also, dream jumpers giving wounded warriors a chance to soar. Ahead on this special edition of 360.


COOPER: 50 Cent from the stage. Glad you are with us tonight for this 360 Special BACK FROM THE BATTLE. We're at the Nokia Theater in Times Square for MTV's concert for the brave, honoring our veterans. Justin Timberlake, Will Farrell, Kanye West and others superstars saying thanks to young military veterans and those still serving.

CNN has partnered with MTV in tonight's program. For many vets, the scars from war on the inside. Some estimate say nearly 20 percent of Americans home from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan have symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or depression. 20 percent. The problem for some of those vets is not just getting help, it's admitting that they need t. Here's CNN's chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Baghdad's Sadr City 2005. Army Private Kris Goldsmith serving his first tour in Iraq.

KRISTOFER GOLDSMITH, IRAQ WAR VETERAN: My primary purpose was photo documentation of everything that my platoon encountered. Eventually, I started having documenting exhuming mass graves and that type of thing.

GUPTA: Body after body, his pictures intense.

GOLDSMITH: I was a 19-year-old kid taking pictures of mutilated men, women, and boys and little girls. Those are the types of images that never really go away.

GUPTA: Haunted by what he saw, Goldsmith left Iraq at the end of 2005. He knew something was terribly wrong.

GOLDSMITH: I get like flashes of rage, which goes hand in hand with alcoholism that I have been fighting since I got back from Iraq.

GUPTA: Volatile, sometimes violent temper, chest tightening anxiety attacks, trouble sleeping, suicidal thoughts.

GOLDSMITH: That's not who I was before I deployed.

GUPTA: Chris didn't know it at the time, but it's likely they were all warning signs of post traumatic stress disorder. According to the most recent study done by the Pentagon in 2004, about one in six veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, and more than 60 percent of those suffering will never seek help.

GOLDSMITH: I just wanted to get out of the Army and I figure all my problems would go away once I got out of the service.

GUPTA: But when he and his brigade were stopped lost in early 2007, it was a breaking point.

GOLDSMITH: I was going to deploy to Iraq, the same week that I was supposed to be getting out of the Army.

It got to the point where you thought it would be better for you to be dead than to continue on.

I chose to try and take my own fate into my own hands. And I tried to commit suicide. I took enough Percocet to probably kill someone two or three times my size and I drank my usual poison of a bottle of vodka. I didn't imagine it being possible for me to survive.

GUPTA: But Chris Goldsmith did survive and his unit deployed to Iraq without him. His official diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at a VA Hospital came months after he was discharged.

GOLDSMITH: Right now, I'm doing a lot better. I've been through a lot of therapy. And I have been surrounding myself with other veterans who are going through the same thing.

GUPTA: Chris said the most important part of his therapy is speaking out against the war. His mission now advocating for his fellow vets. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, New York.


COOPER: A number of veterans organizations are trying to create what they call a bill of rights for American veterans, guaranteeing them the best care, treatment and support possible.

Joining us from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America founder and executive director Paul Reickhoff and spokeswoman Carolyn Schapper. Both veterans of the war in Iraq.

So, break this down for us. What is this bill of rights?

PAUL REICKHOFF, IAVA: The bill of rights is really about making veterans issues a priority in America. With the election coming up, with Veterans Day coming up, it's about demanding the veterans to get the proper care and resources they need. It's focus on mental health issue, ending homelessness among veterans and providing compensation for folks who are extended beyond their duty.

COOPER: But everybody says, look, we know we care about the vets, they get the best care. Is that not true? I mean, what more needs to be done?

REICKHOFF: We need to do better mental health care screening. We need to fully fund the VA. The GI bill that just went through this year, that's a good step, and we need to involve every American. Now, there are a lot of other issues like Lindsay Lohan and the pop culture that tends to bubble up, and now the economy is a big story. We've got to remember that veterans need to be a priority all the time. Not just on Veteran's Day. Presidential candidates, politicians, everyone needs to get involved and focus on other issues.

COOPER: PTSD is a huge issue. I know it's an issue you dealt with yourself. What more can be done? I mean, you talk about mental health screening. Does everyone not receive that already?

CAROLYN SCHAPPER, VETERAN ADVOCATE: No, they don't. We need to -- we are trying to get it before people deploy and at least 90 days out from returning, because PTSD takes a while to manifest, usually. And that's what happens to me. It was about six months in and I realized, you know what, I'm just not quite right and I need a little help. So, we need the VA to reach out to veterans.

