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Military Families Fed Up With VA Care; Face of War

Aired May 28, 2007 - 20:00   ET


RANDI KAYE, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Randi Kaye at the CNN Broadcast Center in New York.
Here is what his happening now in the news.

After today's historic talks in Baghdad, both U.S. and Iranian diplomats say they found broad agreement on stabilizing Iraq. The four-hour session, hosted by Iraq's prime minister, is the first time in 27 years the U.S. and Iran have held direct negotiations.

The talks come as Baghdad's cycle of violence is increasing. At least 31 civilians died in a car bombing and other attacks. In addition, 33 tortured bodies were discovered in a ditch.

Across the U.S., there were Memorial Day tributes to our country's fallen troops. President Bush laid a wreath at Arlington Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns.

Also today, Cindy Sheehan published what she calls her resignation letter as the face of the American anti-war movement. Sheehan became an activist after the 2004 death of her son Casey, who was a soldier in Iraq.

I'm Randi Kaye.

Stay with CNN for a special Memorial Day edition of PAULA ZAHN NOW.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us on this Memorial Day.

Out in the open: stories about our men and women in uniform.

Tonight: the amazing care that gave one wounded vet a chance to live normally.

Other families of America's wounded warriors fed up and furious with what they're sure is second-rate care.

And reporting from the front lines, our own Kyra Phillips gives us some surprising perspective from her mission to Baghdad.

The first story we're bringing out in the open tonight is about a wounded Iraq veteran who lived through a devastating injury. His courage and determination to survive are as amazing as the medical skill it took to put his face back together, and give him a chance for a normal life. Chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes us through this unbelievable story.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (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 turret gun in a Humvee.

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

GUPTA: The rolling vehicle crushed him.

M. FLETCHER: It's one of those things you never expect, because we do the same thing every day. And, for that to happen, it was like a surprise. Like, when it started happening, it's like you can't even react fast enough.

GUPTA: He had only been in Iraq three months, his body now maimed beyond recognition, bleeding from his ears, a punctured lung, kidneys failing, left arm shattered, broken beyond repair.

Fletcher was medevaced out, his wounds so dire, his heart stopped twice along the way. He ended up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

YOLANDA FLETCHER, WIFE OF MICHAEL FLETCHER: When you get news that your husband only has 20 hours to live, and, when you actually see it, you know, it's -- it's hard.

Fletcher's wife, Yolanda, rushed to his hospital bed.

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

Y. FLETCHER: 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. It was -- it was just hard.

GUPTA: Her husband's face, gone. He was also now missing an arm. And, yet, the young couple made a pact.

M. FLETCHER: She told me one thing when I first came to. She was like, I need to you be up and -- up and about when the baby is born. She was like, I know that's something -- she said, I know that's more than -- that's too much to put on you at this time. But she was like, you're strong, and I know you're strong.

GUPTA: That promise, to be there when his baby was born, meant 23-year-old Michael Fletcher would push himself to extraordinary limits, difficult and painful therapy, and many, many operations, four plates placed in his head to resemble a face.

And Michael was discharged in half the time doctors expected. 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.

(on camera): From a pragmatic standpoint, they're wearing body armor, wearing a helmet. It's this part that is getting hit.

DR. PATRICK BYRNE, JOHNS 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 (voice-over): Though an extreme case, that is Michael Fletcher's story.

M. FLETCHER: This is a similar, same type of weapon I got hurt when I -- you know, that I was using that day. This is a 249. And that's the position I was in when the accident happened.

BYRNE: The turret on the vehicle he was on actually impaled his face. And, as the vehicle turned over, it sort of pulled him by his face. So, it was a combination of injuries.

GUPTA (on camera): Yes.


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

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

GUPTA (voice-over): So challenging, Dr. Byrne first recommended against surgery.

BYRNE: We suggested to him he consider just having a prosthesis, because, once we make that first step towards trying to rebuild his nose, you're in for a very long journey.

M. FLETCHER: What do you think?

GUPTA: But, after his terrible war injuries, 23-year-old Michael Fletcher said no. He absolutely did not want a prosthetic nose.

M. FLETCHER: I want to look like a normal human being, you know? I want to -- 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 groundbreaking techniques.

(on camera): What was the biggest risk?

BYRNE: Probably, the biggest risk was -- was failure, literal failure to achieve a nose that would resemble normal and that he could breathe through.

GUPTA (voice-over): Whether it's a doctor or a soldier, minimizing risk comes from good planning.

Teams of surgeons, medical illustrators, computer modelers, and scientists all came together to create a plan. 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.

(on camera): Everything that went into making him -- him now in his mid-face is from his own body.

BYRNE: Entirely his own tissue, right. And that was key for him.

