‘Wartorn’ Takes Hard Look at Pervasiveness of Soldiers’ PTSD

November 11th, 2010 - by admin

David Wiegand / San Francisco Chronicle – 2010-11-11 00:51:08


Wartorn: 1861-2010: 9 p.m. Thurs. on HBO, with encore broadcasts through Dec. 7.

(November 8, 2010) — Noah Pierce’s mother reads the note her son left in his truck. In increasingly uneven handwriting, he tells her that he is getting drunk. He tries to communicate the depth of the psychological pain which his mother says was killing him “from the inside out.” Finally, he scrawls, “I have taken lives. Now it’s time to take mine.”

“Mine”: It’s the last word Noah Pierce would ever write. You look at that word on Pierce’s note in HBO’s new documentary, “Wartorn: 1861-2010,” and imagine the single second when he lifted the ballpoint from the page. Then you think of the next few minutes, as he placed his dog tags against his temple, held them in place with the barrel of a gun, and pulled the trigger.

The truck is still parked in the Pierces’ driveway in Gilbert, Minn. — its rearview mirror shattered because Noah couldn’t stand to see his own face, even for the last time. His mother still has the dog tags, the metal frozen in a permanent explosion at the point where the bullet tore through them on its swift way to the end of her son’s life.

The condition we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, isn’t new; it is, as “Wartorn” makes tragically clear, as old as warfare itself. Produced by actor James Gandolfini and HBO’s Sheila Nevins, the documentary targets the institutional skepticism that has thwarted adequate treatment of PTSD from the Civil War to modern times. The film airs Thursday night, on Veterans Day, with encore broadcasts through Dec. 7, the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Back in 1861, the condition was called by many names, from “insanity” to “melancholia.” In World War I, it was called “shell-shock.” By the Second World War, it had taken on the absurdly understated label of “combat fatigue,” as if all a mentally shattered GI needed to get back on the front lines was a nice long nap. Then, as now, it didn’t always result in suicide, but it often left scars, some of which lasted lifetimes.

The causes of PTSD are obvious: The psychological battering that comes from repeatedly seeing bodies torn apart in front of you, from taking human life yourself, and the sense that your whole world is exploding with each bomb blast. Unlike a visible physical injury, PTSD often goes untreated.

“You’re fighting a culture that doesn’t believe that injuries you can’t see can be as dangerous as injuries you can see,” says Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff who is heading the Army’s effort to cut the suicide rate.

Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the US joint forces in Iraq, estimates that 30 percent of all troops suffer PTSD. Other military officials say it’s virtually impossible for anyone to emerge unscathed in some way from combat experience.

“Nobody’s immune,” Odierno says, after recounting how his son lost an arm in combat in 2004.

Yet, while we may think ourselves beyond the “suck it up” mentality of the past, the film offers evidence to the contrary. Pfc. Jason Scheuerman came from a military family: father, mother, brother — they all served. Their North Carolina home features photos of dad Chris Sr. in combat — “a whole bunch of pounds ago,” he points out as he offers a tour.

There’s also a photo of Jason, close to the front door, so Chris can see it every day when he comes home. And there is a triangular wooden box, with the flag from Jason’s coffin folded neatly inside.

Chris knew his son was in trouble, but when Jason sought medical help in Iraq, even checking “yes” to the question on the intake form asking if he had suicidal tendencies, he was given a single 10-minute session with an Army shrink who reported him fit to continue serving.

“Dad, he told me I was faking it,” Chris recalls him saying in what was their last conversation.

The fact that Jason had raised his hand was seen as an admission of weakness and wrongly marked him as a malingerer, his father maintains. Jason was told to go by himself into the barracks to clean his weapon. Instead, he stepped inside a closet and shot himself to death.

“It’s not just the soldier that comes down with PTSD,” says his brother, Chris Jr. “It’s the whole family.

Directed by Jon Alpert and Ellen Goosenberg Kent, “Wartorn” is convincing on a number of levels — first, that the problem of PTSD isn’t new and is far more pervasive than officially acknowledged. Second, that treatment is challenging, and, third, escaping PTSD altogether may be impossible for anyone who sees combat.

Chris Sr., who trained medics in the military, once worked on a soldier who had been shot in the face. Now he has a recurring dream about that soldier. In the dream, he turns away for a moment to get something from his medical kit. When he turns back, he looks down in horror at the soldier’s blown-away face.

For a moment, Chris Scheuerman struggles against tears. Finally he stammers, “It’s my son.”

E-mail David Wiegand at dwiegand@sfchronicle.com.

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