Pete Bunce walked into a room at a U.S. military hospital in Germany in March 2004, and stared hard at the unconscious young Marine on the bed. His head, gouged by shrapnel from an insurgent bomb in Iraq, was grotesquely swollen. His face was distorted and his right eye was near blind.
Mr. Bunce spoke his first thought: "This is not my son."
The Bunce family and their doctors have spent the decade since trying to restore Justin Bunce to the man they knew, with limited success.
Cpl. Bunce remains intelligent and funny. But his brain no longer sends the messages that allow him to walk smoothly, or to warn him when his behavior might offend or frighten people. "I can't dream anymore," he said. "I would even be happy with nightmares, but I don't even have those."
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have left a generation of brain-injured veterans who, like Cpl. Bunce, may get better, but never well.
Between Jan. 1, 2001, and Sept. 30, 2013, more than 265,000 U.S. troops suffered traumatic brain injuries, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. Most were mild concussions. Some 26,250 troops, however, suffered penetrating head wounds or brain injuries classified as moderate or severe, which caused unconsciousness from 30 minutes to more than a day.
The Bunces, their doctors and the Department of Veterans Affairs have embarked on an experiment that could help determine whether some of these veterans can ever resume something close to regular lives.
Cpl. Bunce is one of 119 brain-injured veterans that the VA has placed in privately run group homes around the U.S., immersing them in therapies for movement, memory and speech, while gently exposing them to civilian life.