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Wounds of Iraq war: US struggles with surge of returning veterans

With combat operations set to end in Iraq, many veterans come home diagnosed with post traumatic stress syndrome and other maladies related to modern war. What's being done to help.

By Michael B. Farrell/ Correspondent / August 16, 2010

Marine Lt. Col. Mike Zacchea received a Purple Heart for injuries sustained while fighting in Fallujah.He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder while in Iraq and traumatic brain injury after returning home in 2005. Now he helps run an entrepreneurial ‘boot camp’ for disabled veterans at the University of Connecticut where he is also a graduate student.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

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Hartford, Conn.

In the spring of 2005, Marine Lt. Col. Mike Zacchea returned from the Iraq war to his Long Island, N.Y., home both a hero and a shattered man.

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Zacchea excelled in battle. During Operation Phantom Fury, the all-out assault against Sunni insurgents in Fallujah in late 2004, he earned a Bronze Star for valor. He received a Purple Heart for injuries sustained when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded just feet from him, piercing his shoulder with shrapnel. Doctors said his injuries were aggravated when he refused to be airlifted out – he didn't want to leave the Iraqi Army soldiers whom he trained and fought alongside in the country's infamous Sunni Triangle.

But while Zacchea, a third-generation marine, survived combat with honors, civilian life nearly killed him. For the first six months he was home, he didn't talk to anyone. He was irritable, angry, and aggressive. The most routine encounters turned violent. He assaulted a flower store clerk after they got in an argument and she threw change at him. "I grabbed her neck and almost choked her unconscious," he says. He erupted into rages at home, too, at one point setting the bathroom door on fire after his wife locked herself inside. He thought she was an insurgent.

Eventually, he began to heal. A Yale School of Medicine doctor working at the West Haven, Conn., Veterans Affairs hospital told him he probably had suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq. Zacchea felt he finally had some clarity about why he couldn't cope with New York City traffic or even lead a normal life.

Today, he's earning an MBA and helping run an entrepreneurial "boot camp" for other disabled veterans at the University of Connecticut in Hartford. "It's a long journey [going] from a guy who set his house on fire because he thought his wife was an insurgent to helping other disabled veterans make their own transition," he says.

Zacchea's journey from calamity to cautious hope may be a parable for the United States as it prepares to cope with one of the largest influxes of returning war veterans since Vietnam four decades ago. With combat missions set to end in Iraq by Aug. 31, thousands of troops are poised to come home, joining those who have already returned after multiple tours of duty over the course of the seven-year war. The roughly 65,000 troops in Iraq will soon drop to 50,000. Some of them will be redeployed to Afghanistan. But many will be resettling in big cities and small towns from Long Island to Los Angeles in what could be called the great surge home.

If one gauge of a nation's humanity is how it treats its returning soldiers, then the US is about to face a significant test. Experts say the country is woefully unprepared to handle it.