A COMMENTARY ON HBO’S

                                     WARTORN  1861-2010

As a survivor of childhood trauma and as a psychotherapist, I am more than superficially aware of the devastating effects of Post Traumatic Shock Disorder – an often crippling anxiety from exposure to life threatening experiences ranging from witnessing or experiencing physical or sexual abuse; physical assault; accidents; drug addiction; chronic/debilitating illnesses; or as the title for this blog suggests, the psychic and physical wounds experienced by our young men and women returning home after their exposure to the horrors of war.

In watching the recent HBO documentary WARTORN 1860-2010, I became all too aware of how lacking the care is for the physical and mental wounds of our returning soldiers – even with all that we know in 2010.

In the days of the Civil War it was called “hysteria, melancholia, and insanity…” During World War I it was known as “shellshock.” By World War II it became known as “combat fatigue” and today it is clinically known as “PTSD” (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Should it shock any of us that money is not being allocated – given our current economy – for those who need it most?  Children with problems could be saved from self-medicating, from turning to drugs and worse, if they had the advantage of guidance counselors whose jobs have been cut from school budgets.  Local mental health centers and hospitals are closing faster than we ever could have imagined and now our veterans who have fought for our safety at home, for the values of democracy we cherish, return to little or no treatment for their invisible but painfully debilitating psychic wounds.

From executive producer for HBO, actor James Gandolfini, and HBO’s documentarian Sheila Neven, we learn the following in their synopsis of WARTORN:  “Sending men and women off to war has been a consistent way of derailing our national mental well-being over generations. In the name of winning our freedoms – to use the patriotic parlance – we get back a lot of messed-up people and then almost cruelly ignore their despair.”  In fact, when it comes to the shock of war and the residual madness it can cause, Wartorn dials all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey for its opening note: “Must you carry the bloody horror of combat in your heart forever?” 

Wartorn is certainly not the first to describe this cultural disconnect within the military and everyday life, but this project “hopes to chisel away at the chronic refusal to see PTSD as a wound that is as injurious as a shrapnel barrage, as it shows us that inadequate responses are deeply ingrained and, certainly since the Iraq war began, well-documented by reporters and veteran activists.” 

The film profiles – as it set out to do – “a handful of American veterans, some of whom succumbed to PTSD and took their own lives – starting with a young Pennsylvanian named Angelo Crapsey who shot himself after a harrowing three years serving on the front lines of the Civil War, and concluding with an Iraq war vet who refuses his wife’s pleas to delete from the living room PC his personal photos of the carnage he witnessed.” Then, too, seeing parents weep over the memory of their suicidal sons and hearing the words of veterans from WWII to our most current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was left feeling both angry and helpless.

Others, such as a group of elderly World War II vets, are interviewed and seen navigating the tight wire that spans memory, trauma and fear, coping as best they can, given the deep scars of cold sweats, nightmares, and the inability to talk about all that they experienced with those closest and dearest to them.

Gandolfini also travels to Iraq to talk with military personnel and sufferers of PTSD and visits with some increasingly sympathetic brass: Gen. Ray Odierno, who commands the Allied Forces in Iraq, in particular. Throughout, Wartorn confronts history’s euphemisms for the mentally injured veteran, including “melancholia,” “nervous exhaustion,” and the cowardly sounding “combat fatigue.” As is also stated in the synopsis, “it builds to an elegant and quiet finish, following Army Sgt. 1st Class William Fraas Jr., who spent twenty-nine months in Iraq over three tours, on a routine family outing to an El Paso, Walmart which fills him with dread.  Pushing (with clenched hands ) a cart down the grocery aisles, in a scene eerily reminiscent of the penultimate moments from last year’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, Fraas resorts to what he calls the ‘swivel’ – moving his head back and forth in constant vigilance for his demons. Though this dread has a medical name, that doesn’t mean anyone can tell Fraas what to do now.” Breaking down during and after a tour of duty is still, as the producers insist, “an inconvenient emotion.” 

The infamous story about Gen. George S. Patton is also depicted where he disparaged a “yellow SOB” he encountered in a military hospital and had the soldier immediately returned to the front lines.  In all our ballyhoo for the “Greatest Generation,” we still assume that most of those WWII guys returned A-OK; the spouses and children of the ones who had PTSD would, no doubt, disagree.

For those of us who have not been personally touched by a loved one’s returning from the battlefields of war, this is –though not the only documentary of its kind – one of the more disturbing and unsettling ones, especially as we view it at this holiday time, a time for GIVING.

My only consolation – if I can even call it that – is that when I further researched what the government was doing to help those suffering so upon their return, I learned that a facility was being built to treat those with TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other psychological issues – all priorities in military medicine.  Privately funded through THE FALLEN HEROES FUND, it is a state of the art facility dedicated to research, diagnosis and the treatment of military personnel and veterans who are suffering. It was opened officially in June 2010 and turned over to the Department of Defense. A great act of charity and humanity, in my opinion.

Now, if we could only expect similar funding to be provided – if not by the government then by any individuals and especially the billionaires in our midst – the restoration of hospitals, the re-hiring of mental health clinicians in schools and other facilities for our children and their parents, our society, in the end, will at least have a chance to regain its dignity and its power.

Here’s to GIVING back to all who have given to us and to all who need to be given to in the name of help, humanity and honor.


1 Comment

  • Anonymous says:

    An especially well said and well written post that speaks volumes about the sorry state of our priorities. The reality is that vast amounts of our tax dollars are being funneled to unproductive people who have no vested interest in contributing to our society while those who battle the real villains are ultimately left unprotected. As we say where I come from, a shanda!