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Surviving War and Wounds

Aired May 26, 2007 - 08:30   ET


SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Thanks, guys! This is HOUSECALL. We're making the rounds of some of the most intriguing medical stories from the front lines of war.
First up, looking into the face of war. For one man, it wasn't just about survival.

Then Tammy's trials. A female Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost both of her legs and her arm. And get this, she found a new source of strength.

And finally, unseen wounds, this emotional legacy of war. We're going to give you insight into a soldier's private pain.

Let's get started though, with this special edition of HOUSECALL. Our focus surviving war. We hear a lot about the United States military men and women who are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. But more often than not, soldiers and Marines are surviving their traumatic injuries. In this current conflict, more than any other in American history, more people will have to live with severe wartime injuries.

Our first story is a look into the true face of war.


GUPTA (voice-over): August of 2005, Michael Fletcher, an airman on patrol near the Iraq/Kuwait border. As the end of his shift neared, Fletcher manned the teret gun in a humvee.

MICHAEL FLETCHER, IRAQ WAR VETERAN: We went our way back to the camp when our vehicle rolled.

GUPTA: The rolling vehicle crushed him.

FLETCHER: But after it happened, it was like a process. Like when it started happening, it's like you can't even react fast enough.

GUPTA: He'd only been in Iraq three months. His body now maimed beyond recognition. Fletcher was medivaced out, his wounds so dire, his heart stopped twice along the way. Fletcher's wife Yolanda rushed to his hospital bed.

(on camera): When was the first time that you saw Michael?

YOLANDA FLETCHER, MICHAEL'S WIFE: When I seen him, it was just like the worst thing that I ever seen. I was six months pregnant at the time. When I seen him, it was just -- I hate to say it, but it was like seeing a monster.

GUPTA: You see, among wounded vets, it's a common story -- better protective gear and advanced trauma care have reduced the killed in action rate. It's almost half that of the Vietnam War.

PATRICK BYRNE, DR., JOHN'S HOPKINS UNIVERSITY: With the body armor now that some of our soldiers are surviving injuries that would have killed people in any previous conflict. But now they're surviving with massive facial and cranial and extremity injuries.

GUPTA: Doctor, I mean, when you look at this, you think I can fix this? I mean, what are you thinking?

BYRNE: Well, my first thought, actually, is this is a very tough case.

M. FLETCHER: I want to look like a normal human being, you know. I want to not have the stares, put it like that. I would love to just have a nose.

GUPTA: So Johns Hopkins assembled a team of specialists that would try ground-breaking techniques. Animators detailed the damage done to Michael's face. Models of his cranium and his new nose crafted from high-tech labs around the country.

A nose mold manufactured to precisely guide surgeons in the operating room. The efforts would cost the military more than $200,000. Multiple operations, staggered over a year, each of them high risk.

Six major operations over 40 surgical hours and dozens of healthcare professionals involved with this care all for this moment. Let's take a look. The moment. Michael and so many had sacrificed so much more. Does that look like you?

M. FLETCHER: As far as appearance, I got to tell people, (INAUDIBLE) have people, you know, look back at me now.

GUPTA: But how did it feel?

GUPTA: Mind if I take a feel here?

M. FLETCHER: No problem.

GUPTA: How's the nose feel to you?

M. FLETCHER: It feels good. It feels real like I have all the sensation that I will have with my own nose.

GUPTA: Are you breathing fine through your nose?

M. FLETCHER: Mm-hmm.

GUPTA: By any measure, it's a remarkable transformation.

M. FLETCHER: They told me it was risky. They told me that you can actually -- I was willing to take the risk of losing a hole -- everything I had left, you know, just to do this.


GUPTA: You know, it's amazing what surgeons were able to do for Michael Fletcher. He still has a long way to go in his recovery. And we're going to be bringing you his progress.

Surviving war is our focus today, but some U.S. war veterans have not only survived, but succeeded in recovering and making new lives for themselves. Case in point, Major Tammy Duckworth.

Now get this, she was piloting a Black Hawk helicopter north of Baghdad in 2004 when it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The explosion cost her both legs and shattered her right arm. She invited us for an exclusive look as she got fitted for a new $100,000 leg.


GUPTA: How are you? Good to see you.

MAJ. TAMMY DUCKWORTH, INJURED IN 2004: This is bonus time. I really see this point in my life as bonus time. I should be dead. And I'm not, so.

