March 16 - The official war in Iraq may be over but the battle scars still remain, both physical and emotional, for those who served -- and for their families. Lindsay Claiborn reports.
PLEASE NOTE: THIS EDIT CONTAINS 4:3 MATERIAL Thousands of white grave markers glimmer along the hillside at Arlington National Cemetery across from the nation's capitol, a sobering reminder of the human cost of war. It is the final resting place of more than 400,000 servicemen and women. United States Marine Corps Col. Todd Hixson is one of those veterans interred. Hixson, a 27-year veteran of the Corps, died in November 2009, committing suicide just three months after he returned from deployment in Iraq. For his widow, Denise Coutlakis, dealing with not only Hixson's death, but his choice to take his own life, was something she is still coming to terms with. (SOUNDBITE) Denise Coutlakis, saying (English): "There's always that nagging sense that it shouldn't have gone this way, it could have not gone this way." The statistics on veterans, mental health and suicide are striking. Nearly 1 in 5 have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and military suicide rates are at their highest since the war began, with an average rate of nearly one per day. In 2012, 349 service members took their own life. In 2007, Kathy and Ed Colley lost their son, 22-year-old Army private Stephen Colley, not to a roadside bomb or sniper fire, but to suicide, months after returning from a tour in Iraq. (SOUNDBITE) Ed Colley, father of PFC Stephen Colley, saying (English): "Had asked for help, but he didn't get the help that he needed and clearly, he was trying to do what he could for himself and could think of no other cure, obviously, than to take his own life." The Department of Veterans Affairs provides a wide range of support for returning soldiers including medical services and stress and mental health programs. President Obama's administration has hired more staff and bolstered tracking of high-risk patients in efforts to tackle suicide among veterans. Tommy Sowers is a veteran of Iraq, and assistant secretary at the VA. He acknowledges that the organization still has a lot of work to do, but that public and political perception is changing for the better. (SOUNDBITE) Tommy Sowers, Assistant Secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying (English): "I think that there has been a reorientation to the idea that war has, can have, an incredible mental cost. I think there's been a sea change of both acceptance and also a sea change in the amount of treatment and dollars that we focus on mental illness and mental care." The struggles of some soldiers are often more complicated than a simple diagnosis. Herold Noel return from Iraq suffering from severe PTSD, winding up unemployed and homeless. Noel turned to the VA for help but he found the hurdles insurmountable and attempted suicide. (SOUNDBITE) Herold Noel, Iraq War Army veteran, saying (English): "Yeah, when I pulled the trigger and it didn't fire. That's it. That's when I was like, ok. I'm here for a reason. Then I passed out." The Department of Veterans Affairs has tried to adapt to the influx of service members needing assistance including a suicide hotline that has received more than half a million calls since it was created in 2007, including more than 20,000 rescues of suicidal veterans. For family members like Denise Coutlakis and Ed and Kathy Colley, changes at the VA is welcome news but feels a little too late. As more is known about mental health issues associated with serving in combat, the Colleys hope their son's story will help provide support for others who are struggling.