How many people do you know that would take a bullet for you? For most of us that would be a short list. For our men and women in the armed services, it would be every person they served with.
Soldiers adapt a different mindset in war. They learn to trust and rely on the person next to them. Traumatic experiences such as being fired on and watching comrades fall and even die in front of them becomes the norm.
But the human brain doesn’t always adapt as easily as we’d like to think. Since 2001 about 2.5 million soldiers have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or both. Roughly 1 in 8 report post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms when they return from service. Flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of detachment, irritability, trouble concentrating and sleeplessness are some of the symptoms reported. Studies also show that suicide risk is higher in people suffering from PTSD.
The biggest problems for these soldiers is getting them to admit they need help, and then getting them the help they need. In a new film set to be released on Oct. 27, director and screenwriter Jason Hall tells the story of real life soldier, Sergeant Adam Schumann and his struggle with PTSD. The film is adapted from the book of the same name, “Thank You for Your Service,” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel. Hall, who also wrote “American Sniper,” said that although this film tackled a different subject, it felt like the second part to “American Sniper.”
“This is a movie about trauma and the way to cope with that,” Hall said. “This is not just isolated to the military. Trauma is universal. We saw it in Las Vegas. Every person that walked away from that incident is going to have that scar of trauma on their brain.”
The film follows Sergeant Adam Schumann, played by Miles Tiller, and his fellow soldiers return to civilian life from Iraq. Each man suffers different symptoms and has to find his own way of coping. Schumann’s close friend, Tausolo Aieti, or Solo, played by Beulah Koale, experiences memory loss and violent episodes. Schumann accompanies Solo to the Department of Veteran Affairs, where they are passed around to different lines to stand in and given numerous stacks of paperwork to fill out only to be told they can’t be seen for months.
When Solo is refused assistance, he seeks relief through mind altering drugs. Schumann chooses to bury unwanted memories by ignoring them in an attempt to escape his self-appointed guilt.
The wives and girlfriends reap their own affliction from PTSD. Men that were once their soulmates are now strangers. Schumann’s wife, Saskia, played by Haley Bennett, discovers a half answered questionnaire that reveals her husband has suicidal thoughts. She is caught between wanting him to be that strong soldier and getting him to be vulnerable enough to admit he needs her help.
Schumann’s guilt grows, and he realizes he can’t get better by ignoring it. He decides to revisit the people who have been affected most by the decisions he made in Iraq so his own healing can begin.
Almost all of the characters portrayed in the film were based off real people from Finkel’s book. Many of them were on set during filming and even played small roles in the film. Hall spent a lot of time with them before and during the filming and said their presence made a huge difference. Coming off of “American Sniper” he thought he understood these soldiers.
“Not only did I not understand these guys and what they had been through,” Hall said, “I really didn’t understand the war as they saw it.”
Early on he had a misunderstanding with veteran Michael Emery, played by Scott Haze. Emery had been struck in the head by a bullet and suffered from hemiparesis, paralysis restricted to one side of the body. Hall assumed that Emery’s physical injury had to be worse than what he understood PTSD to be.
“He felt that the PTSD was worse,” Hall said of Emery. “And I assumed otherwise and really upset him. I had to come back and approach the whole process with him. It was a learning process for me.”
Hall hopes that the film will not only make more people aware of PTSD, but initiate change. He worked hard to get the Veteran Support Organization involved. He showed the film to Patrick Murphy, a former secretary of the army and first Iraq war veteran to become a congressman.
“He saw the the movie and and he said, ‘This is the defining movie of our generation. I want to help you.’ So we showed over 120 VSOs the film and managed to get the top 20 of them on the phone,” Hall said.
He said it’s about taking action and connecting veterans to their Veteran Service Organizations. But it’s up to us to find a better way to welcome these guys home. Not understanding what they’ve been through, we often approach veterans with an awkward “Thank you for your service.” They don’t always know how to respond. Hall said he’s starting to understand veterans enough to start a conversation that makes them feel welcome by saying things like, “Where’d you serve?”, “What rank were you?” or “Do you have friends you were separated from?”
Schumann told Hall a story that happened three years after he’d come home. An older gentleman had approached him at a gas station, saw a Big Red One sticker on the back of his truck and asked him if he was there. Schumann told him he was.
“The guy reached out and shook his hand and looked him in the eye. He said, ‘Welcome home son, welcome home.’ He said that was the first time someone had welcomed him home other than his wife and kids, and he got in his truck and cried. What we don’t realize is these guys are hurting. These guys are experiencing things we can’t even imagine. And it’s just about opening up our arms a little bit and finding a way to welcome them back.”