COOPER: And for a lot of service members, especially those still in uniform, it's a very hard thing. There is still a stigma associated with depression or mental health issues.

REICKHOFF: Yes. There is a huge stigma. There's a major barrier. There's the military culture of being tough, of being macho. But we are trying to explain to people that it's not about being tough or being macho, it's about taking care of yourself just like you would with shrapnel wound or an amputation. You got to get treatment. You got to deal with it. And understand that it's a normal reaction to combat.

It's injury that's associated with your service, and PTSD is something that can be treated. There are resources there. And we need more of them, but we need folks to step forward and understand it's a normal part of serving in combat and a very tough situation.

COOPER: A lot of times when you go to homeless shelters -- you know, stories as I do for work, you see a lot of vets from the war in Vietnam in particular. Are we seeing a level of homelessness now among vets returning from Iraq or from Afghanistan?

SCHAPPER: Yes. We certainly are. We are seeing an increasing level. And that's the result of PTSD. The sooner we can get that treated, the less homelessness we'll have. And we're also working on getting a voucher program for the homeless.

COOPER: What's the voucher program? REICKHOFF: Basically, providing more housing for veterans. It's to make sure that there are housing for homeless veterans. Around 200,000 homeless veterans right now in America of all generations. A lot of them are Vietnam vets. But an increasing number of Iraq and Afghanistan vets. There aren't enough transitional services in place, educational programs and transitional housing. There is no transitional housing. You can be literally in Baghdad one week and in Brooklyn the next.

COOPER: Is it easier you think for these guys returning now than it was even from vets in the first Gulf War? I mean, how have things changed?

SCHAPPER: I think, personally things have been getting a lot better since Walter Reed. I live in D.C. and things changed almost immediately once that came out. So, the Veterans Affair is trying everyday, but it can always be better.

COOPER: Do you feel like -- I mean, I talk to a lot of vets who say that, you know -- and people still serving, they'll say like it doesn't feel like a lot of the country is as engaged in the war. I mean, many young Americans we talked about in this program know people who have served or served in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it doesn't feel like there's a level of sacrifice, certainly not the kind of sacrifice that the troop's families have.

REICKHOFF: That's exactly right. There is a huge disconnect. It's one of the biggest challenges we face as a new generation of veterans. Less than one half of 1 percent of the American public has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a very small percentage. And World War II is about 12 percent. So, that's why, events like this are important. Raising awareness, getting musicians involved, getting news networks involve and bringing together. We're going to have 900 of our members here from all over the area that are coming together to have a good time and listen to some music, but also to remind people that veterans issues that something everybody can get involved. It's not just somebody else's problem. It's a problem all of us can get together on as a nation.

COOPER: Thanks so much for what you're doing. I appreciate you being with us tonight. What's your Web site if people want more?

REICKHOFF: or just Google IAVA and you'll find it.

COOPER: All right. Well, thanks so much. You can also go to or our Web site for all the information.

Coming up, they are wounded, but not grounded. Reaching new heights. Heroes back from battle jump again. That's next.

And later from the frontlines to the head of the class, veteran gives us all an education.


COOPER: And welcome back. We're at MTV's concert for the brave. The Nokia Theater in Manhattan tonight. We are in the lobby right outside the stage. That was OAR performing. More artists from the show coming up. And as we said before, this night is for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and saluting those who are still serving overseas.

Tonight, 360 is taking a close look at what happens next, when the heroes are back from the battle. More service members are surviving their injuries than ever before. The medical care they now received close to battlefield is remarkable. That also means that more veterans than ever are living with lifelong injuries. Helping them live their lives to the fullest and what the Wounded Warrior Program is all about. CNN's Robin Meade has more.


DANEIL METZDORF, WOUNDED WARRIOR: We were just doing routine patrol. We were ambushed by a roadside bomb. The entire front of my leg was blown off. You don't feel the pain right away. So I guess I'll try to get off the table a lot and (INAUDIBLE), you're going to have to lay back down

GEORGE PEREZ, WOUNDED WARRIOR: They pretty much try to save my leg. But there was too much infection because it's kind of dirty over here.

ROBIN MEADE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Army calls them wounded warriors, soldiers injured on the battlefield. But for Daniel Metzdorf and George Perez, those injuries did not force the end of their military careers. These guys re-enlisted. Their mission now, to compete for a spot on the Golden Knights parachute team.

