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August 18th, 2009
06:00 AM ET

Marine veteran fights an invisible battle

By Caitlin Hagan
CNN Medical Associate Producer

Matthew Brown, 24, was shot in the leg in Falluja, Iraq.

Matthew Brown, 24, was shot in the leg in Falluja, Iraq.

Since the day a sniper shot Matthew Brown, 24, in the leg in Falluja, Iraq, life has never been the same (watch video). It was Veterans Day 2004, and Brown was trying to locate the shooter who was targeting one of his fellow Marines. But the sniper found Brown first.

"Nothing can describe it. You're taking a small projectile moving roughly 2,800 feet per second and stopping it on a dime, so there's searing heat, shooting pain, just pain everywhere," Brown says.

A priest gave him his last rites before he was airlifted out of Falluja. "They weren't really sure where I was shot because there was blood everywhere," he says.

Many blood transfusions and surgeries later, Brown awoke from a medically induced coma. This time, he was in Maryland.

"It was very disorienting, very confusing," Brown remembers. "I couldn't understand why I couldn't move my leg. I kept reaching for my sidearm."

He still had both legs and feet but had suffered extensive nerve damage. At 20 years old, Brown had to learn how to walk again. But there was more to his injury than his new physical limitations. One of every five veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan has post-traumatic stress disorder. Matthew Brown is one of them.

"Cars backfiring make me very jumpy,” he says. “People behind me, loud noises, constantly on alert looking around – is that McDonald's bag on the side of the road a bomb or just a bag? Is someone trying to get me?”

What started out as a prescription to take one to two painkillers every six hours eventually spiraled in to something more serious. Brown began abusing his medications. "Oxycontin, methadone, Percocet, Vicodin, once in a while Valium, " he says. "There would be some times where I would crush up a methadone....snort that, then chew a Percocet, then swallow a Vicodin, just so they would all hit at different times and the high continued."

And on top of the drugs, he was drinking heavily. "I was just, indirectly, I guess just trying to end it. End the pain, for a brief moment or forever."

Brown says he doesn't remember much from that time but he knows the exact moment when he hit rock bottom. Shortly after that night, he says he was able to speak up and for the first time, ask for help to deal with his PTSD.

"It took a while...to man up and get the help, " he says. "It was terrifying, knowing that I was going to go meet a complete stranger and spill my heart. I don't think I've ever told anyone everything before."

"Right now, the VA [Veterans Administration] is reporting over 50,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have some sort of substance abuse or alcohol issue," says Tom Tarantino, with the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America or IAVA. "Keep in mind, only 44 percent of current or former veterans even use the VA, so the actual number is far, far bigger."

Brown says communicating with fellow veterans is what best helped him manage his PTSD. "Really the only people who understand PTSD are the ones who have it," says Brown. Tarantino agrees. "No one can talk to a vet like another vet. No one can understand what someone's going through, what a combat vet is going through, other than someone who has also seen combat."

That's why the IAVA has created a social networking site specifically for combat veterans to share their experiences in dealing with PTSD. Community of Vets is a site where veterans can ask one another questions about dealing with family life, job stress, alcohol or drug abuse, and treatment options.

Tarantino believes that kind of open communication is crucial for someone with PTSD. "These are wounds. You're actually a stronger service member, you're a stronger soldier if you say, ‘Hey I'm having a problem. I need help. Let's get me fixed so I can get back into the fight," he says. "We do an excellent job of training people how to be warriors. We don't do a very good job in the military and as a society of bringing them back from warriors to citizens."

Brown believes he has benefited from talking with other veterans through the IAVA site. His darkest days seem to be behind him and the future looks bright. He's married and has two children, a boy and a girl.

"Life is still a battle with PTSD," he says. "I now realize that I don't want to be a number on a piece of paper, I want to live to be 70 or 80 – I want to grow up to see my son graduate from boot camp or high school or college....Same with my daughter."

"Now I'm trying to live up to what the people that died could have been. Where they would want to be."

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