A MOVIE CALLED “Thank You for Your Service” played one time last Saturday afternoon at the Crandell Theatre in Chatham. It drew close to hundred people–not bad for a bright summer day and considering the subject was veterans dealing with post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.
The film’s a documentary, a label that all too often ensures a smaller audience. It’s as if we assume that a factual account somehow can’t deliver the emotional satisfaction of fiction. It should be the opposite reaction in a society wedded to TV news and social media. But “Thank You for Your Service” is no cat video.
The feature-length movie film follows four young former enlisted men, each of them a veteran of the U.S. wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. All of them saw combat, losing friends and, in the case of two Marines, knowing that they unintentionally killed innocent civilians. None of them has a physical disability from combat. Each of them is deeply wounded by their wartime experiences, unable to adjust to civilian life, considering or attempting suicide, not getting much government help other than prescription drugs that do little to ease the pain.
Their stories are framed by interviews with high-ranking military and civilian leaders who remind viewers of our national amnesia about the effect wars have on the people we ask to fight them. Before PTSD there was battle fatigue and before that shell shock. The term PTSD covers multiple symptoms and diagnoses. The government doesn’t have a cure, though private efforts have had some success.
Why see a film on such a potentially gloomy topic? Because the director, Tom Donahue, is a skilled storyteller on a mission to help and his subjects have reason to be hopeful. He has focused his movie on this handful of veterans, one of whom, for instance, goes looking for the family of civilians he may have killed–and he finds them.
At moments the film feels almost too smooth despite reminders of the number of veterans committing suicide every day. There’s a forward momentum that rivets your attention even if you’d prefer to imagine that PTSD is someone else’s problem and somebody else has to fix it.
A panel following the Chatham showing–the event was arranged by Kinderhook resident Peter Bujanow– served as an antidote to any thought of complacency. The panel members were: Congressman Chris Gibson (R-19th), a retired U. S. Army colonel who served as a commander of troops in Iraq; Col. Eric J. Hesse, director of the New York State Office of Veterans Affairs; Lt. Col. William W. Lecates, a physician with the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs; Mr. Donahue and Ilan Aboleda, a producer of the film.
Rep. Gibson added detail to the issues raised by the film, vouching for the extent of the crisis, but it was Gary Flaherty, head of the county Veterans Services Office and a veteran of combat in Vietnam, speaking from the audience, who brought the problem home. Five times recently, Mr. Flaherty said, he has talked local veterans plagued by PTSD out of killing themselves.
The irony of the film’s title is explained on camera by one of the young veterans dismayed and angered that the public would thank anyone for what he and others in uniform did on behalf of their country. Rather than thanks, what he wants is relief from memories of the horrors of combat. He must find that relief from within himself, though others, many of them veterans too, can help. Mr. Donahue’s film makes the point that a nation willing to have these young people serve must now help them heal.
One former military officer in the film proposes the creation of behavioral health corps in all branches of the military to treat PTSD. It’s hard to gauge how effective that might be, but at least it’s a starting point for better treatment of this disabling and potentially lethal condition.
“Thank You for Your Service” will be released nationally next month, which will make it accessible to a much wider audience. The filmmakers are also planning to offer it to community groups for local showings. Please watch for this movie and make time to see it.
A trailer for the film is online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCbev3PW4Ug
(Editor Parry Teasdale was moderator of the panel mentioned in this week’s editorial. He has no connection to “Thank You for Your Service” or the filmmakers.)