METZDORF: They came to me in the hospital and like -- well, you've got one leg. And I said, yes, the doctor has told me that already. But I still kind of want to serve. The Army as a team basically took me from being wounded in Iraq to right now. Jumping out of planes.

LT. COL. TONY DILL, U.S. ARMY: They receive no special treatment. The same jumps, the same level of training. And when they hit tryouts, they're going to have to be able to pass just like everybody else does.

MEADE (on camera): So, after all this training, is there a chance that Sergeant Perez and Metzdorf won't make it?


METZDORF: Yes. Definitely. This is not an easy thing. I don't want to show up and they're just going to stamp my hand, then you're a Golden Knight. That's not how it works. You're dealing with the best skydivers there are.

MEADE (on camera): Why didn't you just go and leave. You could have left, right? With benefits.

PEREZ: Yes, Ma'am. I love being part of the U.S. Army. MEADE (voice-over): This is the goal. To be part of the Army's Precision Parachute Team, jumping from plains, performing an air shows. This is part of the training. Both of them fought for their balance like I'm doing here in this wind tunnel. I have four limbs, so think about how different it must be for them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They basically just taught me to fly just around this. You just act like this is not here because this is not really affecting me good or bad.

MEADE (on camera): How do you two help each other? You kid with each other a lot.


MEADE: Like what? Come on, come on, let me in, let me in.

METZDORF: No. We kid back and forth. He can run faster than me, but he's only missing a foot. So, you know, I'm kind of amputee here.

MEADE: When are we going to know if you make it?

METZDORF: We will call you.

MEADE: What does it mean to you to possible make the Golden Knights?

PEREZ: Well, first of all, for me, I'm terrified of heights. So my wife knows it, and she'll be pretty impressed if I'll be able to accomplish this mission.

METZDORF: This is obviously a great job and something that you're like, I can make the Gold Knights. Yeah, I know, it's awesome. It's definitely a huge compliment. At the same time it's -- I believe it's a positive story that we bring about with the Army team and the strength of getting someone basically from the battlefield to still be an asset in today's Army.


COOPER: Robin joins us now and there have been developments for those guys.

MEADE (on camera): We learned today in fact that Daniel Metzgersk (ph) is still up to become a Gold Knight parachuter.

COOPER: That's amazing.

MEADE: Isn't that, though?

Think about it, these are two guys that could have retired with full benefits, but they wanted to serve. I think that's something that runs in the blood of so many of these military folks. They still want to serve after all they have been through. So he is still among 13 people up for the position. COOPER: That's great. It is incredible when you talk to so many vets who have been injured. They talk about it and even when they are in the hospital, even with catastrophic injuries, they talk about wanting to go back to the combat zone in they can because they want to be with their buddies, they want to be with their units.

MEADE: Exactly. So many times, obviously, they want to serve the country, but they will be here in the United States and still thinking about those people in the theater of war. I want to go back and there four of them. It's truly amazing. Hats off to Daniel Metzgersk. We wish them well. I'm going to -- I can't wait for an update to find out if he actually makes it.

COOPER: Let's hope so. We are going to have more from Robin later on with some veterans in the crowd tonight. Also coming up an amazing home makeover awaits one veteran. The emotional outcome ahead.

Also a master class, a soldier returns from Iraq determined to make a difference.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's important to be part of the best institutions. If you are going to be in the military go into Army. And if you're going to go to school you go (inaudible).


COOPER: Welcome back to a 360 special, "Back from the Battle." We are honoring America's heroes, the men and women serving and Afghanistan and the veterans who have returned home already.

Since both wars began more than 32,000 service members have been wounded in combat. Some of those injuries have been severe and catastrophic. Their lives have been changed. What has not changed is their determination. As you will see here, the drive to get an education after the tour of duty is over. Here's 360's Gary Tuchman.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Garth Stewart will be graduating from Columbia University this May. Five years to the month after he arrived in Iraq as an Army mortar gunner.

GARTH STEWART, IRAQ WAR VETERAN: May 20, 2003 to April 5, 2003. That's when I got wounded.

TUCHMAN: Sergeant Stewart and another soldier in his combat platoon stepped on a land mine.

STEWART: I heard a boom and the next thing I know we were both laying on the ground bleeding.