GUPTA (voice-over): The efforts would cost the military more than $200,000. The risks were still extreme. Anything less than total success would mean total failure, and, yet, still ahead, multiple operations, staggered over a year, each of them high-risk.

BYRNE: The nose is like a house of sorts. And, so, it was missing the foundation. So, we need to build that out of bone and then vascularize it with skin, with blood vessels, and then build on top of that both bone, cartilage, as well as a skin cover.

GUPTA: The first operation, in June last year, Dr. Byrne begins to harvest rib and skin from Michael's own body, a measured success.

M. FLETCHER: The breathing is totally better, because, before, like I said, the nose was flattened down. And it was like a flap that was just when you breath in, it would almost close up.

GUPTA: The second operation, his skin is pulled down from his forehead to form a flap over the nasal area.

BYRNE: The tissue on the entire body that most resembles nasal skin, it's almost an identical match.

GUPTA: Months would pass to see if the grafts worked. And, then, just before Christmas:

BYRNE: And, so, he's really on his way. He's a different person from where he was just a few months back.

GUPTA: Michael and his surgeons had beaten extreme odds. But there were still more challenges.

M. FLETCHER: We're close to the end. It's almost there.

GUPTA: Until a few weeks ago.

BYRNE: So, you're still in isolation?

M. FLETCHER: Yes. Yes.

BYRNE: Apparently, your last culture was -- still showed MRSA.

GUPTA: It was April. And infection strikes before a sixth operation. Eventually, the infection clears, and Michael makes a sixth trip to the operating room. It was supposed to be his last.

(on camera): Six major operations, over 40 surgical hours, and dozens of health care professionals involved with his care, all for this moment. Let's take a look.

(voice-over): The moment Michael and so many had sacrificed so much for.

(on camera): Does that look like you?

M. FLETCHER: As far as appearance, like I told people before, I don't have to walk down the street and have people look -- you know, look back at me now.

GUPTA: But how did it feel?

(on camera): You mind if I take -- take a feel here?

M. FLETCHER: Oh, no problem.

GUPTA: OK. How does the nose feel to you?

M. FLETCHER: It feels good. It feels real, like I have all the sensation that I would have with my old nose.

GUPTA: Are you breathing fine through your nose?

M. FLETCHER: Uh-huh.

GUPTA: Could you sneeze?

M. FLETCHER: Yes, I could.

GUPTA (voice-over): By any measure, it's a remarkable transformation.

(on camera): What is it about the nose? It's just such a part of your identity, isn't it? I mean, more than just the actual surgery, you're giving him back himself.

BYRNE: Yes. And, actually, we see that. The nose is the one structure on the face which you can't camouflage in any way. It can't be covered with makeup. And, so, it is -- it contributes more to our sense of self-identity than any other structure by far.

GUPTA (voice-over): For Michael Fletcher, it may be important to him how his nose was made, but, far more meaningful, where it came from.

M. FLETCHER: Yes, this nose might not be the one I started with, but everything inside of it comes from me, you know, every part of it.


ZAHN: And, Sanjay, I think one of the most remarkable things about this story is how they were able to use Michael's own body and body parts for regeneration. Does this usher in a whole new era?

GUPTA: I think it really does.

I mean, Michael's a pretty impressive case. But, if look through history, Paula, some of our greatest advances in medicine have come from the battlefield, out of sheer necessity, actually figuring these things out.

But I can tell you a couple of other things we have been working on, researching. At Wake Forest, for example, they're actually figuring out how to grow new appendages, so, fingers, toes, perhaps, as well. They're trying to figure that out, maybe even bigger limbs at some point.

Also, in Massachusetts, they're working on something known as suspended animation. Imagine, Paula, someone who's dying out on the battlefield. You know that you are not going to be able to get them to safety quick enough. Instead, you can actually inject something into their body that puts them into suspended animation, slows down all their body processes, and then they can transport them to a hospital. You have a little bit more time.

These things are happening because of necessity out there -- Paula.

ZAHN: They're happening, but they are also incredibly expensive procedures, as in Michael's case. You're talking about hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical expenses that the military picked up.

If someone was as catastrophically injured as Michael was, would the military pick up their bill?

GUPTA: Well, it's a good question.

I asked the same question to people at the military hospitals and Dr. Byrne, who you just met in the piece. And the -- the short answer is -- is no. I mean, there are -- there are going to be far more patients who come back with these sorts of injuries than -- than doctors are equipped to handle, either in terms of their sheer numbers or the sheer financial resources.

And I will tell you, as well, Paula, you are seeing a lot more of these injuries. Because of the Kevlar and the helmets, you are seeing a lot more face and awful neck injuries as well. So, I -- I don't know how they are all going to be handled.