GUPTA: Can you feel that, Tammy?

DUCKWORTH: Mm-hmm. Then when I woke up, I remember asking my husband to please ask the doctors to give me pain medication for my legs. And then he had to tell me I didn't have any legs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's got to be easier, we could do it.

GUPTA: Did you think you could walk again?

DUCKWORTH: Yes. I -- the first thing I thought of was I wanted to fly again.

GUPTA: Afraid about walking, let's fly.

DUCKWORTH: Let's fly. It's in my -- I can't help it, it's in my blood.

Are we ready?

GUPTA: You're going to go.

DUCKWORTH: All right.

STAN PATTERSON, TAMMY'S PROSTHETIST: She's a unique individual, being a helicopter pilot, being a female, in that role, you knew that she had the charisma and enough umph in her to, you know, do whatever obstacles that she's faced.

GUPTA: How's that feel, Tammy?

DUCKWORTH: It feels, you know, it just feels different. It feels - there's a lot sort of strapped on here compared to my c-leg, which is very streamlined, but it's doing more of the work. And I'm just mentally telling myself with each step how to walk, and hopefully that becomes second nature the more I walk on it.

GUPTA: So you're getting used to it actually means doing less.

DUCKWORTH: Right, getting used to it. The first few times I was walking, I was doing way too much.

PATTERSON: Most amputees at that level, they don't walk. It's -- they just basically succumb to being in a wheelchair. She knew that she wanted to push that envelope.

GUPTA: Now let me show you something here. This is one of the first real-life applications of this bionic leg. It costs about $100,000. The two legs are actually communicating with each other there, sending all the information to this computer screen as well. You can actually measure the gate, check all that, and make alterations so that her walking can be more normal.

PATTERSON: With this, it reads off a sensor on the left side. And so the Bluetooth sensor senses where the foot is on the opposite limb. And so therefore, it propels the leg forward as the amputee walks. So the engines in the knee actually do the workload.

GUPTA: What is the biggest advantage you think this is going to give you, this leg?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I would love to be able to walk without a cane. I mean, I can do, it but I'm not very stable.

GUPTA: What are you going to do to ensure that other veterans are going to get the same kind of care?

DUCKWORTH: I don't want ten years from now, when the war's over and people have forgotten about this war, for some veteran to walk in with this $100,000 leg and not be able to get it serviced.

GUPTA: People are going to forget, aren't they?

DUCKWORTH: It's what happens. It's happened after every single war, which is why right now, I'm going to fight as hard as I can to make sure that we set it up so that when we start forgetting about war, and we should, I mean, who wants a country that's at war all the time? But let's remember the veterans.


GUPTA: I tell you, it would be difficult to forget Tammy. I've been following her story for quite some time. And be sure to tune in for more of our major story right here on CNN. It's going to be an hour-long special from our "special investigations unit." It's called "Tammy's War." We're going to bring it to you later this year.

As we mentioned, many more U.S. troops are surviving war, but combat can injure the body can also injure the mind. The Pentagon is going to release a startling new report about mental health and the military.

Also, there's Operation Enduring Freedom, there's Operation Iraqi Freedom. We're going to tell you about Operation Gratitude. And CNN is working with the Fisher House to help veterans and their families. How you can help, too. Stay tuned to HOUSECALL.


TIME STAMP: 0840:00


STAFF SGT. BRIAN DONARSKI, U.S. ARMY: I hit 155 anti-tank mine, pulling 7200 gallons of JP jet fuel. I had a stress fracture at C-5, 6, and 7, hurt my back, ripped my shoulder out, and bruised my frontal lobe and my rear lobe on my brain. Just being blessed to have a place to stay as you recover, because every day is different. And they affiliate everything so well. So should you be having a worse day, your better day, you're still able to get around and continue with your therapy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did they take good care of your family, Fisher House did?

DONARSKI: Oh, they took excellent care.


GUPTA: That's Brian Donarski, talking about the help that his family received from the Fisher House Foundation. Now the Fisher House is a home away from home for military families providing comfort homes, built on the grounds of major military and VA medical centers. These homes allow family members to be close to a loved one during the hospitalization for an unexpected illness, disease, or injury. You can help by checking out their website,

And also, turn your frequent flier miles into hero miles by donating them. I did this. Fisher House will use those miles to transport servicemen and women wounded in Iraqi and Afghanistan to their families at treatment centers around the country.

