Film

by Phyllis Vine

valordvd208.jpgWith mountains of evidence about the cavernous gaps in meeting the health needs of vets, it would be surprising if the next Congress failed to fund essential programs. But the Congressional Quarterly reported on Dec. 12th that lawmakers might push back efforts to pass an additional appropriations bill along the lines President-elect Barack Obama's campaigned.

Before deciding what action to take, elected officials should be required to see the docudrama "Another Kind of VALOR." Only after viewing three videos about the consequences of Afghanistan and Iraq for soldiers, their families, and communities, should Congress vote.

Before these wars, there was insufficient respect (perhaps just little lip service) for the impact of war and violence on mental health. Now it is conventional to refer to such consequences using statistics: 20 percent develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); multiple deployments increase risk; one in seven will fight depression; veteran suicides average 1000 a month. Added to these numbers is a dysfunctional federal bureaucracy with a backlog of disability claims, insufficient numbers and types of treatment providers, and a stigma that has ill served service men and women needing help. Only sporadically do we learn about the individuals behind these statistics.

Dan E. Weisburd, co-producer and director of "VALOR," calls the nine vignettes a "learning system" about war and survival. It is also a labor of love. To produce this, Weisburd interviewed vets, clinicians, families and retired military. When it came time to cast for the roles, he wanted to make sure the actors had experience sufficient to improvise entirely unscripted vignettes. Many clinicians play themselves. War footage came from the Pentagon. And in the spirit of authenticity, Weisburd found a Mash nurse from Vietnam to oversee the field hospital that was built for the set in Glendale, Cal.

Weisburd is a well-equipped filmmaker to undertake this project. As publisher of the defunct Journal --still a fabled magazine about advocacy for mental illness -- and a political activist working to improve services in California, he is familiar with the pain that courses through this movie. Now he hopes the stories he has assembled can promote community outreach enabling soldiers and their families to reconstruct a civilian life. As a filmmaker he employs the poignant and dramatic; as an activist, he links these to help. A fourth DVD is perhaps most important of all, rich with resources for obtaining help.

Complex stories
Some of the vignettes are bleak, pointing to suicide, failed marriages, abusive relations and abandoned children. Others are more hopeful showing how the right mix of courage, grit and support can launch a turn around - sometimes.

Ben is one of the lucky ones. Shot point blank by non-uniformed enemy, he is airlifted to Germany where the worst cases are treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. When he is discharged, his body consists of component parts - toes, ankles, knees, digits, hands, elbows, and shoulders with muscles that will atrophy without someone's help. He will forever depend on his wife. He can't feed or dress himself, or execute the suicide he desires. "My will is irrelevant," he tells Dr. Clayton Chau, one of the authentic professionals Weisburd has enlisted.

Other vignettes show different recovery patterns: Robert Holliday is discharged from the army after Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) cuts short his ambition to make a home in the military. Holliday, who portrays himself, grew up in 18 foster homes, had a history as a victim and a victimizer. Returning stateside requires recovery after his injury and that leads to substance abuse, eventually to homelessness. When he finally seeks help, he is told that paperwork can take nine to 12 months. Eventually he works for Vet-to-Vet, a peer support advocacy organization. We know he will make it when he walks LA's skid row helping others.

These are just two of the stories behind the statistics. For each, success comes on the heels of flashbacks, insomnia, self-doubt; domestic discord, abuse and family break-up; violence, arrest and imprisonment; guilt, grief and loss. And there is stigma. Most vignettes are accompanied by a real therapeutic situation in which a mental health professional displays how the therapy is conducted. But even friends or professional help isn't enough for the female soldier who is raped by another soldier (he follows her into the latrine one night), or the mash-unit nurse with a dysfunctional family who commits suicide shortly after return.

Some characters appear in more than one episode. It is a reminder that the pain radiates and costs each differently, albeit dearly, over time. These nine vignettes carry a punch, sharper than the thirty days of November which Congress has dubbed "Warrior Care Month."

Fulfilling a promise
Weisburd spent three years researching VALOR,about the same amount of time he served as an Airman in the 1950s. But the film had been gestating for half-a-century, since 1954 after a handshake with Jimmy Stewart. The famed movie star had flown 38 bombing missions in World War II and asked Weisburd to make a movie "for the guys who came back."

"VALOR" fulfills that promise. And part of the series' success lies in showing the human pain caused by the flawed federal agencies that failed to plan for those who are coming back.

The scars of war are no secret, or at least for the past 2,500 years since Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. Boston psychiatrist, Dr.Jonathan Shay, has written two books explaining how he uses Homer in his work with Vietnam vets while they learned to manage the battles consuming their hearts and minds. In between the publications of Achilles in Vietnam (1994) and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (2002), he received a MacArthur Award in 1997.

Some date the modern recognition of PTSD to World War One, nearly 100 years ago. Siegfried Sassoon's poetry was written after he spent a year in Edinburgh's Craiglockhart War Hospital following a "mental breakdown." He describes "Suicide in the Trenches" as the place where youth and laughter go.

More recently, our government has been pursuing voluntary ignorance when it comes to mental health. It's as if Congressional hearings were the ritualized theater of Kabuki rather than the presentation of experts to inform and guide policy. It should not be left to historians to ferret out that thirty years ago NIMH's Dr. Gerald Klerman told a congressional hearing about the consequences of sustained combat. In 1979, Klerman testified:

"Judging from the military, very extreme stress, a number of days in combat, will increase the likelihood of people breaking down. Both in the Korean War and World War II - less so in Vietnam--the proportion of people who broke down in a given unit went up with each day of sustained combat."

Every year, the nation sets aside two days, one in November the other in May, to celebrate veterans and soldiers lost. Parades, flags, speeches, and news, mostly of parades, flags and an occasional speech, fill the air. "VALOR" reminds us that our nation can ill afford to shove veterans issues into two days, and that every day a veteran suffers for lack of mental health shames our nation and our health system.

"VALOR" challenges us to act on dormant commitments to America's vets.


For more information about Another Kind of Valor visit the website.

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