This story originally aired Dateline NBC on May 25, 2008.
LUTTRELL: It's like somebody just jammed you in the gut with a bayonet or something. I mean it's always there.
He's pushing 60 now -- young for a great-grandfather, though his wife jokes that he looks much older.
Perhaps it's because he has seen the future -- through his own turmoil -- for thousands of American service people.
It’s time now, he says, to warn them.
LUTTRELL: How many more people out there that are-- experiencing the same thing as I am?
A great many of them, as we will find out later.
DUCKKWORTH: We've learned a lot of lessons from the Vietnam era and the things that were put in place from that time is what we're using to to take care of our younger vets now.
Rich Luttrell has spent years working with veterans, most of whom, just like him, are deeply proud of their service.
Volunteers. True patriots.
He knows all too well what many of them are in for... back home.
LUTTRELL: These guys need somebody to talk to they really do. I mean they really do. You know that was the worst thing for me was to come home and bury that ... all those years, just to bury it
Bury it? Bury what? The flip side of the valor our men and women practice in war. The price they pay for what they do for us.
And Rich Luttrell? Well, what happened to him is, as you'll see, almost beyond imagining.
RICH LUTTRELL: It was the one moment, and the one act in combat that has been a burden for me for 33 something years.
It was 1967. Richard Luttrell, just barely old enough to sign up, was where he wanted to be -- in the 101st airborne.
He volunteered for Vietnam.
LUTTRELL: The day I got to my unit, the chopper came down in the jungle -- and I saw the members of my platoon standing around my age... and these were some tough-looking guys. Just their eyes. And I can remember thinking My God, what have I got myself into?
And so this puny kid from the projects found himself in a world for which no amount of training could adequately prepare. It is hot here, or wet, or both. No roof, no bed, no rest, no break from the fear. Just a scrawny kid with a back pack almost as big as he was who learned that the first rule is, you keep going and going and going.
LUTTRELL: There was times I can remember really trying to choke the tears back -- like "God, please stop, I can't go no more." And we'd do that from daylight til dark. And I thought, "What am I gonna do if we get in a firefight? I can't move, I'm so tired. What do I do in a firefight? And I never was prepared for that ...
And then came the day that changed everything. It was hot, as always, like wearing a coat in a steam room, he had no idea his enemy was just a few feet away in the jungle.
LUTTRELL: Out of the corner of my right eye I see movement ... I could see an NVA soldier leaning over with an AK 47, squatting.
KEITH MORRISON, Dateline NBC: First time you'd ever seen a North Vietnamese soldier.
LUTTRELL: Right, in my whole life, ever seen one.
He was barely 18, suddenly flooded with fear. His body seemed to freeze. He couldn't let it.
LUTTRELL: I had to react. I had to do something, it was my decision.
He was in the enemy's gun sight. Death was a heartbeat away.
He turned, and looked the enemy soldier full in the face.
LUTTRELL: It seemed like we stared at each other for a long time.
And then, like it was all in slow motion, he pulled the trigger.
LUTTRELL: And I just started firing, full automatic. And he went down. It turned into a pretty heavy firefight. And I wasn't smart enough to hit the ground -- and somebody tackled me, and took me to the ground.
MORRISON: Did you realize that particular North Vietnamese soldier could have killed you before you even saw him?
LUTTRELL: Absolutely, absolutely. And I've wondered even today - I go through my mind and I wonder why didn't he fire?
But that is not what played on rich, haunted him, year after year after year: Not the gunfight, nor living in the moment of that terror. There would be a lot of that.
No, it was the one thought he hadn't truly considered before... aasn't prepared for it.
LUTTRELL: After the firefight is over. After the adrenaline rush is over, and you're all soaking wet, and you feel like your legs won't hold you And it hits you -- I just took a life.
And that's when he saw it: the tiny photograph.
Right there on the jungle path is where it began to weave a whole new story for his life.