ZAHN: Amazing story, Sanjay. Thanks so much for bringing it to us.

GUPTA: Thank you. Thank you.

ZAHN: Coming up next: A wounded journalist relives the moment he lost his hand.


MICHAEL WEISSKOPF, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT, "TIME": I could feel the flesh of my hand liquefying. It was that hot.


ZAHN: How his experience reveals the remarkable spirit of Iraq vets who come home without limbs.

Also tonight, we're going to show what you these three families chose to do after they got fed up with how the VA system was treating their loved ones.

And, then, a little bit later on: the shocking truth about what happens to some female veterans when they come home. We will bring it out in the open in just a little bit.

Please stay with us.


ZAHN: Welcome back to our "Out in the Open" Memorial Day special.

The shameful conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, of course, that grabbed headlines and caused outrage earlier this year. The images of filthy hospital rooms were a national embarrassment.

But that's only part of the story at Walter Reed. Hundreds of veterans who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan have been sent to Walter Reed's Ward 57, where medical professionals have been doing heroic work.

I spoke with one journalist was also treated there, and who's bringing his experience out in the open.


ZAHN (voice-over): On the night of December 10, 2003, "TIME" magazine's correspondent Michael Weisskopf and photographer James Nachtwey were on assignment. They were riding in an American Army Humvee, patrolling the dangerous streets of Baghdad, when the vehicle stopped in traffic.

Then something pierced the quiet night.

WEISSKOPF: Well, I heard this sort of a thunk, and something that landed against the armor in an open-air Humvee.

ZAHN: He still doesn't know why, but he reached for the object and tried to throw it out of the vehicle.

WEISSKOPF: I could feel the flesh of my hand liquefying. It was that hot.

ZAHN: It was a hand grenade. And it exploded.

WEISSKOPF: I shook the arm, and it remained pretty numb. I picked it up and looked at it, and it looked like the neck of a decapitated chicken. And I thought, well, maybe this is a nightmare.

ZAHN: It wasn't a dream. He lost his entire hand and part of his right arm. His actions saved his life and those of three others.

Like other serious casualties in Iraq, Weisskopf was evacuated to a military hospital in Baghdad, then to the Army's Landstuhl Medical Facility in Germany, and finally to Ward 57 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

More than 500 troops have lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the patients pass through Ward 57. Weisskopf was the first journalist to be treated there. And the reception was suspicious at first.

(on camera): How were you treated by the other soldiers once you were injured?

WEISSKOPF: They assumed right away that I was a colonel. But, after a while, they found out why I was there, and realized that I acted in a military way. And, so, they accepted me in a military way, as family, as their -- as a blood brother.

ZAHN (voice-over): Sergeant Luis Rodriguez became one of those blood brothers. He was a combat paramedic in charge of a platoon in Iraq, until his convoy got hit.

MASTER SERGEANT LUIS RODRIGUEZ, U.S. ARMY: I remember asking about my leg, you know, "How's my leg?" And there was silence.

My 1st sergeant, 1st Sergeant Falks (ph), very straight-up guy, he said, "Rod, your leg is gone. It's just not there."

ZAHN: The paramedic became the patient. He survived the attack, but found that the personal battle had only just begun.

CAPTAIN KATIE YANCOSEK, WALTER REED ARMY MEDICAL CENTER: They can't get their pain under control. They become frustrated. Or, because they're clumsy and trying to do simple things like open a bottle of pills, those people are extremely frustrated.

ZAHN: Pete Damon knows frustration all too well. He lost both of his arms. He was an electrician and an amateur artist from Massachusetts who joined the National Guard. He was repairing a helicopter in Iraq when a tire exploded.

PETE DAMON, WOUNDED U.S. SOLDIER: Couldn't work with tools anymore, couldn't fix aircraft, couldn't do electrical work. You know, this is what I used to do for a living.

ZAHN: Sharing the experience with Michael Weisskopf and other residents of Ward 57 helped Damon cope with the trauma and gave him some hope.

DAMON: It's kind of like an understanding. Everybody's been through, you know, the -- the time in the hospital, the surgery, the pain, the frustration. And, so, we have all -- we have all definitely -- yes, I think, definitely, we all share that common -- common bond.

ZAHN (on camera): Describe to me the bond that began to develop between you and fellow amputees.

WEISSKOPF: Anyone who loses a limb, particularly in a violent act, goes through an enormous identity crisis. Am I less than the person I -- I -- I entered the fray with? I entered Iraq as an independent observer, and I ended up leaving with a platoon of my own wounded warriors, and I was one of them.

RODRIGUEZ: You have to start learning about yourself again and realizing that, sometimes, you have to ask for help.

ZAHN (voice-over): Pete Damon is now back in Massachusetts. Michael Weisskopf was at his wedding. He taught himself how to draw again, and he now has a gallery.

