By Susan M. Sipprelle
Engelwood, NJ, USA
"Fighting for one's country can render one unfit to be its citizen," wrote Dr. Jonathan Shay, psychiatrist, author and winner of a 2007 MacArthur Foundation genius award for his work with Vietnam veterans over a 20-year period. Since September 2001, advances in technology and medicine have helped reduce physical injuries and save more soldiers' lives. Dr. Shay believes that the United States should work equally hard to protect them from the psychological injuries that result from exposure to war.
In late February, Sam Newman, filmmaker, and I met with Dr. Shay to do background research for the documentary we are making about female veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. During Dr. Shay's 20 years at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Boston, he was the only psychiatrist for a small, immersive, long-term veteran-community based outpatient program. His clients were all men and most of them had been home from Vietnam for about 15 years. The time he spent learning from them prompted Dr. Shay to write Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America. In both books, he plumbs Greek mythology and its heroes to gain a deeper understanding of the universal and timeless issues that all soldiers confront when they return home from war.
Our new film will focus on women veterans. The influx of women into the American military has been dramatic, and now they are becoming an increasing percentage of the nation's veterans. In 1973, women accounted for less than 1 percent of the U.S. armed forces. Today, women comprise almost 15 percent of the U.S. military and nearly 10 percent of the U.S. veteran population.
Between 2001 and 2013, the United States deployed almost 300,000 women to Iraq and
Afghanistan. As of January 2014, over 800 women have been wounded and 159 women have been killed while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The women soldiers we are filming for our documentary are currently undergoing the challenges of readjusting to civilian life; they are facing issues comparable to those that both Greek heroes and Vietnam veterans confronted when they returned from war.
One of our main characters fought to expel the Taliban from a village in Afghanistan and took part in several intense firefights. She saw soldiers injured in battles, and she also witnessed the bodies of her fellow fallen soldiers brought back to base. Now that her active duty commitment has ended, she has returned to the state where she grew up. At the age of 26, she is living in a shelter for homeless female veterans and seeking a path forward into her future. She described her present situation:
It's hard, like, the transition is hard. Like, the Army just spit me out, and I have all these
problems right now, and I wasn't expecting any of it. Like, I have a disorder now. It was
caused from stress. It came out. It only came about because of stress.
Common post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is the persistence into civilian life of necessary adaptations such as hyper-remembering, hyper-vigilance and emotional numbness, according to Dr. Shay. Even thousands of years ago, soldiers carried these natural responses to dangerous, threatening situations back to their homes where they discovered that behaviors that were well suited to warfare interfered with normal, daily life and left them feeling out of place and out of touch in the civilian world.
More than two million men and women have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. Most soldiers return home and gradually reacclimate to the pace and routine of the civilian world with the passage of time. However, many returning soldiers face a more difficult psychological recovery, especially those who have experienced combat. In 2014, the U.S. government reports that over 150,000 military personnel from all services have been diagnosed with PTSD since 2001. Most experts and veterans believe the actual number is much higher.
Just as physical wounds require time and nutrition to heal, Dr. Shay cautions that psychological wounds take time and social nutrition in the form of community to heal. Some veterans bear psychological wounds that are more complex than common PTSD; they also have lost their capacity for social trust because their exposure to conflict has crushed their expectation that others will do what's right.
"Everyone knows that war can wreck the body, but they forget that it can also wreck the soul," Dr. Shay wrote in Odysseus in America.
We will continue filming our main characters and the progress of their reintegration into the civilian world and exploring the theme of their recovery from war over the months to come.