LUTTRELL: I seen this picture sticking out partially out. It looked like (closes eyes) the face of a little girl with some long hair or something. And I pulled it out and it was real tiny. And it was a picture of a soldier and a little girl. I can remember holding the photo and actually squatting and getting close to the soldier and actually looking in his face and looking at the photo, and looking at his face.
Here was the man he had just killed. But who was that little girl? His daughter?
They seemed so serious. So, sad, somehow. Like the picture was taken just before they said goodbye. Before her father went off to war.
MORRISON: And that hit you?
LUTTRELL: It hit me really hard.
Not for long, mind you. Rich stuffed the tiny picture into his wallet. And within minutes they moved out again.
Not for a moment, by the way, should you believe that rich was a reluctant soldier. When it came time again to use his weapon he did not hesitate.
He developed an uncommon expertise at the dangerous and gruesome business of clearing underground tunnels of enemy personnel.
On killing's costHe became skilled at hand to hand combat, at surviving.
LUTTRELL: I can remember being on a hill one night and mortar rounds jut pounding in the dark, and hearing guys screaming and getting blown out of holes. And pulling my rucksack over my head and thinking, “God, don't let one hit me.”
He had just 20 days left, when the bullet ripped into his back. The wound that sent him home...
LUTTRELL: I can remember, when I got on the helicopter, all of a sudden this tremendous guilt hit me, like, “Where are you going? What are you doing? What are you leaving these guys for?”
Rich came home to a case full of medals and married his hometown sweetheart, Carole. And as the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s, the ‘80s he tried to put Vietnam behind him.
CAROLE: He really didn't talk about Vietnam for years. It just was something he kept very personal, and very hidden.
But all the while, there in his wallet, was that picture. The little girl who would not let him go.
Of course, he didn't know yet - how could he? What that little image had in store for him.
LUTTRELL: I really formed a bond, especially with the little girl in the photograph...
It was so odd, so strange. All the horrors rich had seen in battle ...and it was this little face that kept coming back to haunt him.
LUTTRELL: Here's a young daughter doesn't have a father thanks to me.
Year after year, he kept it in his wallet. As the torment he felt failed to go away... as it settled on his life like a darkening cloud.
CAROLE: The only thing I could ever say was, why don't you just get rid of it. You know? Let it go. And get it out of your life and you can forget it and go on.
And, 20 years after his return from Vietnam, that is what Rich determined to do.
They were on vacation, he and carol, in Washington, D.C. And when he saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, rich knew what he could do with that now tattered little photograph.
LUTTRELL: I said, you know that picture? I said, I'm going to leave it at the wall. And her face lit up. I could just see, this was something good.
And, sitting in their hotel, he decided to do it right.
LUTTRELL: I sat down on the bed with just a scratch pad that was in the hotel room, I started thinking, I thought, if there was any way possible that you could talk to that soldier, what would you say, you know? And in like, just a couple of minutes, I scribbled out a little note.
In it, he said those few little things he'd always wanted to say. Not that he regretted being in that war... not that he regretted serving his country. No, he didn't. It was instead that unending guilt, that uncontrollable sorrow, at having taken away a young father's life.
LUTTRELL: “Dear Sir, For 22 years, I've carried your picture in my wallet. I was only 18 years old that day we faced one another on that trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Forgive me for taking your life. So many times over the years, I've stared at your picture and your daughter, I suspect. Each time, my heart and guts would burn with the pain of guilt. Forgive me sir.”
The next day, Rich placed the photo and the letter at the foot of the memorial, under the names of 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam.
LUTTRELL: And at that moment, it was like I had just finished a firefight and dropped my rucksack and got to rest. That load I was carrying was gone. It was gone.
MORRISON: All lifted off.
LUTTRELL: Oh, all lifted off. Just felt great. I felt free. Felt relieved, I felt free.