Sergeant Luis Rodriguez couldn't return to combat, but he was able to go back to his base in Fort Campbell, where he's training combat medics before they go to Iraq. He will retire in two months.

Michael Weisskopf is back at his desk at "TIME." With the help of voice-activated software and his left hand, he can still report. He goes back to Walter Reed almost every week to adjust his prosthesis and for physical therapy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How does that feel in terms of -- feel pretty good?


ZAHN: Most of the faces are new, but the feelings eerily similar.

WEISSKOPF: It teaches you a lot about humility, a lot of -- of what personal relationships is -- are about, a great deal about personal strength and character. And you take part of Ward 57 with you wherever you go.


ZAHN: And, today, it's worth noting that as many as one in five amputees remains on active duty. That's compared with just 3 percent during the Vietnam War era.

Out in the open next: families of wounded vets who say the government has let them down.


MARISSA BEHEE, WIFE OF WOUNDED SOLDIER: I mean, you are telling me that my 26-year-old husband is going to a nursing home. I'm -- I can't do it. And that's not the reality of it, and I'm not going to accept it. So, I will see what our options are.


ZAHN: We will show you the stunning results some vets have had outside the VA system.

Also ahead: Kyra Phillips just returned from Iraq. She's going to give us a unique perspective at the difficulties of reporting from the most dangerous place in the world.

A Navy medic gets home from Iraq, but her deadly troubles were just beginning: women and the stress of war out in the open.


ZAHN: Tonight, we are devoting the entire hour to stories about our men and women in uniform.

There was national outrage earlier this year over conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. But our next story goes way beyond all that. Right now, we're bringing out in the open the stories of three different men.

We sent Ted Rowlands to find out why they and they are families believe the treatment at the VA centers are so bad, they were driven to find something better.


TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Staff sergeant Jarod Behee was hit by a sniper's bullet in Iraq, which crushed part of his skull.

Army National Guard Sergeant Corey Briest was hit by a roadside bomb.

Marine Corporal Josh Cooley had a piece of shrapnel the size of a credit card go through his eye and into his brain. All three men came home from Iraq with traumatic brain injuries. Each was sent to a different VA hospital for rehabilitation. And all three families say they were so fed up with the VA care that they turned to a private hospital.

MARISSA BEHEE, WIFE OF WOUNDED SOLDIER: It felt like his care was being slighted. Not a lot was being done to rehabilitate him.

ROWLANDS: Jarod Behee was at the VA hospital in Palo Alto, California. His wife, Marissa, says, after three months, she pulled him out. The last straw, she says, was when they bought Jarod a new wheelchair and told her he would need it for the rest of his life.

BEHEE: I mean, you are telling me that my 26-year-old husband is going to a nursing home. I'm -- I can't do it. And that's not the reality of it, and I'm not going to accept it. So, I will see what our options are.

ROWLANDS: The Behees ended up at Casa Colina, a private, nonprofit rehab center in Southern California, which, as it turned out, was covered by their military insurance.

BEHEE: We got here in October. By November, he had his Purple Heart ceremony, and he could stand on his own. By January, he was walking totally unassisted. That wasn't a goal of the VA, or they wouldn't have spent the money for the wheelchair.

ROWLANDS: A year-and-a-half after he arrived, Jarod's recovery is so far along, he's now working as a volunteer at the hospital's rehab center.

The other two families also claim that private care has made a difference.

Josh Cooley's mother says, two weeks after moving to Casa Colina from the Tampa VA, her son was able to speak.

CHRISTINE COOLEY, MOTHER OF WOUNDED MARINE: I was doing something for him. And I leaned over to give him a hug, and I said, "I love you." And he said, "I love you too, mom."

And it was just like, oh, my God.


ROWLANDS: Jenny Briest pulled her husband, Corey, out of the Minneapolis VA. She claims they were ready to give up on Corey after less than a week in rehab.

BRIEST: And they gave him five days before they said that they were going to put him down in the nursing wing floor.

ROWLANDS: Jenny says a nurse at the VA told her about Jarod Behee's case, so they followed to Casa Colina.

BRIEST: Right away, when we got here, they started working on his swallowing and his speech. That, to me, was just precious. When he said his first word, and it was our daughter's name, it was the best. I mean, you can't put money on it. Having him sit next to my son and our daughter at the dinner table, it's -- he wouldn't have gotten that at the VA.

ROWLANDS: These families turned to private care out of frustration. They think wounded soldiers and their families should be told from the beginning that private care is an option. Dr. Stephen Ezeji-Okoye is deputy chief of staff at the Palo Alto VA. He and other doctors say nobody anticipated the number of brain injuries coming out of Iraq. They insist the VA has added enough staff to handle the load.

