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King: Army strain, recovery at Fort Lewis

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
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The Army's home front strain
  • CNN's John King travels to Fort Lewis, Washington
  • Soldiers are dealing not only with physical injuries but with ones harder to detect
  • Two-thirds of the troops stationed at Fort Lewis are now in Iraq or Afghanistan
  • "State of the Union" with John King airs at 9 a.m. ET Sunday

Fort Lewis, Washington (CNN) -- The pain is excruciating, but to Army Spc. Michael Ballard, pain is the price of progress.

"I broke the top of my femur, so with the plate and screws, now I'm actually, two months later, able to walk -- do some walking on my own," Ballard told us. "Physical therapy is coming along very well."

Once the hip is back to full strength, Ballard will need knee surgery to repair ligament damage, but he shrugs and voices encouragement at his progress and smiles a confident smile when asked about his ultimate goal.

"Get back and fight," Ballard said without hesitation. "Return to duty."

Veterans Day traditionally has been set aside more to honor those who have served rather than those still serving. But eight-plus years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a huge class of combat veterans who still wear the uniform, many of them with two or three or more deployments under their belts and perhaps more in their futures.

Ballard, for example, is determined to rejoin his unit in Afghanistan. He is a medic in a Stryker brigade and was injured on one of the unit's first missions after deploying to northern Afghanistan a few months ago.

"We ran over an [improvised explosive device]," Ballard said. "I remember the floor coming up very quickly, and it forced me straight down to the ground, and then there was that brief second in time where I was sort of floating as the vehicle dropped and I was still in the air."

Back at Fort Lewis, Ballard is part of the Warrior in Transition Battalion: Task Force Phoenix is its name here. To visit is at once heart-wrenching and heartwarming, and a reminder that eight years of violent conflict have taken a perhaps immeasurable toll.

"What we now understand, now more than anything else, is that there is a cumulative effect," said the acting commander of Fort Lewis, Brig. Gen. Jeff Mathis. "Not only from the multiple deployments but from explosions or incidents that take place."

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Two-thirds of the troops stationed at Fort Lewis are now in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Iraq units are due to return home beginning in the spring but could face additional deployments to Afghanistan a year or so after returning home. The Army's goal is two years back at the post for every year deployed, but it is unclear when it will be able to meet that goal.

"So are we going to continue to see stress? If we continue these deployments, will there be stress on the force? Absolutely," Mathis said. "I meet with families. We have consultants that meet with families, trying to do everything we can to ensure we are alleviating that stress in every way. So I would like to see longer dwell times. But we are going to do what our nation asks us to do."

Some here, like Ballard, are dealing with physical injuries ranging from ankle sprains and broken bones to major rehabilitation from severe wounds and amputations. Others have wounds that are harder to detect, and to understand, like post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.

"I don't think we've really cracked the nut on how to really get at PTSD and TBI," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Danny Dudek. "This is the most complex job I have ever had. Being in a battalion where people are going through the most difficult thing they've ever had to deal with."

Twice a month, on average, the unit has an attempted suicide or a soldier who tells counselors of plans to commit suicide. One social worker for every 50 soldiers is progress from the ratio in years past, but Dudek says better resources and better understanding are both necessary.

The brain injuries worry him the most, because of the impact on the soldiers and their families when soldiers forget things or have bouts of anger or detachment.

"There's not going to be a magic pill, so we have to have skill sets. We need to have habits form and make sure we can write things down and remember things and have loved ones understand what we are going through," Dudek said. "It's very difficult to educate all these people very quickly. Frictions exist, and they come out, and it is very hard to overcome them."

Dudek's leadership of the Warrior in Transition unit is shaped by his personal experience: He has limited use of his legs and uses either a wheelchair or crutches to move about.

His Stryker brigade was part of the surge in Iraq and came under fire during a mission in July 2007.

"An explosively formed projectile -- which is a pretty vicious type of IED -- came through the back of that Stryker," Dudek recalled. "It killed the kid next to me and hit me in the back. Immediately, I couldn't use my legs."

On his office wall hangs an armored plate from his battle gear, a chunk missing from where the projectile struck him in the back.

Dudek could have left the Army and continued his rehabilitation as a civilian. He says he never considered it; he seized the opportunity to take charge when the command of Task Force Phoenix opened up.

"Having to separate from the uniform is really the heartbreaking piece of it," Dudek said. "That's the hardest thing. I can't imagine not being a soldier. Taking the uniform off is something I dread. I've got to be honest with you. I really want to be a soldier and have the uniform on until they make me take it off."