Or so he thought. Every day, hundreds of people say goodbye to bits and pieces of the war and leave them here along these granite walls and every single thing - sacred or profane - is collected and boxed up by park rangers. Including Rich's photo. Which just happened to land at the top of one of those boxes, which just happened to land face up ...which just happened to be seen by another Vietnam veteran who knew right away that this was something different.
DUERY FELTON: I thought "what is this?" So I reached down and picked it up.
Duery Felton is curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial collection. He has seen just about everything here.
But a picture of an enemy soldier?
DUERY FELTON: I really did a double take.
MORRISON: Don't often see a thing like that at the wall?
DUERY: Well, I haven't seen it in about 30 odd years, that green uniform.
And he read Rich's letter of apology.
DUERY: I read that letter and it was about taking a life. It's very difficult to do that. That decision has to be made in a matter of seconds. And you have to live with those decisions the rest of your life. So it was somewhat comforting, if that's the proper term, to know that someone else has been through that, and they set it down on paper.
And before long the little photo and all the emotion it conjured up, infected this veteran, too. A tiny determined spirit floating from one old soldier to the next, reminding them both of the price they paid for pulling the trigger.
DUERY: That haunted me for years and years as to who the little girl was.
MORRISON: What is it about that image that was so powerful that you'd hang on to it? That he'd hang on to it? That you couldn't let it go in a way?
DUERY: I think it resonated some place in my psyche. You have to understand I was in a combat unit. This is about taking someone's life.
Of course rich knew none of this back in Rochester, Illinois. He was getting on with his life. He thought he was finished with that little girl. Except she... wasn't yet finished with him.
There is a powerful silent emotion that surrounds the monuments to America's wars. And at this one, the remarkable wall, a great and ever growing collection of the bits and pieces of survivor memories and grief.
When Duery Felton was asked to help produce a book, "offerings at the wall," he had a warehouse of objects and images from which to choose.
He put the little girl, and rich's letter, right there in the middle.
And of course Rich, who by now worked for Veterans Affairs, received a copy.
LUTTRELL: And I turned to page 53 and there was the picture of the picture I had left at the Wall, and the note I'd wrote to the soldier.
It was as if she were staring right at him, refusing to go away. As if she was accusing him of trying to abandon her...
LUTTRELL: For me, that moment was, it was almost a nightmare. It was like, you know, “Little girl, what do you want from me? You know, what do you want from me?”
Now the obsession returned full force. He knew he had to get the picture back. So he contacted Duery Felton, who'd become so attached to the photo himself he personally flew from Washington D.C. to Illinois to hand deliver it back to Rich. And anyone who didn't understand might have found it rather strange that two middle aged men, who didn't know each other, had never met, would hold on and weep real tears for a small girl neither knew.
LUTTRELL: And I was talking to my wife one evening and I said, “You know, I don't know if it's something mystic, or fate, but I said ... somehow I have to return this picture.” And she said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “I'm gonna find that little girl, I'm gonna find that family of that soldier.”
A ridiculous idea, of course. He no longer knew the country, or the language, or what she looked like now, or even if she was alive.
CAROLE: I didn't badger him and say "You can't do it. Just give up. forget it. It ain't happening. It's not worth the effort, I'm tired of hearing it." I didn't say any of that, because it wouldn't have stopped him.
MORRISON: Did you get tired of hearing it?
MORRISON: This is an obsession?
CAROLE: (emotional) Yep.
MORRISON: Hard on you as much as on him?
MORRISON: How much did you want that to go away?
CAROLE: I don't know that I wanted it to go away. I wanted him to find peace with it.
So Rich called a newspaperman he knew in St. Louis.
LUTTRELL: And we sat, probably a couple of hours talking about it. And the story made the front page of the Post Dispatch on Sunday, I believe.
The plan kept forming as he went. He folded up the article, and stuck it in a letter to the Vietnamese ambassador in Washington D.C.
LUTTRELL: And he told me he would forward it to Hanoi. And he said something to the effect of, “Maybe we'll get lucky.”
