A new documentary, Wartorn 1861-2010, airing on HBO on Veterans Day, chronicles the lingering effects of war on military veterans throughout American history, from the Civil War through today’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We speak with the filmmakers, Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill, and with the parents of two soldiers who committed suicide after coming home from Iraq. [includes rush transcript]
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SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Tomorrow, November 11th, is Veterans Day, the day that honors soldiers who have served in war. While the methods and technologies of war have changed over the years, over the decades, the effects of war on military veterans has stayed the same. What’s known as "post-traumatic stress disorder" has been called many other names throughout the years. During the Civil War in the 1860s, it was called "insanity" or "melancholia." During World War I, it was "shell-shock." And in World War II, it was "combat fatigue."
Whatever its name, the effects of war on military veterans can be devastating. An Army report found that in 2009, 160 soldiers committed suicide; another 146 died by other violent means, such as murder, drug abuse or reckless driving while drunk; another 1,700 attempted suicide.
Well, a new documentary about post-traumatic stress disorder is airing tomorrow on HBO. It’s called Wartorn 1861-2010, and it chronicles the lingering effects of war on military veterans throughout American history, from the Civil War through today’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
SGT. MAX HARRIS: It’s a particularly disturbing feeling, feeling someone’s heart beating from inside their body. I still wake up with horrible nightmares from that sometimes, crying and scrubbing my hands, trying to get blood that’s not there off.
SPC. ELIZABETH HALL: I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to eat. I don’t want to sleep. I don’t — I don’t want to move. I just want to sit in a corner and just be a vegetable.
SPC. JAMESON WEATHERFORD: When I came back, it was paranoia. A lot of paranoia, emotional detachment. You know, my spouse and I have basically grown apart.
STAFF SGT. KATISHA SMITTICK: Some things you just don’t want to remember. You block them out. And I’ve been blocking it for so long.
SGT. JEFFREY BROWN: I couldn’t pinpoint a direct day where it would be like, "Oh, yeah, that happened, and that’s what caused it." I couldn’t do it. I just know that it’s just — it’s not the same anymore.
SGT. MARK JOLLY: Never in a million years did I ever think that I would lose my mind.
AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from the new film Wartorn, airing on Thursday, Veterans Day, on HBO. Jon Alpert is co-director of the film, 15-time Emmy winner and co-founder of our former home, the Downtown Community Television Center. He joins us here in our new studios, along with Matt O’Neill, who produced the film with Jon. And joining us via Democracy Now! video stream, two parents who are featured in the film. Cheryl Softich joins us from Minnesota. Her son, Noah Pierce, killed himself July 2007 after serving in Iraq. And joining us from North Carolina is Chris Scheuerman. His son Jason shot himself in 2005 after serving also in Iraq.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Jon, let’s begin with you. Your choice for this film to focus on post-traumatic stress, why?
JON ALPERT: This is part of a series that HBO, led by Sheila Nevins, has been making, telling about the consequences of war. We showed what happened in Baghdad ER, when people get chopped up. But there are also injuries that you can’t see, and that’s post-traumatic stress. The soldiers are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan by the thousands, disturbed by things that they’ve seen, things that they’ve had to do. It gets inside their heads and doesn’t leave. And it’s a terrible situation that for many years the military swept under the carpet, and now they’re just beginning to deal with it.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what’s really fascinating in the film is that you go back to the Civil War and somehow find cases of post-traumatic stress disorder back from 1861 through World War I, World War II. Talk about — how did you get, first of all, these stories from so long ago?
MATT O’NEILL Yeah, most of the film is comprised of these strong personal narratives that tell the stories of service members in all these different wars. And the thing that’s remarkable is you hear the words and the feelings of a soldier in the Civil War reflected in the words and the feelings of a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan. And I think the takeaway, as we researched all these different stories, was that these behavioral and mental health issues are an inevitable part of combat and an inevitable part of war, not something that we can ignore.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And you speak with two — well, James Gandolfini does some of the interviews in the book, the star of The Sopranos — in the documentary. And he, in one scene, is speaking to two Army psychiatrists, and one of them seems to say that post-traumatic stress disorder affects every soldier in war.