DR. STEPHEN EZEJI-OKOYE, DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF, PALO ALTO VA: VA care, I believe, is excellent. And we are doing everything we can to look at our processes to make sure, not only does it stay excellent, but it gets better.

(on camera): This is where Staff Sergeant Behee was treated. And they even say that, if he would have just stayed here, he would have made the exact same progress as he did at Casa Colina.

DR. STEPHEN EZEJI-OKOYE, DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF, PALO ALTO VA: I think we're better now than we were then, but I think we would have -- that he would have made the same -- the same gains if he had stayed here.

ROWLANDS (voice-over): The Behees say they will never believe that.

But the lead physician at Casa Colina says that Dr. Ezeji-Okoye might actually be right. But he also believes that the VA does need help from private facilities to handle the overwhelming number of brain injuries.

DR. DAVID PATTERSON, MEDICAL DIRECTOR, CASA COLINA HOSPITAL: Fifty percent of all combat-related injuries are traumatic brain injury. You have a volume issue that needs to be dealt with.

ROWLANDS: According to the doctors at the VA, cost is not a factor. And they say, if they really thought private care was better, they would have no problem recommending it.

A VA statement released to CNN says, in part: "VA is the world's leader in traumatic brain injury treatment, rehabilitation, and research. Our doctors, nurses, researchers, and rehabilitation therapists have devoted years to developing leading-edge care and treatment for brain injury."


ROWLANDS: While there may be disagreement about which care is better, what's clear is that these young men and all the others deserve the best.

Ted Rowlands, CNN, Pomona, California.


ZAHN: And, in addition to the 162,000 troops serving in Iraq, there are countless numbers of private contractors, and, of course, members of the media also risking their own lives over there. And with me now, my colleague Kyra Phillips who recently just got back from seven weeks in Iraq.

Good to see you in person.

KYRA PHILLIPS: Good to see you, too. It was quite an experience.

ZAHN: Well, it must have been, because we see this play out on the screen every day, and certainly you were warned about the enormous risks you were taking with your own life. What was the reality? PHILLIPS: I think the reality hit me once I landed at that airport. Got off the airplane and saw the armed guards. You don't see that when you get off at LaGuardia or Atlanta Hartsfield. And immediately our security team met me, I had to put on a flack jacket. I got the security briefer in the armored car. And it was this intense process to just go through the streets.

I never realized every single second is accounted for when you're there. An average Iraqi doesn't have that. I was lucky that I had that type of protection.

ZAHN: Let's take a look now at a little chunk of your reporting to give our audience a better sense of what you were up against.


PHILLIPS: Just to give you an idea how dangerous it still is here in Baghdad four years after the war started, right now we're in a Shia neighborhood and you can see we have an Iraqi police escort in front of us with armed police officers and also behind us. We've got two trucks behind us.

And you can see there's members of the military and also the police that are constantly talking to us. We have checkpoints every 600 yards. And the curfew is in place from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. You can see how difficult it is just to travel less than a mile.


ZAHN: But in spite of all of that security they is in place, you were at a university and came very close to an incredibly dangerous situation.

PHILLIPS: At the University of Baghdad I wanted to go listen to a lecture in the poli-sci class. I heard they were talking about, is Iraq another Vietnam? I thought that was fascinating. So we worked all the security to get there. And we're in the classroom, the lecture starts. And this is what happened.


PHILLIPS: Vietnam versus Iraq. Can you even compare the two wars? I thought this was today's classroom debate, until this...


PHILLIPS: Are those bombs? Those are bombs going off?


PHILLIPS: How does that make you feel when you hear those bombs going off as you sit in class?

"Fear, anxiety, I wonder if my family is OK," Yasser (ph) says, "because we have no idea where though bombs are landing."

These Baghdad university students don't even flinch. The explosions continue as they answer my question.


PHILLIPS: Isn't that amazing?

ZAHN: Not only didn't -- they didn't blink!

PHILLIPS: No. And that's what just amazed me. And I said, what is it? And they said, we are courageous people. This is has we have to do. We have to move forward. We have to get an education. We want jobs. Every single student in that class, Paula, said, I want to be a diplomat, I want to work for the embassy, I want to work for the Iraqi police, I want to be a teacher. Every single one of them had goals of what they wanted to do in their life.

ZAHN: Well, I hope they get that chance.

PHILLIPS: I hope so, too.

ZAHN: And because the challenge of that, I think, was pretty clearly laid out to you by General Petraeus, of course, who's in charge of the mission over there. What did he tell you about what he sees as the greatest obstacle in keeping our troops there and trying to train the Iraqi forces at the same time?