MORRISON: It's a needle in a haystack. It's a, it's a big country.
LUTTRELL: Oh I know, yeah. Million to one, million to one.
And so a copy of the photograph made its way all the way around the world again to the capitol of Vietnam, to Hanoi. Where an enterprising newspaper editor recognized a good story when he saw one, and published the photograph along with an appeal: “Does anyone know these people?” If the article failed to hit its mark, well it was a shot in the dark anyway. But there's another way newspapers make their way around. A time-honored tradition -- as wrapping paper.
It just so happened that a man in Hanoi decided to send his mother a care package. He happened to wrap that package in this newspaper, the one containing rich's photo.
And then, by some bizarre coincidence, probably, the package made its way to a rural village north of Hanoi, where an old woman unwrapped it, saw the photo, took it to a neighboring hamlet, and told a woman there, “Here, this is your father.”
And before long, thousands of miles away, Rich Luttrell received a letter.
The girl had a name: Lan.
She had children herself.
LUTTRELL: It just didn't seem possible, it seemed surreal. I just couldn't believe it was happening. And of course, all that emotion again, and you know, now it's real.
And it was complicated, too. He wrote a letter to Lan and her family, trying to explain how he felt.
LUTTRELL: The difference between guilt and regret. I do carry some guilt because of that action. But I have no regret as a soldier, and participation in that war. And it was important for me to make sure they understood that.
But around then, it finally dawned on him: he would have to go back to Vietnam himself. He would have to carry the photo and give it back.
But how could he face his own closet full of horrors... and how would he face the girl?
LUTTRELL: How do you tell a little girl, “Hi, my name's Rich Luttrell, I killed your father in Vietnam.”
LUTTRELL: There's a risk there, there really is. There's a risk there. I don't know how they're going to react.
Decades after Rich Luttrell aimed his weapon at another human being, and pulled the trigger, in the service of his country, he was about to perform his own personal act of atonement.
It was early one springtime when Richard Luttrell set out in search of a cure for what tortured him.
LUTTRELL: The whole thing's bigger than I am. It's hard for me to understand it sometimes myself.
Years ago, he swore that he would never go back to that place. He had seen too much killing, too many horrors... All that suffering reflected in that one small image.
But now, here he was... on his way to Vietnam. Drawn by a photo no bigger than a postage stamp…
And like a live thing, it had made its way: from a dead man to a dusty trail in Vietnam, to an American GI, a war memorial, to a book, to a wallet, to this bag, on its way home...
LUTTRELL: This is the flight I've been looking for…
To present the picture to that little girl, the daughter of the man he killed.
Will he even know her?
He's no teenaged grunt. And she must be 40 or so.
It’s the smell that hits him first. Every memory has one: Normandy, Vietnam, Iraq.
The day before he is to meet the girl, now woman, in the photo, Rich is almost beyond nervous.
LUTTRELL: I'd almost rather face combat again than face this girl.
It is a cloudy Wednesday morning in Hanoi. Rain is threatening, as rich boards a van for the two and a half hour drive to Lan's village.
A drive through a world changing fast but still utterly different. Past markets crowded with faces amazed to see this entourage... this white-haired man.
The village draws closer in the van he fidgets, edgy...
And then, suddenly, Rich and Carole are walking. Here is where that somber, serious soldier lived, had his children, the place to which he never returned.
MORRISON: How're you feeling?
And then, just around a stone wall, rich sees a woman. And is sure...
LUTTRELL: I've already seen her, I know who she is.
He takes a moment, to compose himself, then walks toward her.
And here they are.
They had never laid eyes on each other before.
For a few seconds, they don't know what to say.
They are intimate strangers.
He recites a sentence he has learned in Vietnamese:
“Today,” he says, “I return the photo of you and your father, which I have kept for 33 years. Please forgive me.”
Finally, it all comes pouring out.