TUCHMAN: While both men were hurt, Sergeant Stewart's wounds were far more serious. STEWART: It was a series of amputations. And the first thing I lost was my big toe. Then half the foot and then it was the ankle and then seven inches from below the knee.

TUCHMAN: After the native Minnesotan got out of the hospital he went back to active duty at Georgia's Ft. Benning because he wanted to be sent back to Iraq.

Is there anything about it, though, going back to war without a leg that scares you?

STEWART: No. You are like 50 percent immune to land mines now.

TUCHMAN: Garth felt a patriotic duty to go back, but ...

STEWART: The opinion of my sergeant major was just like there is no way we are going to let you deploy back to Iraq.

TUCHMAN: Instead he was offered a military desk job but decided if he was going to sit at a desk ...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMLAE: What is this passage referring to?

TUCHMAN: ... it would be in a classroom.

STEWART: Another way to look at the Peloponnesian War as kind of a class war throughout all of Greece.

TUCHMAN: But Garth Stewart didn't want to go to just any college.

STEWART: It's important to be part of the best. The best institutions. So if you are going to be in the military, go in the Army. If you are going to school you go in the Ivy League.

TUCHMAN: So Garth is now is majoring in ancient history at New York City's Columbia University.

(on camera): How are you doing in college?

STEWART: Very good, very good. As and Bs across the board.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): The sergeant remains a strong supporter of the war, setting him apart from a good number of students on the campus. He says almost everybody has been very welcoming and friendly to him.

He goes to the V.A. medical center in New York to get a new prosthetic legs which have to be periodically replaced because of wear and tear.

STEWART: I lost one leg for my country and in return I've been given at least 20.

TUCHMAN: His sense of humor remains intact and so does his desire to serve his country. This is what he told us in 2006 when he was just starting in Columbia.

(on camera): What would you ultimately like to do?

STEWART: I think it would be fantastic to run for Congress some day.

TUCHMAN: President?

STEWART: I mean, I suppose if I ever had the chance, of course I would go for it. But I think that's a long way down the road. I'm just 24.

TUCHMAN: I hope it's a long -- You have to be 35 to be president, by the way, just to let you know.

STEWART: Well, look for me in 2020.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Now in 2008 that's still a goal, but after he graduates he plans to go to graduate school and then teach.

(on camera): If you can go back in a time machine ...

STEWART: This is when people ask. If you can go back and stop yourself from stepping on whatever it was, would you do it? Because I got to come here. I don't know. I really love going to Columbia.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Garth Stewart tries not to look back. Because he is so inspired about looking forward. Gary Tuchman, CNN, New York.


COOPER: A remarkable profile in courage and hero for us all. It's my honor to have Garth Stewart join us tonight.

Thanks so much for being with us.

STEWART: My pleasure.

COOPER: What's it like when you first came back and enrolled in school? Most of the people in school probably hadn't been serving. Was it strange to kind of be around the people who hadn't been overseas?

STEWART: It wasn't weird. All the kids were respectful for the most part. There was one organization on campus called International Socialist Organization. They have problems with military in any form. So I have gotten in some shouting matches with them. Other than that, students were great. They just think you are a different person. Of course none of them served so they are interested in meeting the type of person that would.

COOPER: What's the most difficult thing about transitioning back on civilian life?

STEWART: I don't know. Just give it time. I don't think it's difficult like that. Just give it time.

COOPER: Do you think enough people are invested in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan in the United States.

STEWART: Right now?

COOPER: Over the course of the war. Do people have -- does it have an impact on people's lives enough?

STEWART: I mean what's the statistic. Like half a percentage for the country? Like maybe someone in your extended family got hurt. That's how it affects people. For the most part, I don't know, it's a ghost war.

COOPER: Ghost war?

STEWART: I mean -- I shouldn't say that. Here. You can -- it's easy to ignore. It's very real for some people.

COOPER: What do you want people watching this to know?

STEWART: That - I don't know. I'd say opportunity. In high school. I had a 1.8 high school GPA. I never took the SATs. I went in the Army and they taught me how to try and now I go to school at Columbia for free.

COOPER: What do you want to do after you graduate?

STEWART: Teach. I want to apply to Columbia's Teacher College to get my certification to teach history. I need a letter of recommendation.

COOPER: All right. I could be happy to do one.

STEWART: For real?

COOPER: If you want.

STEWART: I would.

COOPER: All right. It's a deal. All right. Thanks. I appreciate you being with us.

STEWART: You got it.

