Review of HBO Documentary "Wartorn" from Chicago Flame (http://www.chicagoflame.com)
|Wartorn 1861-2010: A Look at the Invisible Wounds
As many of you were aware, last Thursday was Veterans Day, a day to recognize and show support for service men and women both past and present. It was also an opportunity to raise the issue of proper care for veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as previous conflicts. Sheila Nevins and James Gandolfini raise the concern of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in there HBO documentary Wartorn: 1861-2010 which airs on HBO this Thursday and continues until December 20th. The documentary chronicles the lives and struggles of soldiers from the Civil War to the modern day, as well as Gandolfini interviewing military personnel about the effects and reality of PTSD. As Nevins mentioned several times during the screening of Wartorn, the documentary is also a call to action to educate the public about the truths of PTSD and dispel the myths. Between the movie itself, the panel discussion afterwards, and an interview I had with Director Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Panelist Dr. Phillip Metres, the call was very difficult to ignore.
The movie's most powerful impact was the detail into the personal lives of soldiers who suffered severe PTSD. The earliest case observed was from the letters of Angelo Crapsey, an enlisted in the Union Army when he was 18. After fighting in the civil war for two years and witnessing the death and horrors of it, he was relieved of duty and hospitalized with "hysteria." After being released from the hospital, his family noticed he had become antisocial, paranoid, and killed himself less than a year later at 21. To highlight the seriousness of the disorder, the film noted that after the Civil War, more than half of the patients in mental institutions were veterans.
In another interview, WWII vets spoke about how they dealt with their PTSD, all of whom were expressing it for the first time. Not officially recognized until 1980, PTSD (known as combat fatigue, shell shock, and hysteria in previous eras) was considered taboo until the Vietnam War, and continues to a degree today. Because of this, many of the WWII vets mentioned how they felt isolated and alone due to the the stigma, one man mentioning he felt "he was the only one in the world that dealt with [PTSD].' Not surprisingly, many of the vets had turned to alcoholism and distanced themselves from their families and friends. One man mentioned he had become abusive to his family and has not spoken to his children in 25 years.
A majority of the interviews were modern day veterans from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first centered on Noah Pierce, who during two tours in Iraq had become "filled with hate and disillusionment." After returning home, he committed suicide and wrote "I'm freeing myself from the desert once and for all…I've taken lives, now it's time to take mine." There was also the story of Will Fras Jr, who after returning from Iraq became obsessed with photos taken during his three tours, became distant and almost violent with his family, and was unable to shop at Wal-Mart without apprehension. Lastly, there was the story of Jason Scheuerman who visited an army psychologist, admitting thoughts of depression and suicide. He was told to man-up and go to his barracks to clean his gun. It was there that he shot himself.
Following the film screening was a panel discussion led by Anna Davlantes from Good Day Chicago. It included Director Ellen Goosenberg Kent, director of the Illinois Dept. of Veterans Affairs Dan Grant, Clinical Psychologist and Vietnam Veteran Dr. Philip Metres, and Executive Director of USA Cares Bill Nelson. One of the first questions was whether or not PTSD could be truly be treated, which Dr. Metres answered it certainly can be, but it needed to be treated on multiple levels. Nelson specified what his organization did, which was offering financial support to veterans so "they don't have to choose between getting treatment and losing their home." The discussion also looked at the other side of the argument, namely that being diagnosed with PTSD could easily hinder a soldier's military or civilian career. The panel agreed the best way to fight this is to help educate the public as well as the military on the realty of PTSD.
Following the discussion, I was lucky enough to talk one on one with Dr. Metres (who I had to fight the temptation not to call Dr. Phil). My first question was if Dr. Metres had any advice to those who wish to go into the military but were worried about getting PTSD, he mentioned that not everyone gets it and there are varying degrees. However, after living in a certain environment and seeing certain things, you're going to change; additionally that the disorder can come from living in an environment where you can constantly be killed or have to kill. I then asked about the clinical definition of PTSD, which Metres commented that it has three main symptoms: an overwhelming response to terror, avoidance and withdrawal, and hyper-arousal. He then noted that another symptom is dead eyes, which he described as "a part of the soul that died." Fortunately, when I asked if there are measures for pre-screening, Dr. Metres went over how the army often has social workers available to troops and the give a questionnaire when they come home. In my last question specifically to Dr. Metres, I referenced the movie, where several people interviewed mentioned the military trains you to be a certain way, and when you get home they expect you to just "turn off" which you can't do. I then asked with treatment, is it possible to turn off? He said it was a complex question, but the simple answer was you can tune down, but because the military often affects your "brain and neural chemistry," you don't turn off.
Next, I briefly talked to Director Kent. She mentioned that one goal of the movie is to let the public know what soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghan are going through to help with their transition into civilian society. As many of the people interviewed expressed, after being in a combat zone so long, that's the only environment they can feel comfortable in; the film should help others give them a chance to reconnect to society, and not be afraid of them. I then asked what I expect some of you may have asked earlier "James Gandolfini? The guy from The Soprano's? What's he doing in a documentary?" She responded that Gandolfini had done a great deal of work with the USO. Since then he had been passionate about wounded troops coverage.
As one of the generals interviewed by Gandolfini mentioned, you would have to be a psychopath to be completely unaffected by war. However, as Dr. Metres mentioned, through therapy, medication, and other means, PTSD can be treated and returning soldiers can return to their former lives. The problem, however, is that lack of diagnosis or not seeking proper treatment can worsen the symptoms to isolation, an inability to function in society, or even suicide. Veteran suicides are estimated at 6,500 per year, or 18 per day. This number can be drastically reduced by remembering that veterans are not only warriors, but also people who may need support. It can also be reduced by acknowledging that not all wounds can be clearly seen.