This terrible, painful release. As if right now at this moment she is finally able to give in to grief, and cry for the father she never really knew.
She clutches rich as if he were her father himself, finally coming home from the war. Her brother tells us that both of them believe that their father's spirit lives on in rich. They expect we'll think its just superstition… and, perhaps, they say, it is... but for them, today is the day their father's spirit has come back to them.
The whole village has turned out to see the photo returned...
Once Rich had wondered about formality, ceremony. But not now.
LUTTRELL: Tell her this is the photo I took from her father's wallet the day I shot and killed him and that I'm returning it.
She is 40 years old, and it's the first time she has held the photo of herself and her father in her hands.
And in this moment, and during the afternoon that followed,
LUTTRELL: He died a brave man, a courageous warrior.
In the company of former enemies, Rich Luttrell felt as if his wounded soul had been stitched up and made new again.
LUTTRELL: I'm so sorry.
At which point, we could almost imagine some Hollywood director shouting, “Cut! Print!”
Except of course, life isn't quite like that. And in the chapter that follows, you'll see why.
It is not a simple thing, as Rich Luttrell can certainly tell you, coming back from a foreign war.
He was hardly alone as he suffered through flashbacks and bouts of depression.
Rich saw it for himself, first-hand, in his work at the Veteran's Center in Illinois: the struggle to heal for many was deeply wrapped up in guilt over killing other human beings.
LT. COL. PETER KILNER: War and the killing that goes on with it, those-- those get into the biggest issues of life.
Here on a bluff overlooking the Hudson river, a world away from the jungles of Rich Luttrell's Vietnam, or the sand-blown towns of Iraq, a West Point professor named lieutenant-colonel Peter Kilner tells us a researcher pouring over a study of Vietnam vets came to a remarkable conclusion.
KILNER: That the single greatest factor into whether a Vietnam war veteran experienced symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder was whether they had killed someone.
KEITH MORRISON: And not the fire fights, you're being hit by a bullet, or seeing the enemy firing at you. It wasn't that. It was firing-- killing somebody else.
LT. COL. PETER KILNER: Yes.
Of course, there are many factors that can contribute to PTSD. Trouble is, says Professor Kilner, in the army and out, the subject of killing and its relation to PTSD seems virtually off-limits.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL PETER KILNER: The topic of killing in the profession of arms is the elephant in the living room that no one's talking about.
Failure to face the elephant, says Kilner, can invite a lifetime of torment for the people who have served us in combat.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL PETER KILNER: Because they're good people. In a strange way, an ironic way, having-- psychological problems after having killed in war can be a sign of moral health.
And yet, to bring it up in polite company back home, very difficult.
LT. COL. PETER KILNER: Mothers and fathers are proud to see their children come home and have medals and have served their country honorably. They don't wanna hear that their son or daughter killed another human being.
Rich Luttrell remembers writing home to his mom, just hours after killing 3 enemy soldiers...
RICH LUTTRELL: And-- I went and dug a prone position that night and I went to write my mother a letter and I just broke down and started bawling. Just like a baby. I mean you know, how do you tell your mom that you just killed three people?
LUTTRELL: How many more people out there that are experiencing the same thing as I am?
KEITH MORRISON: Whole new generation of 'em.
RICH LUTTRELL: Oh, a whole new generation.
LUTTRELL: Yeah, another generation.
In a small apartment in Akron, Ohio live Jill Stacy and Matt Frank, soulmates since they were 14, and now as close as any two people can be.
And then Matt came home from Iraq.
JILL: I would wake up in the middle of the night, because he-- his entire body would be shaking, and he would be screaming.
KEITH MORRISON: Pretty scary.
JILL: Very scary...
He joined right out of high school and couldn't wait to be in the military.
MATT FRANK: Getting into the Army was like a new sense of stability that I never had before. I loved it.
