The nightmares began not long after Sgt. Justin Widhalm returned from Iraq in September 2006.
Widhalm, who served in the Army for nearly a decade, was dropped out of a Blackhawk helicopter and survived 13 roadside bombs. Over the course of his service, his back was broken in three places and he suffered major brain injuries.
The physical challenges and subsequent surgeries were vast—he can no longer run, he can’t drive, he has lost some of his hearing and sometimes nods off from secondary narcolepsy. Past that were the mental challenges: Nightmares, seizures, flashbacks triggered by the unlikeliest of sources.
“My son is in an early-intervention program to see if he has autism or Asperger’s, and sometimes he screams,” says Widhalm, 34, who lives in Colorado Springs. “The screams—they’re the same sound this little girl made after we cut her loose from a bomb. It drove me into flashbacks.”
His wife didn’t understand. Neither did his military buddies.
“My job was [as] a sniper,” he says. “Even people in my own unit don’t actually know what went on. We were told to say something else. You get home and you feel like the stuff that you had to do over there was not even being acknowledged. My military career was going to be coming to an end. My whole identity is gone. Everything I’ve done is gone.”
It was a lonely place. And yet, Widhalm is far from alone in his despair. A January Army report (PDF) estimates that as many as 472,000 Afghan and Iraq veterans may suffer from post-traumatic-stress disorder, or PTSD, a broadly defined condition not always easily distinguished from chronic pain, traumatic brain injury, and other conditions, and whose symptoms can include bursts of anger, hypervigilance, concentration problems, sleep disturbance, and nightmares.
Not coincidentally, as the PTSD numbers have climbed, violent sex crimes among military personnel spiked by 90 percent between 2006 and 2011, domestic violence increased by 33 percent, and child abuse by 43 percent. “Male soldiers with PTSD are up to three times more likely to demonstrate aggression against their female partners,” according to the report.
Some of these cases have been widely reported, most famously that of Robert Bales, the Army staff sergeant on his fourth deployment who is accused of leaving his base to murder 17 Afghan villagers in March. Bales’s lawyer has said his client was suffering from symptoms of PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
But while the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs have stepped up their efforts to help soldiers and veterans struggling with the condition, other groups have also pitched in.
“Neither agency can possibly bear the entire responsibility to care for those who have borne the burden of battle,” says Loree Sutton, a retired Army brigadier general and psychiatrist, who was the founding director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. “Compared to veterans of previous U.S. wars, today’s generation of warriors has been exposed to far more continuous conflict—over 1,000 days of direct combat exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most have been deployed on repeated tours, each lasting from four to fifteen months, and in all cases, extending well beyond the roughly 90 days identified as the breaking point for the average World War II riflemen.”
Veterans often don’t seek treatment because of the stigma attached to psychiatric care within the military. “If you go to see a psychologist, it’s on your record,” says Karl Marlantes, a retired Marine and author of the best-selling Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War.
“I think the military is doing what they can. They’re very concerned. But as one very frustrated Marine colonel told me: ‘We’re Marines, not psychologists.’”
As our wars wind down, some civilians have taken it upon themselves to help soldiers cope with the horrors of war and the difficulties of reintegrating into mainstream culture. These include yoga practitioners like the Veterans Yoga Project and Warriors at Ease, as well as filmmakers—including one from an esteemed military family.
That would be Benjamin Patton—the grandson of legendary Gen. George S. Patton Jr., who commanded the U.S. Third Army in Europe during World War II. (Benjamin’s father, George S. Patton IV, retired from the army as a major general.)
Although Patton, 46, opted out of the family business, as it were, he says he’s always felt a connection to the armed services, and wanted to work with veterans.
He’d been talking about this with Bob Woodruff, the ABC news anchor who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq.
“Bob said, ‘A lot of times what helps is talking about their traumas,’” says Patton, whose book, Growing Up Patton, came out in March.
“These memories are overwhelming and become crippling, and they need to unpack and repack them so they become more manageable. And I thought: ‘That’s editing.’ Editing allows you to take a recording and reorganize it in a way that expresses what you want to.”
He had been teaching filmmaking with Scott Kinnamon, a Colorado filmmaker who uses the medium to teach middle- and high-school kids.
About a year and a half ago, Patton, who’s currently getting a master’s degree in developmental psychology at Teachers College, and Kinnamon developed I WAS THERE, a program that helps veterans struggling with PTSD express themselves and, it is hoped, alleviate some of their suffering in the process.
“Film is their medium,” says Patton. “Particularly with soldiers under 30, it’s where they live. They’re the YouTube generation. The older guys, the ones over 55, their stories are different. They tend to be a touch more literal, and the younger guys are touch more metaphorical.”
So far, Patton and Kinnamon have completed two free workshops at the Army’s Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Carson, Colo. The next workshop, also at Fort Carson, is scheduled for late August.
On the first day they have a brief interactive lecture on film theory and narrative storytelling. In past workshops that have shown the first few minutes of Up, and the first and last ten minutes of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, and student films they have produced in years past.
“We show them how to make a film—it could be a re-creation of a nightmare sequence, a montage,” he says. “We’re teaching them about the power of narrative and how to use it in service of their illness.”
The vets then conceive, shoot, and edit a five-to-10-minute film on some aspect of their illness or struggle, with Patton and his team acting as crew.
Widhalm came up with Amazing Awaits, a silent film that uses water as a metaphor for all that is verbally inexpressible. “It’s one of those things—you can tell people how you feel and try and put it into words and so many times this stuff can’t be put into words,” he says. “How do you say what your feeling is? There’s not a single word in the video. I was able to tell what my feelings were without saying a single word.”
While there haven’t been any official studies done on the program yet, Robert J. Birnbaum, an M.D. and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that “they have the potential to serve as a powerful way of reaching service members and veterans who are reluctant to seek help.”
Marlantes, a Vietnam vet who drank “barrels of bourbon” to deal with his post-combat trauma, is not surprised. “When you come back from something that horrific, and you have to try to readjust your whole way of thinking, symbols are a key way of getting stuff from the unconscious into consciousness,” he says. “It’s the same if you were painting or journaling. Working with a concrete medium like film is a fabulous way of reaching the deep symbols that pulls stuff out of the unconscious and heals.”
Widhalm, for his part, still has nightmares, but he’s less jumpy. He has become a competitive cyclist, and hopes to participate in the Paralympics this summer. His film also helped bring him closer to his wife, he says.
“I was trying to explain to her a million times what I’d gone through, but she didn’t get it,” he says. “She watched the film and said ‘I finally understand. I finally get it.’ And when you have a common bond, then all of a sudden you can move forward.”