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Collateral damage: The mental health issues facing children of veterans

Not all our casualties of war served overseas in combat. Some are children who never left our shores. Collateral damage, some might call it. Our Cover Story from Martha Teichner: 

How many of these homecomings have you seen on television since we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a decade ago? How many children, looking into a returning soldier's eyes for the parent who went away?

These are supposed to be happy endings, happily-ever-after moments. But often they are anything but.

"Before his deployment, he was always kind of the fun parent," said 15-year-old Abigail Barton, who lives in Newburgh, Ind., Her father, Aaron Barton, is a veteran of the Iraq war.

"I just figured he'd come home and he'd start, just like he used to, start taking us to the park, playing basketball, getting ice cream, all that stuff," said Abigail. "And it just immediately changed, it was completely gone."

"Yeah, I was scared to go out of the house at the time," said Aaron. "Crowds make me nervous. I'm always still looking for snipers."

Barton was a specialist in the Army National Guard. His two deployments in Iraq, in 2005 and again in 2007, left him with injuries to his brain and spine, and post-traumatic stress disorder. He's able to work as a butcher for a local supermarket, as long as he works alone.

"I just get to a point where the rage takes over," Barton said. "I can't control that. It's like a Dr. Hyde-Jekyl thing, you know? It scares me almost as bad as them."

Asked what he tells his children when something happens, Aaron replied, "I usually say, 'Leave me alone.' I would never intentionally harm them." Facing his daughter Abigail, Barton said, "You're my life."

The stories of veterans' lives upended by PTSD are all too familiar to us -- the struggles of their children practically unknown.

"I would get so angry," said Abigail. "I would just think, 'This is what Iraq did to my father.' I'd start blaming it on America's military, you know? I would be like, 'You guys stole my father.'

"So yeah, I developed depression over the time and a lot of anxiety."

"Did your school understand?" asked Teichner.

"No, no. I haven't gotten any help through school. All of my, I guess, depression and anxiety help, it's come from other places -- through our family doctor."

Abigail Barton's brother Alex is 18, and uncomfortable speaking on camera. A year ago, he attempted suicide and spent four days on life support.

What's it been like for Alex, Teichner asked. "Devastating, devastating," said his mother, Wendy Barton, "to see the changes in his dad, and to feel helpless."

"I don't think that America is intentionally neglecting these kids by any means, but I think that they need to wake up," said Wendy Barton, "because this is a real problem, and it is certainly not just my children that are suffering."

It's estimated that as many as five million kids have had a parent or sibling serve in Iraq or Afghanistan since 9/11.

Ron Avi Astor, professor of social work at the University of Southern California, said, "The vast majority of the kids and families, even with a lot of deployments and a lot of moves, about 70 percent or more depending on the issue you're looking at, are doing fine."

But Astor says the other thirty percent -- up to a million and a half kids -- are not doing fine. He studied 30,000 high school students in eight California school districts. Particularly troubling: Astor found one out of four military kids is likely to consider suicide -- significantly more than non-military kids.

And what does the Veterans Administration do for the children and siblings of people who've come back from the war? Not much, said Astor.

The VA spent almost $500 million last year for PTSD treatments for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. But their family members (a VA spokeswoman informed us by email) may receive counseling "if determined to be essential to the effective treatment and readjustment of the veteran."

In other words, veterans' kids who have psychological issues are largely on their own, if they get help at all.

Abigail Aaron said that every day when she walks out her door she puts on her "normal" act: "It's like putting on a shirt now. It's incredibly easy. You just walk outside, put on a smile."

Her experience is typical. Her salvation has been soccer.

"Every time I step on the field or anything, all stresses go away," Abigail said. "I don't think about anything but the game, you know?

Christal Presley told Teichner, "My mom had asked me not to talk about the things that were happening with my father. In fact, if my mom mentioned the word Vietnam, it was with a whisper."

Soldiers' kids can be collateral damage in our nation's wars -- all their lives. Presley said, "I was feeling very suicidal, very depressed, very angry, anxiety-ridden."

Until, at the age of 30, Christal did what terrified her most: she asked her father, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, to talk to her about the war.

"Why do you think at that point he said yes?" Teichner asked.

"Well, I know now it was also because he felt like there was also a hole in his soul and that he never really knew his daughter."

Delmer Presley returned to rural Virginia shattered by the killing he witnessed and participated n in Vietnam, and by the hatred he encountered when he got home.

When he couldn't control himself, he would lock himself in his room and play his guitar, or just face the wall.

"I felt ashamed of myself," he said. "I figured rage would get out, I'd maybe harm somebody or something like that, you know?"

"So while my dad was hiding away in his room, I would lock myself away in my room," Christal said. "I would vacillate between depression and rage just like my father."

It was as if she, too, had PTSD, and by her own admission it was eating her alive, when she first picked up the phone for that first of 30 phone calls.

"He said, 'I don't want to talk about the war, I don't know anything about a war,'" Christal said.

And what was her response?

"We hung up the phone, and slowly but surely, over the next few weeks, he started really opening up to me."

Teichner asked Delmer, "Do you think those conversations helped you?"

"Oh yeah, yeah," he replied. "I mean, sometimes when you have an episode, I just feel like calling her and talking to her, and that helps, you know?"

After a lifetime of telling no one, Christal Presley dared to go public, in a blog that -- to her astonishment -- went viral, and eventually became a book, 

She's received emails from thousands of veterans and the children of veterans as far back as WWII. She's begun a website and Facebook group called United Children of Veterans.

"I think part of me still feels the relief of, 'Christal, you're not alone,'" she told Teichner. "And the other part of me feels so sad, because I wasn't alone."

Counting small victories, Christal Presley no longer considers herself a victim of her father's war, but a survivor.

"I understand now that talking can be a matter of life and death," Christal said. "Sharing your story can be a matter of life and death."

When asked what was the best thing that came out of his telephone conversations with Christal, Delmer replied, "For me, just knowing that, I hope she knows I love her, and always have."

More information about: Family Assistance Centers