In Iraq he was a Humvee gunner, which took him to a town called Baquba, where one day, during an uprising, Matt and his buddies came under blistering attack.
MATT: Everybody was shooting at us. At least that's the way it seemed.
And you just kind of shoot and every possible spot that you think somebody could be in. You just basically fill every window, every rooftop with as many bullets and everything that you can. But there was this one person that wasn't shooting at us. He's hiding behind a trailer, he thinks he's fine. You know and he's not. And then it happens.
MATT: You have a bunch of people shooting at each other, somebody's bound to get hurt that wasn't supposed to be. I mean, bullets don't have a mind, they just keep going. Especially large ones. They go through everything.
MATT: And, I got 'em. And that was the worst. And his dad comes out and he sees him there. And he's lying there on the ground. He's dead-- he's not dying, he's dead. And the dad's just, you know, freaking out.
KEITH MORRISON: And you're watching this?
MATT FRANK: I'm watching this, yeah.
MATT: That's what I think about. That's probably the thing I think about the most. Yeah.
It was understandable, of course. Not his fault. He was defending himself. Defending his buddies. He never meant to kill that young man, never even saw him -- so why does he feel guilty?
JESSE ODOM: As soon as we entered the city limits, we'd gotten-- worst fire-- I mean, it was terrible.
Then there's Marine Sergeant Jesse Odom. Caught in the fiercest fighting of the battle for Baghdad. And suddenly under fire, from an insurgent, in an alley, very close.
JESSE ODOM: The guy, you know, he was, as we called it, spraying and praying. He just didn't aim in or nothing like that. And then he went back around his little corner.
JESSE ODOM: And needless to say, he-- he came back. And I shot him. I shot him several times. You know, until he stopped moving. I justified it in my head at that time, that I had a legitimate reason to do what I did.
KEITH MORRISON: Well, you did. You did the right thing.
JESSE ODOM: Thank you.
KEITH MORRISON: You would have been killed if you hadn't.
JESSE ODOM: I think I would have, or somebody would have been killed if--
KEITH MORRISON: Yet, you're giving me kind of the reasons a man gives when he feels sort of bad about something.
JESSE ODOM: It complicated, you know. It's complicated because at one point, you know, you have one extreme where this guy is trying to kill you, you know. And then as part-- a part of that whole moment is you've done something extreme. And you've killed a man. You start to think about things, did this guy have a 3-year-old daughter back home? Did he have a wife?
A daughter? A wife? Just the sort of thing Rich Luttrell worried about for so many years.
GARRETT REPPENHAGEN: I did my job. You know, I engaged my enemy and I killed 'em.
Garrett Reppenhagen was an accomplished sniper in Iraq. Nickname: Warhorse.
GARETT REPPENHAGEN: You're put in a situation, where, you've gotta think consciously what you're doin', calm yourself down, put a man in your sights, and kill him.
As a sniper most of Reppenhagen's kills were at distance. And then he went on patrol and saw his enemy close up..
REPPENHAGEN: You know, I hit 'em in the chest and he fell on his back, and he started arching his back and screaming. Like clutching his chest like I shot 'em with an arrow or something, and he was trying to pull it out or something. And he's just in agonizing pain. You know writhing all over the ground. You know, it's like, “This is what it is to kill someone.”
MORRISON: So those are the moments that live with ya.
REPPENHAGEN: Yeah. It's different than-- different than shooting targets.
And then, in his head, or his heart, or his soul, the trouble began. How could he heal from that?
MORRISON: The act of killing people, how do you describe it? Is it psychological toll or a spiritual toll or a moral toll? What's the word you use to describe?
REPPENHAGEN: It's all of those, you know? IT affects you on so many levels.
REPPENHAGEN: You find God. You lose God. You, you know, wonder if you're ever gonna get redeemed. You wonder where you're going to be in the afterlife.
Three young men desperate to find a way to feel better after doing so well at what we asked them to do. But how?
Rich Luttrell went back to Vietnam. What could they do... now?