Some of the most debilitating injuries of war are the ones that can't be seen. They can only be felt deep inside the mind. The Pentagon has just finished a study of the effects of combat stress on troops in Iraq. Jamie Mcintyre has the details.


JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Anger, fear, paranoia, sleep disorders. Iraq veteran Joe Wheeler knows all the telltale signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He lives it.

SGT. JOE WHEELER, IRAQ VETERAN: My main nightmare is voluntarily enlisting in the Army again, and being sent back to Iraq. When I'm driving down the road, I'm looking, constantly searching to make sure that there's no IEDS. You know, you find yourself doing these things. MCINTYRE: An new Army study of frontline combat units in Iraq confirms Specialist Wheeler is far from alone, showing that nearly half of all National Guard troops, close to 40 percent of active duty soldiers, and almost a third of Marines report psychological problems. A key finding, Marines suffered less because their tours are shorter, seven months, compared to a year or more for Army troops.

MAJ. GEN. GALE POLLOCK, ACTING ARMY SURGEON GENERAL: The level of combat is the main determinant of a soldier's or Marine's mental health status.

MCINTYRE: The finding comes as the Army has just extended basic tours to 15 months with one year off. The study suggests battle-weary troops really need at least 18 months to three years to recover. But the ground breaking part of the study focused on battlefield ethics. For the first time ever, asking 1300 soldiers and 450 Marines their attitudes about torture and abuse.

WARD CASSCELLS, DR., ASST. DEFENSE SECRETARY, HEALTH: They looked under every rock. And what they found was not always easy to look at.

MCINTYRE: Among the findings, only 47 percent of soldiers and 38 percent of Marines agreed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect. 10 percent of soldiers reported mistreating non- combatants or damaging their property. Fewer than half of soldiers and Marines said they would report a team member for unethical behavior. And more than one-third of all soldiers and Marines said they thought torture should be allowed to save the life of a comrade. That's what they say, but the Army says not what they do.

MAJ. GEN. GALE POLLOCK, ACTING ARMY SURGEON GENERAL: What it speaks to is the leadership that the military is providing, because they're not acting on those thoughts, they're not torturing the people.

MCINTYRE (on camera): So what's the answer? General Pollock says ideally, it's ending the war. But barring that, the Army needs to be much bigger so that troops rotate into the war zone less often. Until then, the answer is training, leadership, discipline, and as much time off as the troops can get.

Jamie Mcintyre, CNN, the Pentagon.


GUPTA: Well, they've survived the war, they've recovered from some horrific injuries, and now they're hitting the links. How some veterans are getting into the swing of life again, thanks to one man's help.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I'll tell you what, amputees, generally, we'll play a golf course just as quick as the rest of y'all. (END VIDEO CLIP)


TIME STAMP: 0848:34


STAFF SGT. DALE BEATTY, NORTH CAROLINA NATIONAL GUARD: A land mine blast on patrol, on a combat patrol. Hit a landmine on my side of the vehicle, and pretty instantaneous type reaction from that.

So immediately lost one leg, and then went through Lahnstuhl (ph) with Walter Reed and had my left leg amputated there.

BEATTY: I have a lot of family ties from World War II, Korea, Vietnam. I've got a lot of family that were in there. So it's a family tradition for me to be in the service. But I just really wanted everybody to remember, you know, the price of freedom. It's not free. And we're not the only ones that are hurt. The guys are still around from World War II, and Korea, and Vietnam. And they deserve the same respect and admiration that we're getting nowadays, because they didn't get it back then.


GUPTA: It's amazing. I mean, he has no legs. He is golfing. The Veterans Administration wants to recognize veterans for their contribution and educate younger generations about their sacrifice. The VA is encouraging veterans from all wars to show their pride this Memorial Day by wearing their medals. For more information, go to

We've been talking all about veterans and military medicine in this special edition of HOUSECALL. Now Judy Fortin is here with the rest of the week's medical headlines. Judy?

JUDY FORTIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Sanjay. A drug widely used to treat Type II diabetes may increase the risk of heart attacks, an analysis of several studies suggests.

According to the report to be published in "The New England Journal of Medicine," patients taking Avandia showed elevated levels of bad cholesterol, which researchers say has led to an increase in cardiovascular problems.

