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The last HBO Documentary about the military featuring everyone’s favorite Soprano James Gandolfini was called Alive Day which featured interviews with soldiers about how they had cheated death. It was an exhilarating, intimate, and ultimately inspirational account of soldiers’ stories. His latest, Wartorn 1861-2010, is an hour and fifteen minutes long, each second is an excruciating look at living with and, all too often dying from, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The end is not uplifting nor is it hopeful, but punches the viewer in the gut.
Watching this documentary, personally I am experiencing many mixed feelings. Tears push towards my eyes during the film, leaking out independent of any whim from my body voluntary or involuntary. Frank and graphic discussions are accompanied by images that only could be shown on HBO: the dead, the maimed, and the grieving. I think that my mother should not watch it. I am also grateful that I ended watching this alone and not in a group as I had originally planned. These are the stories I was always led to believe veterans don’t tell and civilians shouldn’t ask. The injured in the film seem exposed. It seems voyeuristic to watch and almost wrong.
Yet, I am no stranger to the veteran community and the issues that plague the members of this fraternity. If I am feeling this wellspring of emotion. What would the effect be to those unaware that the life of a returning veteran is not all ticker-tape parades, hugs, and spending the rest of your life feeling like a hero?
About a third of the way through the documentary, James Gandolfini travels to Iraq to speak with soldiers there. He first speaks with General Ray Odierno, who comes off as concerned yet cold, a metaphor for the mood of the military about mental injuries and treatments. When Gandolfini asked General Odierno if he had felt any of these feelings rather than answer he describes how his son was wounded in the war. The description was clinical and he said that incident “taught” him that there “was a cost.” At first I thought it was a foolish thing to say, but then I realized that even the General was perhaps dealing with something. In a film so open with emotion – WWII Veterans, when men were men, weep freely – General Odierno seemed to lock his away, he is after all in charge over there and must project confidence and leadership despite whatever he might be feeling. In this regard he is also a metaphor for the suffering soldier maybe placing his duty before his well-being. Of course, I am only speculating.
Yet, it is directly following this interview that I saw perhaps the most hopeful thing in the film. Gandolfini next interviews two soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard, SGT John Wesley Matthews and SFC Jonathan Deshotels, who are currently serving in Iraq. SGT Matthews admits that he had contemplated suicide after multiple deployments had made his life in the rear a shambles. While he does not speak much about how he climbed out of that hole (perhaps because it was he threw himself into his Army work – again, speculation), but it showed that not only can someone make the decision to not kill him- or herself, but just because help was sought, it doesn’t mean life is over.
This is an important film because it is hard to watch. It does what it sets out to do: put human faces on the generality that the country has of the mentally injured veteran. Detailing a period from the Civil War to the present, the filmmakers show that this is nothing new. Headlines in the newspaper from the end of World War II, the one we were told we had gotten right, mirror headlines that we see today: veteran suicide, veterans homeless, and veterans being sent to jail rather than given help. An if it is this hard to watch, imagine then how hard it must be to live with.