In a country whose citizens, politicians and institutions proudly proclaim their unswerving support and reverence for the men and women it sends off to fight its wars, the proof of their proclamation is best tested when those same troops come home. More often than not in America, we’ve failed the test. And while that failure manifests itself across a broad spectrum of realms from the economic to the social, it is perhaps the repetitive failure to recognize what happens when we turn men and women into killing machines that is the most egregious.
In a brilliant documentary film from HBO that aired on the cable channel last fall and is now available on DVD, executive producer James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini and an A-team of award-winning film makers comprised of Jon Alpert, Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Matt O’Neill tackle the tough issue of post-traumatic stress.
In the film, the New York Times headlines scream: Veteran’s Suicide Averages Two a Day; War’s Nerve Cases Difficult to Treat; 76,688 Veterans Have Nervous Ills. This sobering news is hard to read—or was hard to read when published in 1920.
Wartorn 1861-2010 vividly reminds us that what we now call PTSD didn’t just slowly evolve into a major malady with the Vietnam War. Indeed, the film takes us back to our nation’s deadliest war. Through battlefield photography of the day and letters written by Pennsylvania rifleman Angelo Creapsey, we learn about the condition then called hysteria or melancholia, which is overtaking the young man as he goes from gung-ho to scared to depressed, describing suicides in camp, desertions, “hundreds of dead” and finally his own despair, acknowledging he is “clear off the hooks.” Creapsey wrote, “Many of times I saw things that will be remembered unto death.”
Sent home, unfit to fight, Creapsey’s family and friends needed no physician’s diagnosis to know what had caused his paranoia and violent behavior, and why, as they eloquently wrote after his suicide, “He seemed to worry that everybody hated him because he killed people.”
After the Civil War, it was reported that half of all people in mental institutions were war veterans.
As the newspapers reported, World War I brought the “shell-shocked” Doughboys home to America in troubling numbers. In the December 1921 Atlantic Monthly, one such soldier lays bare his horrific story of terror under the “malicious scream of a big shell” and of coming home “filled with misery and mental anguish…closed like an oyster, back but not yet back at all.”
In a film replete with intimate and moving testimonies to the pain of the psychologically wounded and their families, it may be the group of stooped World War II veterans who, after nearly 60 years of suffering, are finally confronting their “combat fatigue” that hits hardest. As one of them weeps, “There’s an awful lot of guilt, thinking you should have done better….I still have nightmares—and it takes all goddamn night to kill somebody,” you realize for them the war didn’t end in 1945 but rather was a life sentence of torment.
Perhaps it is engrained in humans, the self-deception that somehow exposure to barbarity is something a normal person should be able to withstand. In the film’s cold and clinical footage of WWII soldiers being questioned in the field by psychiatrists, interlaced with the images of battlefield reality, their exchange says all you need to know:
“What’s your trouble?” barks the doctor.
“I can’t stand seeing people killed.”
“Did you see people being killed?”
“Lots of ’em.”
“What does that do to you?”
As it goes on, Wartorn is a mesmerizing experience, not just because of the old war footage or informative history the film imparts, but rather because of how it puts to us the stark reality that in a century and a half we’ve barely moved off the dime to address this issue squarely. With the film’s rending stories from Iraq and Afghanistan that mirror Angelo Creapsey’s sad Civil War saga, our epic failures ring loud as a failure shared by our military leaders, politicians and all of us.
Gandolfini’s questioning of enlisted men and leaders, including General Ray Odierno at his Iraq headquarters, offers insights into how, in the real time of war and the stress of multiple deployments, the Army is attempting to deal with PTSD. But the tragic story of a clearly suicidal Marine in Iraq who was denied treatment and accused of “faking it” demonstrates the gross inadequacy of efforts to date.
The experience of Vietnam War veterans and their courage to come forward and demand that PTSD be treated seriously did transform treatment and educate broadly. But heavy resistance remains to be overcome, culturally and institutionally.
The Wartorn DVD includes as an extra an illuminating panel discussion that was held at the movie’s Pentagon premiere last fall. Included are General Peter Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff, and Tammy Duckworth of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Also on the panel was Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Paul “Buddy” Burcha, who after 40 years of denial finally admitted to himself he suffers from PTSD. “I think for the first time we are doing an honest solid effort, but it won’t change, it won’t be successful until we acknowledge that it is 100 percent of combat veterans who have this problem. It doesn’t matter if you have four stars, Silver Stars or no stripes, man or woman. You don’t know when it will manifest itself, but it will…. The problem is, how do we remove the stigma. I believe that’s the biggest obstacle.”
As with Burcha, Vietnam veterans who have struggled to deal with PTSD can play an important role for their younger comrades by stepping up in the battle to break down the stigma.
With tens of thousands of veterans coming home afflicted after multiple combat tours, America has a clear choice: openly and aggressively attack the problem, or pay the dear consequences in shattered lives, broken families and troubled communities. Wartorn beautifully puts the approaching storm into stark relief and is an essential film for all who truly want to support our troops.
As an emotional Burcha told the Pentagon audience: “The most important words, that we all run away from, was said to me as I stepped off the plane from Vietnam by a young specialist 5, ‘Welcome home sir, I love you.’ That compassion, that love, is what has to drive us.”