01/23/2013 02:56 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

The Pain Within: War Wounds Run Deep for Returning Veterans

Amidst the end-of-year hustle and bustle, most Americans were understandably preoccupied with shopping, travel and family. So many Americans also failed to notice the tragic milestone we passed this holiday season: in 2012, combat deaths were outnumbered by veteran suicides, reaching a record high. It's a startling statistic, particularly when you pause to consider its implications. For the last decade, we've seen tens of thousand of soldiers return home with injuries, many of whom had serious brain or spinal damage. But these numbers only account for the wounds we can see -- and it's the damage outside our field of vision that's sometimes the most lethal.

And I can tell you firsthand that it can also be the hardest to heal. My own organization, Semper Fi Fund, has been working with wounded service members since 2004, offering assistance and filling the financial gaps that government programs can't cover. Many of the servicemen and women we help suffer from debilitating injuries including burns, loss of sight or hearing, and missing limbs. A significant portion of the grants we fill are for adaptive housing, customized transport and other means of compensating for a physical disability. But all too often, the mental component of sustaining such an injury goes ignored and untreated.

Nor is bodily injury the only cause of psychological trauma. Studies have found that approximately 12.5 percent of troops who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, many of whom were exposed to a life-and-death situation, or knew someone seriously injured or killed. And it's still too soon to accurately gauge the lifetime effects of this war's trauma.

With the last of our troops now pulling out of the Middle East, this is more important to remember than ever. It may be tempting to think that once our servicemen and women are home, the work is finished. But the reality is, getting our veterans back to health is a process, and a lengthy one at that. As a former nurse, I can't help but think that ceasing our efforts now would be a bit like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping head wound, and sending the patient on his way. Treating our veterans is like triage: now that we've made some progress taking care of the most immediate needs, it's time to move onto the next phase in recovery. Which means that we'll need to see a shift in mindset, placing the same, if not more, emphasis on psychological as physical treatment.

Treating the psyche is arguably more complicated, and it's hard to know what will work. It begins with therapy and medication, although it doesn't necessarily end there. Healing can also sometimes come in unexpected places: through organized events that bring veterans with shared experiences together, through giving back to the community, even through exercise. Our own competitive athletics program, Team Semper Fi, is based on the idea of "recovery through sport." Our members have competed internationally and we've even sent a few on to the Paralympics.

Winning, however, is just a small part of it. LCpl. Jeremy Williams was deployed three times in the six years he served in the Marine Corps, and in his last deployment he began to exhibit signs of Combat Stress, a precursor to PTSD. Initially resistant to treatment, as many servicemen and women tend to be, Williams eventually got the help he needed. As part of the recovery process, Williams turned to Judo: "Judo has really helped put away a lot of things from Iraq and the ghosts that followed. There's a certain peace I find when I'm training and flowing on the mat," said Williams. "I'm not angry and wound so tight anymore. Most of all I got to keep my warrior spirit. It proved to me that they (the enemy) didn't break that part of me after all."

But not every story has a happy ending. Unfortunately, for every life saved, there's another that's lost in war's wake. Short of a magic pill, we may never be able to help all who need it. All we can do is continue to give back in however we can: by volunteering, donating, advocating the need for continued financial assistance for our troops long beyond their return home. Then, we just hope it's enough.