COOPER: All right. I will give you my e-mail.

STEWART: All right.

COOPER: Coming up, a man's life was nearly lost on the battlefield, Dr. Sanjay Gupta was there in Iraq to save it and now the two meet back at home.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The war doesn't end when you come home. It goes on in your head.


COOPER: Also tonight, a homecoming helping a vet and his wife with a gift to remember and how you can give back to our vets, coming up.



COOPER: That's Kid Rock giving his salute to the veterans here tonight. I have had the privilege of reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan a number of times. And as a reporter you always try to avoid becoming part of the story, but sometimes that's not possible.

CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta learned that while in Iraq on assignment. In addition being a great reporter, he is a highly respected brain surgeon and when a wounded Marine needed help, Dr. Gupta was there.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There some things you never forget. A gold inky black night just outside Baghdad. Eerie quiet, then chaos.

I was in Iraq covering the military's Devil Docs medical team and in moments I would go from reporter to neurosurgeon.

(on camera): They don't have neurosurgeons on this particular medical unit at least this far forward.

(voice-over): A 24-year-old Marine, massive head trauma. A sniper's bullet. He was declared dead twice. But by the time he reached me, hope, a faint pulse.

In a makeshift operating room with rudimentary tools, I operate. That Marine, Jesus Vidana, is now 30. We've reunited several times over the last five years.

JESUS VIDANA, SUFFERED TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY: I think there was some confusion.

GUPTA: He asked and I finally told him how he was saved.

(on camera): Your brain here was hit and blasted, if you will, a bit by the bullet. We were able to get this blood collection off and remove some of the damaged brain and get that bullet out of there and stop all the bleeding. I didn't think you were going to survive and I didn't think you were going to live through that.

Jesus survived the war, but the toll it extracted is steep.

VIDANA: I don't want to talk about it. It will consume me. It will tear at me. We need to get out. Everybody has changed. Even if they don't have injuries, they come back and they are changed. Not all change is good, I guess.

GUPTA: Jesus is changed.

(on camera): Are you going to get married?

VIDANA: Maybe. I don't know.

GUPTA: Can you do it? Can you have that sort of relationship?

VIDANA: Sometimes I feel like I'm so damaged that I don't want to damage my own kids if I ever have any.

GUPTA: It's a tough thing to hear, Jesus.

VIDANA: Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with life.

GUPTA (voice-over): But he is coping. Getting psychological help. Getting a few shreds of hope. Something he says many fellow vets don't have.

(on camera): Do you think that the country is doing a good enough job taking care of its vets?

VIDANA: I think more can be done. They should be entitled to all the care that they can get. Because the war doesn't end when you come home. It goes on in your head.

GUPTA (voice-over): For now, Jesus is winning that war in his head. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, Los Angeles.


COOPER: We are back with Robin Meade. There have been some great moments tonight.

MEADE: One of my favorites was the marriage proposal. When you look at this, think of this in the vein of these people don't see each other for like 15 months at a time and yet they can still stay close and then they had this moment.

COOPER: Let's take a look.


MEADE: There is so much emotion here tonight. I don't know if you can feel it here at home, but there so many musical acts and we want to say thanks to the troops for all that you do. Standing with me is Damian Finizi (ph). I want to talk to Damian. He is an active Marine. I want to talk to him about the challenging of putting your relationship, your life on hold basically to serve overseas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As everybody knows, it's real hard to be away from the people you love. You have that communication and everything falls into place.

MEADE: I bet that are is tough. Thank you for the work that you do. Now I know that you have your sweetie here, Kelly Labelle (ph). She is here. I know you would like to have her on the stage. He missed you so much. He has some business to do right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Baby girl, we have been through a lot together. You know I love you and we have been through a lot together. The only thing left to do is actually get married.

MEADE: She said yes!

I have been hanging out up here with a lot of the troops right beside me on either side. I think you can feel the camaraderie. Is that fair to say?


MEADE: Yes, I think so. There is a very special bond here.

This is Adrianna Mozo (ph). She used to be -- she is currently with the Army and she served in Iraq. We are glad you are back home. How would you describe the bond you share after you have been to war with them and back?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You are going to be family for life. You really will.

MEADE: Absolutely. Obviously it's important for these vets to stand up for each other.

COOPER: There is a young woman over here named Michaela and her dad is in Baghdad right now. She wanted me to hold up this picture and it says God bless our troops, bring them home safe.

