In retrospect, Disneyland wasn't an ideal family-vacation spot for Mark Waddell, a Navy SEAL commander whose valor in combat hid the fact that he was suffering from severe mental trauma. The noise of the careening rides, the shrieking kids everything roused Waddell to a state of hypervigilance typical of his worst days in combat. When an actor dressed as Goofy stuck his long, doggy muzzle into his face, Waddell recalls, "I wanted to grab Goofy by the throat."
It has long been taboo in military cultures for soldiers to complain about the invisible wounds of war. After a distinguished career as a SEAL commando, Waddell reached his breaking point following the worst disaster in SEAL history, in June 2005: a Chinook helicopter filled with eight SEALs and eight Army aviators was shot down while trying to rescue four comrades trapped by a Taliban ambush in the Kunar Mountains in Afghanistan. Waddell, who was stationed at the unit's base in Virginia Beach, had the agonizing task of sorting through the remains of his dead men young warriors he had fought beside, mentored and led into battle. He also had to tell their families of the deaths. One wife, he recalls, "just ran away from me, ran down the street. I could understand." By Waddell's reckoning, he attended more than 64 memorial services for his friends and comrades in arms. "Finally," says Waddell, "I raised my hand and said I needed help." The doctors' diagnosis: Waddell was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) known in previous conflicts as combat fatigue.
For Waddell, the diagnosis was a long time in coming. Several years earlier, his wife Marshéle Carter Waddell and their three kids had noticed that everyday things like a whining vacuum cleaner could trigger his rages. Even his kids riled him. "I'd come back from stepping over corpses with their entrails hanging out, and my kids would be upset because their TiVo wasn't working," he recalls. Arriving home from one combat mission, Waddell insisted on sleeping with a gun under his pillow. Another night, he woke up from a nightmare with his fingers wrapped around his wife's throat, her face turning blue. Marshéle had to change the sheets every morning because of her husband's night sweats. "I had an emergency evacuation plan for myself and the family," says Marshéle. "You feel physically unsafe."
At 48, now retired from the Navy and living in Colorado, Waddell is a thoughtful, good-humored man with a quick, catlike energy. After years on the clandestine side of combat, the idea of sharing secrets especially those of a personal nature doesn't come easily to him. But as agonizing as it is to relive the experiences of his ongoing bout with PTSD, he and Marshéle agreed to talk to TIME in an effort to sound the alarm for what has become a broader problem: the vast number of men and women returning from punishing stretches in Iraq and Afghanistan bearing the psychological scars of war. "By speaking out," says Waddell, "maybe it will help someone's son or daughter in the forces."