Avandia's manufacturer, Glaxosmithkline, stands by the product, saying the findings are incomplete. Patients should speak with their doctor to determine if the drug treatment is appropriate.

Students predisposed to drinking are more likely to become heavy alcohol users during college, a new study finds. In a survey of more than 7500 young adults, those attending college reported binge drinking more frequently and consuming more alcohol per sitting than others. The latest in birth control pills will be available to women as early as July. Lybrel is taken continuously and halts menstrual periods indefinitely, making it the first of its kind on the market. Analysts are predicting a tremendous demand for the product, but some question whether blocking periods is safe long-term.

Sanjay, back to you.

GUPTA: Judy, thanks.

There's a lot more to come still on this special edition of HOUSECALL. Staying fit and staying ready. How members of the military are trying to stay lean, mean, fighting machines.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of the nice things about being amputees -- you don't have to worry about changing your socks because they don't ever smell bad.


GUPTA: Veterans who have lost legs. And I'll tell you what, they've still got game when HOUSECALL continues.


TIME STAMP: 0853:25

GUPTA: We're back with HOUSECALL. As the U.S. fights wars on two different fronts, American troops need to be in a constant state of readiness. The military faces the same challenges as the civilian world in the fight against obesity.


GUPTA (voice-over): The mantra of the Navy is "honor, courage, and commitment." And now more than ever, a commitment to health and fitness.


GUPTA: The military has always set certain standards for their men and women in uniform. And the Navy is no exception. Those who fail their physical assessment evaluations could end up here.


GUPTA: Twenty-two year-old Benjamin Spencer landed in the Fitness Enhancement Program, structured to help sailors who struggle to get back in shape. It includes cardio, strength training, and nutrition classes.

PETTY OFFICER BENJAMIN SPENCER, NAVAL AIR STATION, ATLANTA: There was a lack of motivation there for a little while. And I've always been very heavily involved in working out. And I was a football player when I was in high school, but just kind of lost a little bit of motivation there. And now I'm really trying to get back into it.

GUPTA: A sailor can only fail the physical fitness test three times in a four-year period. While the sailors are in the program, they're in limbo. They can't advance in their career. And there are no pay increases. So it's a strong motivation to get in shape.

Thirty-eight year-old Chief Petty Officer Ernest Dorsey found himself in the program after his commanding officer challenged him to lower his body fat score. The maximum allowed is 22 percent. He came in at 24 percent. He changed his lifestyle, eating healthier and working out more. And he lost 35 pounds in less than six months. He says the military has physical fitness challenges, especially obesity, that weren't as much of a problem at the time he enlisted.

C.P.O. ERNEST DORSEY, NAVAL AIR STATION, ATLANTA: When I came in 20 years ago to now, we was more active as young folks. And nowadays, we're in a different type of world, computer world, things like that. So when they come in, physical fitness is not part of the routine.

GUPTA: Captain Rick Klein of the naval air station in Atlanta wants to create a culture of fitness and renewed readiness.

CAPT. RICK CLINE, NAVAL AIR STATION, ATLANTA: And our goal is not to make it something that just lasts as long as they're wearing the uniform, but to make it something that they will carry on for the rest of their life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One, two, three.


GUPTA: Supporting the troops by mail. Care packages for the United States military men and women. How you can get involved by sending some love in a box.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For me to be able to give back to them for everything they've given to us in this country is humbling.


GUPTA: It's one man's gift to injured veterans. Stay tuned to HOUSECALL.


TIME STAMP: 0858:58

GUPTA: Throughout the show, we've been hearing from injured veterans who have been helped by the Fisher House. We met a man at the foundation benefit's golf tournament, who was inspired to help veterans learn how to have some fun again. And Ken Peck inspired us.


KEN PECK: I'm actually one of the instructors with the National Amputee Golf Association. So I'm out here to kind of help some of the vets who are now (INAUDIBLE) a little bit more and enjoy the game, and just showing them that golf is a great game that you can play despite being amputed.

Because golf is, again, the most accessible sport. We don't have the running. We don't have the jumping, but we can still play the game. We can stabilize ourselves and swing and hit the ball.

I think for me to be able to give back to them for everything they've given to us in this country is humbling.


GUPTA: Good luck to you, Ken Peck. Unfortunately, that's all the time we have for today. On this Memorial Day weekend, the country honors those who have died fighting for America and remembers those who have survived.

Thanks for watching. And thank the veterans. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The news continues right now.


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