JON ALPERT: Yes. There was a Medal of Honor winner — the premier of this film was at the Pentagon. And there was a panel afterwards, and if people want to see this, if they go to hbo.com, it’s a very interesting panel discussion, and it featured a Medal of Honor winner. And he looked at all the generals, and he says, "OK, some people say it’s ten percent post-traumatic stress. One of the generals says it’s 30 percent. You know, you know, and I know it’s 100 percent." Anybody who engages in warfare is scarred forever.
AMY GOODMAN: Ray Odierno, General Odierno, you interviewed in Iraq, or James did, talked to him?
JON ALPERT: Right, uh-huh, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: His son was severely wounded in Iraq, and he, himself, said he may suffer from it, the General himself.
JON ALPERT: I think it’s important that America has this conversation. The military is finally ready to have this conversation, that when you go to war, you have these consequences. We ignored these consequences for generations. Everybody has somebody in their family, came back from World War II, an uncle who behaves strangely, who suffered with post-traumatic stress, but nobody ever talked about it. We’re starting to talk about it now, and we have to talk about it.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, two of the parents featured in the film are joining us here today. Cheryl Softich is joining us form Minnesota. Her son, Noah Pierce, killed himself in July of 2007.
Cheryl, thank you very much for joining us today. Talk about what happened when your son returned from Iraq.
CHERYL SOFTICH: My son returned physically, but mentally, he never returned. He served two tours of duty in Iraq, turning 19 and 21 over there. And he just — my son died from the inside out, which is what post-traumatic stress will do to you. Left untreated, it festers and grows. And he came home, and about a year and a half after being home, he put a gun to his head, and he pulled the trigger, and he is dead. He couldn’t handle the nightmares, and — he couldn’t do it. He didn’t want to live that way for the rest of his life. And he just got ridiculed for having post-traumatic stress disorder, because there’s such a stigma on it. The American people don’t want to really seem to acknowledge that it’s no different than losing a limb, a leg or an arm. It just needs to be treated differently.
AMY GOODMAN: Cheryl, describe how he dealt at the end and what you saw the signs were. In the film, you talk about your son feeling like he had gone bad because he had killed people in Iraq.
CHERYL SOFTICH: That’s the way he felt. He felt that he killed, and so now it was time for him to be dead, because he wasn’t brought up to kill people. And I could never get him to understand that what he did was he was — he had a job. It was for the Army, and it was his job. And he didn’t kill like he thought he did. Everybody shot. It doesn’t mean Noah necessarily killed anybody. But he did kill a few people, as happens in war, and it ate him up from the inside out. He couldn’t deal with it.
AMY GOODMAN: It was very graphic, his feeling about himself and the way he killed himself, Cheryl, if you could bring yourself to talk about that.
CHERYL SOFTICH: He went to a childhood spot that he had always went to hang out when he skipped school or when he was rabbit hunting or whatever. And he stabbed each and every one of his IDs through the face with a pocket knife. He put his fist through the side window on his truck so he wouldn’t have to look at his face. He put his dog tag to his temple. He wedged the gun to that dog tag, and he pulled the trigger. It was his way of saying that "I am dead because of my tours in Iraq. The Army killed me." It was his way of letting me know why he did it. It had nothing to do with us.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve kept the gun. You’ve kept the truck he killed himself in. You even asked the police for the dog tag that he shot through his temple into his head.
CHERYL SOFTICH: Originally — well, I didn’t know about the dog tags until months after the fact. The cops never told me that part of it. When I found out about the dog tag, yes, I wanted it back to go with its mate. As far as the gun, I wanted that gun destroyed. And a year later, that gun was still not destroyed, so I got angry. And I told them, if it’s not destroyed, then I want it back. And yes, I do have the gun. I don’t know why I have the gun, but I do have the gun. I have the truck. I have the dog tag. It hangs — seriously, it hangs by my bed.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And he wrote you a note, as well. Is that right?
CHERYL SOFTICH: Yes, he did. First thing in the note, he says he’s been in hell since the invasion in 2002. And the last few months of his life, he went out of his way to make sure that he kept myself and my daughter and my husband away from him. He didn’t want us to see how bad he was suffering. Even though he tried to keep Mom way, it didn’t work. Mom showed up every day. I usually left him in tears, because he was mean to me, verbally mean, not physically. Verbally mean, just to keep at a distance. It didn’t work; I always went back for more. I knew that he was suffering, and he needed to know I was on his side. So I went back time and time again.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Chris Scheuerman. His son, Jason, shot himself in 2005 after serving in Iraq. Both are featured in Jon and Matt’s film that will air on HBO, called Wartorn.
