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Brain Injuries Shackle Returning Marines With Invisible Wounds

Brain trauma has become the “signature injury” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Full Focus reporter Heather Hill has more on how a local partnership is leading Camp Pendleton Marines down the pa

Brain trauma has become the “signature injury” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Full Focus reporter Heather Hill has more on how a local partnership is leading Camp Pendleton Marines down the path of recovery.

Daily bombings and explosions in Iraq are claiming many American lives and sending troops home with lasting, silent injuries. For the past year, Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas has been treating local marines with combat-related brain injuries.

Twenty-four-year-old Wilson Otero looks healthy -- but beneath his scars lies a different story. This Marine Corps Lance Corporal was injured in Iraq when an improvised explosive device, or IED, detonated near his squad. A convoy security agent, Otero says he didn't realize he was seriously hurt after regaining consciousness.

Otero : Then I started experiencing some memory issues like not remembering tasks or how to operate certain machine guns. So I said to myself, there is something wrong.

A medical examination revealed Otero suffered a brain injury from the blast. Now he says he's plagued with memory loss and wakes to nightmares. For the past year, he's been in rehabilitation at this hospital in Encinitas. His job in this exercise is to remember a to-do list and repeat it back five minutes later.

Therapist : Wilson, you ready? You need to buy your wife a birthday card, get your oil changed in your car, and you need to call work to check in. Got em'?

The outpatient program is designed for active-duty military, like Otero, who have sustained brain injuries with no visible wounds -- often called “silent injuries.”

Jessica Martinez , Lead Therapist: One of the challenges is to educate the people around the patient that they do have a brain injury, that it's not a behavioral problem, but an actual injury to their brain. It's so hard for people to understand that because you can't see their injury.

Martinez says a combination of occupational, physical, and speech therapies help patients conquer problems with multi-tasking, sequencing, and paying attention to detail. And the need for such therapy is growing, according to the medical director of rehabilitation.

Michael Lobatz , Scripps Encinitas Chief of Staff: The current survival rate is 16-to-1, whereas in Vietnam and in World War II, it was 4-to-1. So there's a lot more survivors. So for that reason, we're seeing more of these injuries now than we've ever seen before.

Therapist : Wilson?

Otero : I have to buy my wife a birthday card, get my oil changed in my car, and, hmmm -- I forgot.

Two-years later, Wilson Otero's short-term memory still isn't what it used to be. But he says he knows he's improving, and, he's making plans for the future.

Otero : My goals now have changed because I want to get an office job in the Marine Corps. So I am planning to get out and use my money to go to school. And I'm going to try. Well, it's not ‘I'm going to try’, it's: ‘I'm going to do it.’

Since June of last year, 31 combat-injured patients have completed treatment through the Scripps rehabilitation program. Of these, 22 have returned to full-time active duty status.