PHILLIPS: He won't commit to a timeline. Everybody is talking about when are we going to get the troops out? When is this war going to end? He will not commit to that because he sees how long this is going to take. He also will be very honest about how slow it is, this process.

But we spent time in the Dura (ph) district, I got a chance to meet Iraqi commanders and ask both Petraeus and the Iraqi troops do you see hope? Is this working? Here's a little piece.


GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, CMDR., MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE IRAQ: We can study all the language and that culture we want. We're never going to have the feel for it that a lieutenant colonel like this has right here.

PHILLIPS: And Lieutenant Colonel, what does it mean top have General Petraeus here in this market?

"This market was dead in the past and we have brought back life," the colonel tells, "so the general is seeing that for himself."


PHILLIPS: And that was amazing for me to see the Iraqi troops there dressed to the hilt, with their weapons, talking about, yes, General Petraeus' men. They've taught us how to do raids, they've taught us how to gather intelligence. The Iraqis are trusting us. You saw them right there working together. Getting along. Doing missions together. I never -- I haven't had a chance to see that. ZAHN: Well, the problem is, those troops may be trusting us, but the Iraqi population makes it pretty clear to us on daily basis they don't want us there.

PHILLIPS: You know what is interesting, a lot of people said to me, do the Iraqis hate the Americans? Do they want the troops out of there? I didn't really get a sense for an anti-American feel. It was more, why isn't this working quicker? So it wasn't so much, we hate Americans. It was, why aren't you doing more? We really want this to work.

ZAHN: Kyra Phillips, thanks for dropping by.

PHILLIPS: Thanks, Paula.

ZAHN: Appreciate it.

Still ahead tonight, the story of one female Iraq veteran, and what happened when she finally came home.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So what does the youngest ask you?

FRANTZ MICHEL, LOST WIFE TO SUICIDE: When is mom coming back?

FEYERICK: What do you tell her?

MICHEL: Mom's in heaven now. Mom's not coming back.


ZAHN: "Out in the Open" next, the emotional toll of combat stress on our women in uniform.

Also ahead, we're bringing a scandal involving U.S. vets "Out in the Open." Why are hundreds of them coming home only to find themselves homeless? It is a national disgrace.


ZAHN: Welcome back to this special Memorial Day edition of PAULA ZAHN NOW. The shattering stress of combat is as old as war, but only with the Iraq War have we begun to see how it affects women. Research now shows that women are more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder than men, and that remembering and talking about traumatic experiences seems to be the most effective therapy.

But what happens to women warriors who can't deal with combat stress once they come home? Deborah Feyerick has one Iraq War veteran's story.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When Navy medic Linda Michel (ph) came home from Iraq last September, her husband and three kids met her at the airport, overjoyed he was back safe, or so they thought.

MICHEL: She seemed a little nervous, a little -- I don't know, a little different.

FEYERICK: Linda, a trained nurse, had been treating prisoners at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq for almost a year. Like many women returning from war, the transition would be tough.

MICHEL: She had to kind of get used to the children. She had to kind of get used to the house. There was a lot of difficulty adjusting.

FEYERICK: For Linda, getting readjusted was especially hard. Her husband, Frantz, a lieutenant colonel in the infantry reserve, had served in Iraq a year earlier. As a result, the couple had been apart for nearly three years.

MICHEL: I think she was afraid that she might not be able to pick up the pieces and get our life back the way it was.

FEYERICK: Two weeks after coming home, Linda Michel, Navy medic and mother of three, sat on her bed and shot herself in the chest with her husband's gun.

(on camera): Were you the one who found her?

MICHEL: Yes. I had no idea that -- what level, how deep, how much pain she was in.

FEYERICK (voice-over): More than 150,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Experts say women are more likely than men to feel the emotional effects of the battlefield once they come home. An Army study last year examined 220 veterans and found nearly 24 percent of women compared to 19 percent of men suffered some mental illness.

HELENA DAVIS, DEP. DIR., MENTAL HEALTH ASSOC., NY STATE: You know, it's the intensity of pain.

FEYERICK: Helena Davis, a mental health expert, says Linda's feelings are common among women who learn thousand survive in combat zones only to lose their identity when the fighting stops.

DAVIS: A woman coming home from war, first of all, has to deal with letting go of her warrior self and coming back to her parent/spouse/caretaker self.

FEYERICK: Women may isolate themselves rather than ask for help which they feel mistakenly is a sign of weakness.

(on camera): Do you think your wife hid other vulnerability?

MICHEL: She always wanted to portray herself as being strong. Every job she does, she did it at 110 percent. FEYERICK (voice-over): Frantz says in Iraq, Linda was described antidepressants which she quit when she left. He had no indication how serious the problem was from either his wife or the Defense Department.

The armed forces do not monitor troops who may suffer psychological problems once they get home. Even those symptoms for conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder may not surface for weeks.

