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Monday, August 27, 2007

Chicagoans Discuss 'In the Valley of Elah' and the Plight of Our Returning Troops

"The kind of great movie that rivets you as entertainment at the same time it carefully sets about saying something deeper about the present time...a brave risk." -- Gregory Kirschling,

Defying intense thunderstorms, micro bursts and even an area tornado or two, Chicagoans trekked out to AMC River East Thursday night to catch a special screening of the new Paul Haggis ("Crash") film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron.

As hinted at in the quote above, 'In the Valley of Elah' drills down to how our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq affect the warriors who deploy, the families who hold down the fort while they're away, and the society undoubtedly intertwined -- no matter how little they may know it or own up to it -- in it all.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for reflections on the evening...

Warner Independent Pictures arranged time and space for a post-screening Questions & Answer session on PTSD and invited me to participate (see my schedule for remaining Chicago screenings/Q&A's). A good portion of the audience stayed behind to voice their own comments, concerns and questions making for a good discussion following the show. (Seeing as the weather was so bad that evening, that so many seats were taken in the first place was a good sign for the film and the topic we tackled.)

'In the Valley of Elah' (visit the film's website, and/or read its production notes) explores a violent post-combat episode -- indeed, one of the more tragic -- that engulfed a group of soldiers who'd only days earlier returned from Iraq. Stellar acting by the principals and supporting cast and a solid script result in something informative, entertaining and valuable beyond its two-hour run on screen. I've seen the film three times now; twice via an advance studio copy (the more intense chase scene music from this earlier version has been changed in the newer version and toned down) and the third time at the River East screening.

Repeated viewing hasn't dulled its power.

While the film is immediately entertaining, its lasting value can come from what we choose to do with it. 'In the Valley of Elah' is a vehicle in my view, able to drive us to deeper discussions we should be having around the country and in our communities on combat PTSD. The talks will be ongoing in the years to come as we eventually bring more of our troops home; so, any attempt to bring us together to start figuring out how to support them once they're home is a good thing. I enjoyed opportunities like that on my book tour, and applaud the filmmakers for their effort in creating these, too.

Questions the film raises include:

  • How is the war affecting the troops?
  • What does war do to warrior and society?
  • And, after the fighting ends (if it ever ends), who is responsible for ensuring the right -- and enough -- supports and resources are in place for returning troops and their families?
Joining me on last Thursday's panel were Ray Parrish (Viet Nam veteran, tireless advocate and vets' counselor) and Josh Lansdale (Iraq vet, veterans' coordinator and area Iraq Summer organizer). Ray spoke about the veterans he sees, those of his generation and those returning home today. There's a lot of frustration, understandably. One generation watches the next go through the same senseless carnage of war. Where is the peace that they fought and bled for?

At the same time, there are glimmers of light in all the dark.

Seated on studio chairs in front of the audience, Josh and Ray spoke about their respective combat tours, their feelings about wars past and current, and shared news of the work they do today following those awesome experiences. They had a unique energy when they spoke to the audience. War, spanning decades, is what tossed them -- and the rest of us -- together.

While their return was woefully neglected by society and former veteran alike, Viet Nam vets are working hard to make sure that we don't repeat that same mistake this time around. Overlooking, or perhaps healing, their scabbed-over wounds by reaching out to their newest combat brothers and sisters, these older vets have become indispensable in helping today's returning soldier, sailor, airman or Marine process their experience.

In answering an audience question on the special affinity they have for one another, Josh said, "We understand each other. They're the only ones who really understand what we've been through." While civilians can't ever really understand the experience of someone who's seen combat, they do well to seek out the experience through storytelling sessions or art. Americans seem more eager to hear and discuss -- and act on -- these stories now.

One audience member spoke of reading an article on the therapeutic effect animals (like dogs or birds) have on people who have seen and been through life-changing experiences. Another reminded us, quite dramatically, that seeking peace and removal of the troops is not the same as seeking to heal all involved. Still another asked about the changing roles women find themselves in now that they are fighting and dying side-by-side with the men on the battlefield.

The evening closed with a female Viet Nam veteran speaking of the difficulties she faced in folding back into society, sharing her feeling that every time she did something even a little bit peculiar in her life (at work especially), people would treat her as if she was one of those "crazy veterans." It was clear from these comments and those of others that returning troops often feel "other" than the rest of us who've stayed home. Is this a good thing? Should we care if returning troops feel alienated from the nation they put their lives on the line for? Can we, should we, do anything to change this?

From a May 1956 report on vets' benefits by the 84th Congress:

The Government's obligation is to help veterans overcome special, significant handicaps incurred as a consequence of their military service. The objective should be to return the veterans as nearly as possible to the status they would have achieved had they not been in military service...

Particular emphasis should be placed on rehabilitating the service-disabled and maintaining them and their survivors in circumstances as favorable as those of the rest of the people...War sacrifices should be distributed as equally as possible within our society. This is the basic function of the veterans' programs.

With physical injuries, it's clear to see where our obligations lie.

With psychological injuries, however, we are more hesitant when providing care -- and sometimes even outright neglectful. In the opening years of war especially, this lack of clarity coupled with a failure to plan for the post-war period across-the-board led to a lack of necessary supports and resources. We -- military, government, society -- were not adequately responding to something that should have been expected: PTSD episodes of returning troops.

We would do well as a society to use lessons found in vehicles such as 'In the Valley of Elah' or the PTSD Timeline or any number of stories shared in Moving a Nation to Care to help shape the way we prepare our troops for war and help them navigate their way home.

We need to keep doing better by our vets.

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