So what do you want your dad to know if he is listening?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That I love him and I hope he comes home safe.

COOPER: We all do. Thanks.

MEADE: I'm surrounded by people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan all over here tonight. People just like Sergeant Angelo Nichols (ph). Sergeant, thank you for the job that you do. Let me ask you, what was the biggest thing that you missed about the good old U.S. of A. while you were overseas?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Family. That was the most. I have a son who is five years old now. When I was there over there, he was going on one. I missed him the most. My family.

MEADE: You missed some of his growing up while you were here. Tell me about how challenging is it to be in the battlefield there, but also to come back here and be a little bit a part of civilian life. You are from the battlefield back to the States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's difficult because I was there for so many months. I had a rifle with me and now I get back and I don't have a rifle. Every 10 to 15 seconds, I am like where is my rifle. I have a cell phone. I can make calls instead of waiting online. So I find myself going to a pay phone to make a call to my family when I have a cell phone in my pocket.

MEADE: Little things you don't think about. Sergeant Angelo Nichols. Thank you so much for the job you do.


COOPER: Robin, it's been great to have you on the program. Coming up, how you can help the men and women and home sweet home. Help a soldier whose life is changed forever by a sniper's bullet.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got to the tallest part of the roof, through a camo net over the stair wells and that's when I got shot in the right side of the neck. Hit me like a ton of bricks.



COOPER: That's Ludacris playing to veterans here at the Nokia Theater.

Our 360 special, "Back from the Battle" continues more from the home front. Nearly 3 million vets receive disability compensation, but the benefits only go so far. The couple you are about to meet have their lives changed forever by one man's commitment to helping our vets.

Matt and Tracy Keil is a story of love interrupted by war. Home from his first tour of duty in Iraq, Matt met Tracy through a friend and he says it was love at first sight. Their wedding came during his second tour of Iraq.

TRACY KEIL, IRAQ VETERAN: The main reason we got married is what if something happened.

COOPER: Something did happen six weeks later. Fighting in Ramadi, Matt was shot by a sniper.

MATT KEIL, IRAQ VETERAN: I jumped up on the highest part of the roof and through a camo net over the stair wells and that's where I got got shot in the right side of the neck. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

T. KEIL: They told us he had had a Christopher Reeve-type injury. And I just collapsed.

COOPER: He was paralyzed from the neck down.

T. KEIL: Realizing my wife would help me eat and cleaning me up and doing things like that was kind of devastating. COOPER: Devastating but slowly things looked up. Matt regained some use of his left arm. In August while undergoing treatment, Matt heard about Homes for our Troops. A nonprofit organization that builds specially adopted houses for disabled veterans. John Gonsalves started homes for the troops frustrated that not enough was being done for our veterans.

JOHN GONSALVES, HOMES FOR OUR TROOPS: Our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers are all in a far away place, putting their lives on the line and getting injured. And many of them dying for us and we are not doing anything. We have to do something.

COOPER: Now you're volunteering for those who volunteered for us.

GONSALVES: That's it.

COOPER: John got hundreds of volunteers to help build Matt and Tracy's home for free.

GONSALVES: It's the certificate of occupancy.

COOPER: We were there when it was presented to him.

GONSALVES: Your fingerprint is throughout the entire home. You will be a part of the family no matter what. We love you. Thank you very much.

Welcome home, Matt. Welcome home, Tracy.

This is more than building homes. This is about thank you. You have no idea how much I admire what you have done.

M. KEIL: Thank you very much. People like you that make America great, John.

COOPER: This is the 33rd free house Homes for Our Troops has given to a vet. They are working on 40 more.

M. KEIL: One of the more life-changing events that has happened to me for sure. Especially after being injured. We are going to be in the house that is fully accessible and has everything they need to take care of me. Wide open floor plan and easy for Tracy to take care of me too. I don't think we can ask for anything more.

T. KEIL: This gives security for our life. This is where we can have our kids. This is it. This is where we will stay forever.


COOPER: Matt and Tracy have their new home, but so many others are still waiting in line. They depend on donations and volunteers as do so many others are trying to help veterans. Tonight we honor the services and sacrifices made by veterans and those still serving and their families. More attention must be paid to their lives and what they have given to the nation and what are going through now. For more information and to find out thou donate your time and money to worthy causes for veterans, log on to

Thanks for joining us tonight. I'm Anderson Cooper.