As I come across recent TV shows and movies that try to capture the essence of war trauma therapy or veteran readjustment counselling, I cannot help but doubt this post-war depiction.
The intense scenes of men and women who wore the uniform, pouring their guts out, are gripping and will cause you to cancel that Uber ride on date night to remain at home for a taste of ‘virtual war’ on TV.
America is taken into depictions of the reality lived out by warriors and healers who are trying to rebuild lost souls from war. These peculiar depictions appear in shows and movies like Thank You for Your Service, The Affair, American Sniper and Chattahoochee.
I cannot help but think about the motivation behind the TV and movie producers who’ve been inspired to provide depictions of expansive loss, pain, guilt and other dark feelings from the unpleasant journey of ‘war to home.’
And then, in the TV series or movie, the hero! The therapist is on the screen making everything better for the ‘broken vet,’ or is that Satan? How is it better? The reality is far from the screen.
War trauma therapy is not romantic
Doing war trauma therapy is not romantic and is often unseen by many. It’s mostly unseen by the high-salaried, upper-level program directors and politicians overseeing what is happening on the ground.
These are the ones who get the credit, whether the work on the ground is good or bad. Many of these are the folks tied to corruption, the abuse of power, mismanagement and such. These days, America can pacify itself by ignoring what happens at readjustment facilities for veterans.
Instead, most enjoy wearing a tee-shirt from a veteran organization, or having a hyper-patriotic bumper sticker that shows off the price of mass culture, rather than the sacrifice laid out in the field by warriors who took the oath to serve.
Who really cares about my issues over there and over here? Maybe a distant God whom I pray to because I was a monk, and grew up with gospel music from church. Who cares that I have a fractured relationship with my son, going back to my return from Iraq and his birth? Who cares about my distance from members of my family (all who have experienced war, and have their own war-related issues)?
Is it all about a therapist behind a desk interrogating a veteran about critical events from deployment? Is it all about the popular acronym PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), used to simplify the realities of war in many movies featuring veterans?
I have found many therapists who might care, but care more about grooming a career in the field or spectacle of war. I wonder if they care about the less-than-sensational aspects of veteran daily life, like not getting your G.I. Bill housing allowance due to so-called computer system challenges, or hustlin’ for work in this supposed robust economy.
A hot new show about veterans called Homecoming, featuring Julia Roberts as a veteran therapist, is being shown to the masses on Amazon. I wonder how therapy for veterans is portrayed in the series. What kind of war narratives surface from the veterans on the show? How is Julia Roberts’ character an agent of healing for the veterans? The stories are important, and how they are shared is important as well.
Storytelling for social transformation
A National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2014, Stacy Bare, has spoken about the many faces of readjustment within a short video. North Face created a video featuring aspects of Stacy’s readjustment. Uniquely, it seems that he is given a great amount of space to share his journey.
In the film by North Face, Stacy isn’t portrayed in the same way as Homeland’s Nicholas Brody and his sensational journey home. Stacy’s video clip is transparent. It is not a mere biography shown on the screen to promote the brand, North Face. It is real life. It is a real vet life. And, I will use the cliché, it is a ‘life that matters.’ It is a deep autoethnographic video.
His piece mirrors the autoethnographic pieces I write each week. What is an autoethnographic piece, exactly? According to the Collins Dictionary, it’s “A form of self-reflection and writing that explores the researcher’s personal experiences and connects this autobiographical story to a wider cultural-political-and social meanings and understandings.”
I see autoethnographic writing as ‘critical storytelling from the self linked to individual and social transformation.’ It is a community-building reality outside of Netflix movies that depict warriors on their journey to a home that doesn’t seem to exist.
It is in exploring this type of life (Stacy’s) that we can learn about veteran readjustment. This is not a forensic adventure like the ones featured in popular shows and films. This is the story therapists need to uncover as they do their work with veterans, and many other stories like this one need to be part of movie production.
He asks about my son
Once, I met a great chaplain at a Veterans Affairs hospital. I figured that I was a former monk and I could relate to a man of the Cloth. Chaplain Brian doesn’t focus on asking me about critical events from Iraq. He asks me about my son.
Chaplain Brian is an Iraq War veteran, and was an enlisted man who was not wearing a collar in the war. He and I have spent many hours sharing our frustrations and looking at the horizon with heavy doubts. He has a background in philosophy, religion, history and political science. There is a way he weaves his own stories with great thinkers. I laugh at some of his jokes related to his West Virginia roots.
Chaplain Brian invests himself in knowing me. This is healing.
Chaplain Brian invests himself in knowing me. This is healing. He knows that I am an egghead who has doubted God after I served in Iraq. He knows that I gave up my calling as a monk to rejoin the military and deploy. He also knows that I have let my son down.
He also knows that besides being a veteran of three military branches, I am a former Veterans Affairs war trauma therapist with more than 15 years (more than 20,000 clinical hours) of experience hearing and healing the visible and invisible wounds of war. I have heard it all, from troops who have fought in wars going back to the Second World War. My vocation was my life.
Unlike the war trauma therapists in the movies, Chaplain Brian asks the key question I used to ask: “How can I help?”
This article is part of a weekly column exploring spiritual transformation for veterans. To read the previous article in the series, visit (THANKS)GIVING SEEN BY A TROOP: A day of remembering»