MATT FRANK: And then, here's always that one that goes, "Did you kill anybody?" Now, how do you answer that question?
Whether they return from the jungles of Rich Luttrell's Vietnam, or the sand-blown towns of Iraq, having fought and killed in combat -- many veterans struggle not with what was done to them, but with what they did to others.
West Point Military Ethics Professor Peter Kilner says police officers get counseling and psychological help after a shooting so, why shouldn't combat veterans?
KILNER: What breaks my heart is that there are people who are great Americans who volunteer to serve their country, but if we haven't empowered 'em to be at peace with their consciences then and for the rest of their lives then we're not doing them justice.
American combat troops are some of the best trained in the world, due in part to a remarkable discovery by a World War II historian.
LT. COL. PETER KILNER: Usually only a quarter of those in battle were actually aiming and intending to kill the enemy. Some people--
MORRISON: Three quarters of people, at least, were not firing their weapons when they saw the enemy in their sights?
LT. COL. PETER KILNER: They may be firing their weapons but they weren't firing to hit the enemy.
MORRISON: That's pretty extraordinary.
KILNER: They weren't cowards. They would risk their own lives for their buddies. But he said in general, the individual rifleman, most of them-- chose not to engage and kill the enemy.
That report, issued shortly after World War II, controversial and disputed even today, sent shock waves through the military. The result was a revolutionary change in training.
Soldiers spent less time on the parade ground and more time on mock battlefields firing quick rounds into pop-up targets.
LT. COL. PETER KILNER: The research shows that by the time the US army, a generation later was fighting in Vietnam, that the firing rates, which had been 20 to 25 percent in World War II, were up closer to 85 to 90 percent.
It's that superb training that's saved lives on the battlefield and transformed U.S. troops into such a dominant military force.
But what happens to a highly trained combat soldier who's been discharged and no longer wears the uniform?
REPPENHAGEN: We learn how to effectively kill people. But nobody tells you, how to deal with that and manage it.
Without that help, could there be another wave -- just like there was after Vietnam of veterans returning home quietly suffering from post-traumatic-stress-disorder?
Or maybe the wave is already here.
A report released last month by the rand corporation says a minimum of 300 thousand returning Iraq and Afghanistan service members -- about 20 percent of those deployed are suffering from PTSD or major depression.
And even that might be an underestimate.
Why? Listen to Garret Reppenhagen, who, when he returned from Iraq, filled out a document similar to this one -- a "Post-deployment-health-assessment" form.
REPPENHAGEN: You're given a 30-day leave when you get out of the war. And we're told, if you had any issues, you would have to stay after and visit the mental health clinic to resolve these--
MORRISON: And maybe not get your 30 days.
REPPENHAGEN: So a lot of guys write, “Nope, no problems. No problems here.”
The Army says it's discovered that problem, too, so now is scheduling follow up evaluations six months after soldiers come home. They've also deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan more than 200 'stress control teams' to offer soldiers counseling in the field.
And, searching for signs of trouble, the military asks returning soldiers questions like this: “Were you in danger of being killed?”
LT. COL. PETER KILNER: Coming back from Iraq a few months ago, I was asked those questions. I still wasn't asked "Did I kill someone?"
Even though, says Kilner, unresolved guilt over killing may be one of the significant causes of the more extreme forms of post-traumatic stress-disorder.
But whatever the cause, and there can be lots of those, it's a diagnosis - a label - which many soldiers try very hard to avoid.
The Rand Corporation Study found that only half of service members who have symptoms of PTSD admit it to the military, and fewer than half of them receive anything like adequate treatment.
MORRISON: Do you suffer from PTSD?
MATT FRANK: To say somebody has PTSD is to say they have a problem. There's nothing wrong with me. There's nothing wrong with me. There's nothing wrong with any of these guys. They're fine. They're good people. You know? They're not sick. They went to a screwed up situation and now they're coming back.