The Veterans Administration says monitoring vets would be an invasion of privacy.

PATRICIA RESICK, WOMEN'S HEALTH SCIENCES, VETERAN'S ADMIN.: Once you're discharged, you're a citizen. We can't mandate citizens of our country to go get mental health care or get checkups as veterans.

FEYERICK: Frantz Michel says he doesn't blame anyone, and that he and his wife are patriots, proud of their service. Now he is left to pick up the pieces.

(on camera): so what does the youngest ask you?

FRANTZ: When is mom coming back?

FEYERICK: What do you tell her.

FRANTZ: Mom's in heaven now. Mom's not coming back. But mom is always with us. She'll always be part of the family.

FEYERICK (voice-over): Deborah Feyerick, CNN, Albany, New York.


ZAHN: What a tragedy. The Army tells us it has started a new health program for soldiers coming back home. It includes a second mental health checkup three to six months after they get back.

"Out in the Open" next, a shameful truth about how this country is treating some of its Iraq veterans.


KEVIN FELTY, IRAQ WAR VETERAN: I come home, I'm homeless, I got nothing, a couple bucks to my name.


ZAHN: He served his country with bravery, and now he's homeless, like hundreds of others.

Also I want to you watch this incredible story. You're not going to believe the lengths this young mother went to to honor her husband's legacy. She had his baby two years after he died.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ZAHN: On this Memorial Day, we're devoting the entire hour to the men and women in uniform who are serving our country. Now I want to bring one of the unforeseen consequences of the war in Iraq "Out in the Open." For all of the talk we hear about supporting the troops, here is a shameful truth. Hundreds of U.S. veterans come home from the war only to find themselves homeless.

We asked Kyung Lah to find out why.


KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Twenty-six-year-old Kevin Felty fought on the front lines in Iraq. Now just two years later, he's on a burger line. This is not the homecoming he imagined.

FELTY: And I tell people, look what I'm reduced to. You know? I was getting shot at by little kids, by pregnant women, and I'm asking, do you want fries with that. You know what I mean? It kills me every day.

LAH: This was Kevin in 2000. He joined the Army, fell in love and married. In 2003, he was deployed to Iraq. After six months he came home and was honorably discharged. He admits he wasn't the perfect soldier or father. After he left the structure of the military, he says life began to unravel.

FELTY: I can't place the blame on anybody but me. You know, maybe I just didn't put in the effort I needed to.

LAH: Though he didn't realize it at the time, Felty was suffering from now diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. He says he couldn't hold down a job, couldn't afford an apartment and he moved his family from couch to couch until eventually they left him.

FELTY: I did my job perfectly, and I come home, I'm homeless, I got nothing. A couple bucks to my name.

LAH: Felty is one of a growing segment of America's homeless population, veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. To date their numbers are small, but the concern is a repeat of what the Vietnam War produced, thousands of homeless vets. But this time, there is a higher rate of post-traumatic stress disorder and an economic with skyrocketing housing costs.

FELTY (on camera): Are you surprised that you're already seeing vets from this current conflict ending up homeless and on the street?

ED QUILL, VOLUNTEERS OF AMERICA: I'm surprised that it's happening this fast, yes.

LAH (voice-over): Ed Quill (ph) works with the Volunteers of America, a nonprofit advocacy group for the homeless that go out in search of vets in need, providing medical care and housing assistance.

QUILL: It makes me feel ashamed when I go home and I sit in my home and I know a veteran who is out there and served to protect me doesn't have that same home.

LAH: This is Staff Sergeant Tracy Lockett (ph), another Iraq veteran we met. Just three years ago he specialized in chemical and biological weapons. Today, he's homeless.

(on camera): What address is this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 611 East Adams Street.

LAH: And what is that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a homeless shelter.

LAH (voice-over): Advocates say the actual number is higher, but in the last two years the Department of Veterans Affairs counted 1,049 veterans from Iran and Afghanistan who needed homeless services from the V.A.

PETE DOUGHERTY, V.A. HOMELESS PROGRAM: What is alarming is if we didn't see some of them and weren't getting to them.

LAH: Pete Dougherty is a director of the V.A.'s homeless program and says vets from Iraq and Afghanistan are getting the help they need. For example, there are 40 percent more vets in V.A. shelters today than when the war started four years ago. And that's a sign the system is better equipped to help than it was after Vietnam.

DOUGHERTY: I think we as a nation and we as a department have come light years from where we used to be. I think we now recognize that the best way to treat this is to go out and seek early intervention.

LAH: But activists say there's a gap between the Defense Department and the V.A. All veterans aren't screened before getting discharged or help with supportive housing.

LAH (on camera): Are you glad to have a place to stay?

