Frontline on PBS consistently delivers the best there is in television journalism. Last night I was surfing for something light to watch since I’ve been knee-deep in deadlines, reading, research and writing.
Instead of something brainless, I stopped on this riveting report about the mental health of our soldiers serving in Iraq, many of whom are home temporarily only to be redeployed in a matter of months.
Unfortunately, with Reservists who come home even temporarily to civilian life, the adjustment period can be chaotic and confusing. Regardless of branch or unit, there’s a growing awareness that the military must pay closer attention to the mental health of its own during and upon return from war. Here’s an introduction to the report:
U.S. Marine Rob Sarra had been in the military for eight years when the war in Iraq began. A sergeant in charge of a unit of 32, he was considered part of the "tip of the spear" -- among the first troops to reach Baghdad. In late March 2003, Sarra opened fire on an Iraqi woman in a black burqa he suspected was a suicide bomber, prompting others in his unit to begin firing as well. Her body torn apart by bullets, the woman fell quickly to the ground. It was only then that Rob saw she held a small white flag.
"Right then and there I was just like, what the hell happened? I was crying, hysterical…this woman got killed by my actions," Sarra tells FRONTLINE. "I wasn't going to talk to anyone about it. But little did I know it kind of worked itself back up to the surface when I came home."
Unfortunately, the military has a stigma about treating those with mental health while in the midst of battle. Soldiers who freeze or panic or are suicidal are basically called cowards and told to get it together. As one military mental health expert said, it’s their job to get behind each other and support each other and follow the orders given. When one says he can’t, the unit cohesion cracks. It’s not good, particularly in battle. But it happens. It's nothing new. The reality of mental health problems in battle is well-documented over history and inescapable.
I was captivated by the story of Jeff Lucey, a lance corporal in the Marine Reserves, who was silently withdrawing from his unit, his family and his life while on temporary leave from serving in Iraq. His unit, the 6th Motor Transport Battalion from Massachusetts, was scheduled to return to Iraq within the year.
Jeff had problems coping with civilian life and began drinking heavily. His story is complicated. He fabricated war crimes and seemed to live in an alternate reality.
At one point his mother describes how he took her on a walk in the woods near their home and put a set of headphones on for her to listen to the song “45” by the group, Shinedown.
And I'm staring down the barrel of a 45
There's a piece of a puzzle known as life
Wrapped in guilt, sealed up tight
What ever happened to the young man's heart
Swallowed by pain, as he slowly fell apart
Jeff’s mother recalls looking at her son and realizing that he was speaking to her, telling him he was falling apart.
Watching his story unfold was painful as you realize he is slipping away and those who love and care for him feel powerless to help. And finally, his father recounts coming home from work to find his son, only 23, hanging from a rafter in the basement. What he remembers most from that horrific discovery is that his baby boy’s face was finally at peace.
Often symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are delayed and only begin to surface months after coming home. To its credit, the Department of Defense has now instituted a mental health screening procedure that includes a follow up three to five months after soldiers return from battle.
"…these people (nearly one million men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan) are putting their life in harm's way, and they're going through hell and just because it's not on CNN every night [doesn't mean] that we shouldn't assume responsibility," (says Fred) Gusman (director of the national PTSD Center). "Not for the war. But responsibility to take care of our own people."
The Soldier's Heart will be available for viewing online starting Friday at 10 p.m. EST.