But, while Frank and the others tell us they do not have PTSD, they all say they know friends who do.
REPPENHAGEN: Right now, a lot of my buddies are just popping pills and... then they go out drinking, you know, to try to suppress it even more. And you know, it's just an awful mess.
They are decent people, these three: engaging, extremely bright, deeply moral. Which is, said Jesse Odom, part of the problem, as he discovered when it hit too close to home.
JESSE ODOM: One of my friends ... was a great leader. Apparently he-- suffered from, you know, what-- what we did over there.
Chip Wicks, Marine corps sergeant was as indestructable as they come. And then Odom came home from Iraq, and saw a news story about his friend Chip.
ODOM: And I read in the article that he had. You know, had PTSD. And I couldn't imagine that guy being such a strong person -- athletic, good looking guy. You know, smart. Had everything going for him. And he hung himself.
There was no note, no explanation. Wicks' father told us his son was a sensitive man. And was not the same after Iraq.
There are ways, says Lt. Col. Peter Kilner, for even a tortured soul to heal.
LT. COL. PETER KILNER: If you look at people with PTSD, those who get better, a lot of times, spirituality is a big part of it.
Perhaps, says Kilner, we should borrow a tradition of more ancient civilizations., one used by the Roman army -- and later the Catholic church : a "cleansing ritual."
It’s a proper recognition of what we've asked them to do...
KILNER: I actually know of some Army chaplains, when they come back they're going to offer their soldiers a chance to go through a purification ritual, something that recognizes those feelings, that guilt that happens just whenever you have the hand in the death of another person.
It’s what Rich Luttrell was trying to accomplish himself, back there in Vietnam - purification.
Some kind of peace for people raised on the commandment, "Thou shall not kill."
After leaving the Army, former sniper, Garett Reppenhagen, has been searching for solid ground. He says he stills loves the military -- yet found himself working for Iraq Veterans Against the War for a while. He even testified before a congressional sub-committee about veteran health care.
He's back now living with his mom outside of Colorado Springs and going to college. Though, he says, his classmates have little stomach for his war stories.
REPPENHAGEN: People will ask you, but they don't really want to know the answers. People want to eat their hamburger, but they don't want to know how the cow's butchered.
Since coming home, Jesse Odom got married, went to college and is building a house. He describes himself as "jumpy, cautious, on guard." He keeps a pistol in his car, he says and a shotgun under his bed. He has trouble sleeping.
ODOM: I'll lock myself in a room with a six pack of beer. And I'll write, you know, until three or four in the morning.
That's been Jesse Odom's "purification ritual" since leaving the Marine corps.
ODOM: That's how I deal with it.
MORRISON: You need that.
ODOM: That's my vent.
Hundreds of pages worth, so much so that a book has emerged about his unit's time in Iraq to be published this very weekend called, "Through Our Eyes."
For Matt Frank it isn't over, of course. He's in the reserves. He could be sent back. And Jill - remembers the last time, and imagines saying goodbye again.
JILL: It was very difficult. Yeah. It was hard.
MORRISON: You remember that moment, saying goodbye.
JILL: (CRYING) I'm sorry.
For now, he's in college, where his fellow students stress out over finals.
And he struggles with lessons from Iraq.
MATT FRANK: I can learn from it but I can't change it. The only thing I can do now is not kill anybody else.
Rich Luttrell, for all his trying, the trip to Vietnam, the meeting with that woman, the girl from the picture, there is one thing he has still, every day: the picture in his mind of the lives he had to end.
RICH LUTTRELL: I would hate for anybody- - to have to live through the emotional -- pain that I've gone through. I mean, it's just incredible. It just sticks in your gut.
The legacy of what he -- and they -- did for us.
Jesse Odom says some of the proceeds from his new book will go toward a fund he's setting up in memory of Sgt. Chip Wicks, his friend who committed suicide. The fund is designed to help other soldiers who may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
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