FELTY: Absolutely. It's better than the alternatives.

LAH (voice-over): Today Felty lives in transitional housing. He owns virtually nothing, a few electronics, a prayer rug from Iraq, a shirt from his military days.

(on camera): When you compare the two situations, actually being in Iraq versus the situation you're in now, which is harder.

FELTY: Probably this, because at least I had some kind of self- control, or at least fighting back in Iraq. Whereas this, it's kind of a listless loneliness.

LAH (voice-over): Felty says he doesn't want a medal or money, he just wants America to see what sacrifice for country can look like once a soldier comes home to a home that's no longer there.

Kyung Lah, CNN, Cocoa, Florida. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: It shouldn't be that way. "Out in the Open" next, the fear of losing a loved one in Iraq has some soldiers' families going to incredible lengths.


KATHLEEN "K.C." CARROLL-SMITH, IRAQ WAR WIDOW: I wish his father could have been here and seen his son. And pretty much every day I wonder what Brian (ph) would have thought of his wonderful little baby.


ZAHN: The amazing story of a war widow who never gave up, and finally gave birth to her fallen husband's son.


ZAHN: Welcome back to our "Out in the Open" Memorial Day special. More than 3,400 members of the U.S. military have lost their lives in Iraq. And tonight I want you to see the extreme even desperate length some Iraq War widows go to to create families and keep alive the memory of their husbands.

Wait until you see this story from Keith Oppenheim on one soldier's son born years after his father died in Iraq.


KEITH OPPENHEIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Eight-month-old Benton Smith (ph) is like hundreds of children around the country. He lost a parent, his dad, to the war in Iraq. But unlike other children, Benton was born long after his father died.

CARROLL-SMITH: I wish his father could have been here and seen his son, and -- pretty much every day I wonder what Brian would have thought of his wonderful little baby.

OPPENHEIM: Brian is Brian Smith, the father Benton will never meet. That's because Benton was born two years after his father's death. His mom, Kathleen, her friends call her K.C., explained how due to modern science and the casualties of war, Brian was gone before his son was even conceived.

CARROLL-SMITH: He was my best friend in the world, and the love of my life.

OPPENHEIM: The love story began in 1992 when Brian and K.C. met in Austin, Texas. They married. Brian became a lawyer. But at the age of 29, he grew restless. In 2002 he joined the Army and became a tank commander in Iraq. On July 2, 2004, Lieutenant Brian Smith stepped out of his tank at a checkpoint and was killed by a sniper.

CARROLL-SMITH: When he died it was really devastating. I thought my world had ended when he died.

OPPENHEIM: Before Brian left for Iraq, K.C. and Brian had been trying to have children. Brian donated his sperm so K.C. could keep trying to get pregnant while he was away. They never even considered he might not come back home. Brian did sign a document that stated in the event of his death, K.C. could decide how to use his sperm sample. And K.C. decided to have Brian's baby.

(on camera): So he never said to you that it would be OK for you to get pregnant with his sperm if he passed away.

CARROLL-SMITH: No, but it wasn't -- he didn't say I couldn't or could. It was just never discussed.

OPPENHEIM: It's -- this question strikes you as strange.


OPPENHEIM: Explain, why?

CARROLL-SMITH: Well, because we wanted children. And this is the -- one of the potential children we would have had. So what is wrong with having the baby I would have had even though he's not here?

OPPENHEIM (voice-over): At first, Brian's mother Linda (ph) was opposed.

(on camera): But did she feel that his permission was missing in some way?

CARROLL-SMITH: I believe so. I think that she felt maybe I was taking liberties.

OPPENHEIM: What did you say to your mother-in-law when she objected?

CARROLL-SMITH: Linda, you know, this is my life and I really want to have Brian's child.

OPPENHEIM (voice-over): K.C. convinced her in-laws this was the right thing to do. On the third try for in-vitro fertilization, she got pregnant, 15 months after her husband had died. With all the joy it has been a challenge for K.C. to watch her loving child grow in the absence of his father.

(on camera): Do you feel the loss of Brian when you feel the warmth of Benton?

CARROLL-SMITH: Yes. His dad won't see this., won't see the miracle that he helped produce.

OPPENHEIM (voice-over): But no doubt, this little miracle is a happy boy. And K.C. says Brian is present every day in the stories that Benton hears about the man who gave him life, only after he lost his own.

Keith Oppenheim, CNN, Austin, Texas.


ZAHN: And Benton Smith is now 10 months old. And as you can see, he is doing just fine, and his mother tells us she's now getting medical benefits from the government for her son.

That is it for all of us here tonight. We really appreciate your joining us again. We hope you have a great rest of the holiday weekend. LARRY KING LIVE starts right now. Good night.


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