Chris, one of your sons served in Afghanistan. Jason served in Iraq in 2005. Describe what happened to him. Describe your last experiences with Jason.
CHRIS SCHEUERMAN: It’s my opinion that Jason suffered from a traumatic brain injury, secondary to an improvised explosive device. After suffering that injury, he fell into bouts of depression, and he also became suicidal. He wrote a suicide note to his mother in early July. We notified the Army and told the Army all this was going on. They basically disregarded that warning, the onset of severe depression or PTSD, and took it for him disobeying. They took minor incidents like being out of uniform, and they would punish him severely for that. And that took a great toll on my son.
AMY GOODMAN: He sought help in Iraq?
CHRIS SCHEUERMAN: Jason — while Jason was in Iraq, he was sent on a command-directed psychological examination. The Department of Defense requires that those examinations be conducted by a doctoral-level provider. Jason was seen by an individual who held no credentials, no training and no license, gave him a standardized test and a ten-minute conversation, and sent him back to his unit with a diagnosis of malingering.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And describe the last conversation you had with Jason on the phone.
CHRIS SCHEUERMAN: The last time I talked to my son was when he had just seen the individual who was supposed to help him. He described to me what had happened. I told him that there was no way anyone could come up with any sort of diagnosis based on a standardized test and a ten-minute conversation. I implored my son to go back and get a second opinion. At this point, Jason had been failed by his leadership. He had been failed by the chaplaincy. And now he had been failed by the medical community. All three pillars of foundation that a soldier has available to him had failed him. I believe my son felt absolutely alone. And he told me he could not go back for a second opinion, that they said he was faking it and he just needed to man up.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And you have not received a condolence letter from President Obama. Is that correct?
CHRIS SCHEUERMAN: It has been a policy dating back from the Clinton administration that if a soldier dies in theater, secondary to a mental disorder, and take their own life, the family does not receive a letter of condolence. So, no.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Do you want one?
CHRIS SCHEUERMAN: Yes, I want one. I want my son’s sacrifice recognized. My son was a patriot. He was sick. He was subjected to egregious malpractice. He was abused by his leadership and eventually forced into the closet of his barracks room, where he shot himself.
AMY GOODMAN: After he came back from seeing this — seeking help and they told him no, he was told to go to his room, and no one else was to be near him? Is that right, Chris Scheuerman?
CHRIS SCHEUERMAN: A couple weeks after he was sent back to his unit, they had been subjecting him to sleep deprivation. They would wake him up in the middle of the night, tell him to put on his battle gear and run up and down the stairs. They cut off all of his communication with his family, basically cut him off from all his — from his support structure. They charged him again with being out of uniform. And during those proceedings, his first sergeant told him that if he didn’t get his stuff together, that if he was trying to get out of the Army based on a mental issue, that he would be sent to prison and abused in prison. After that encounter, they brought him back to his barracks, sent him to his room with his weapon and his ammunition, and told everyone to stay away from him.
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s when he killed himself?
CHRIS SCHEUERMAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Cheryl —
CHRIS SCHEUERMAN: He was all alone.
AMY GOODMAN: Cheryl, as we wrap up, do you feel your son would be alive today if he had gotten counseling?
CHERYL SOFTICH: I know he would be alive today if he had gotten counseling. He tried to get counseling, but he slipped through every crack there was to slip through. And he finally gave up, but he did try. Had they counseled him before he went to his second tour, he would probably still be alive.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Jon and Matt, very briefly — we have to wrap — but you document PTSD from the Civil War through today. Is the treatment getting any better?
JON ALPERT: They’ve just come up with the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress in the last 30 years, even though we know, and the documentary shows, that it’s been the handmaiden of warfare ever since the beginning of time. If you have war, you have post-traumatic stress. And we have to think about that before we send our men and women into warfare.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to end it there. We want to thank you all for being us. The HBO documentary airs on Veterans Day.