“On the Bridge:” Olivier Morel’s Documentary About PTSD in Returning War Veterans Hits Hard

Olivier Morel’s documentary on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder entitled “On the Bridge,” which is playing at the Chicago 47th International Film Festival, takes an unflinching look at the men and women who are returning from fighting the longest war in this nation’s history (10 years). Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan often return with horrible physical injuries.

But what of the trauma to the souls of all these men and women, who, in some cases, were barely out of adolescence when they were sent off to war for bogus reasons ? Their mental anguish and pain is no less real than physical pain.

More seriously wounded soldiers are being saved today than in any previous conflict, and the challenges faced by the physically wounded are daunting. But no less daunting are the conflicts that all these veterans face over the actions they may have been forced to take, sometimes by direct order of a superior officer.Their mental anguish is unendurable, for some.

As one of the soldiers in the film explains, convoys were told never to stop for a small child in the road, as it might be an ambush. One soldier who objected to this order said, “I’d rather die fighting an insurgent than run over a child.” Another described “tricks” that soldiers would play on local children, luring them over the established boundary line with a half-buried $20 bill and then beating them with gun butts.

Said one doctor, “We try to pretend that everything is okay…No matter how many years go by, the story ends the same way. It’s war. It’s not pretty. It’s devastating.” Calling the condition “a cancer of the spirit,” the disgusted vets all describe being given the run-around when they sought help. (“They give us pills like they were f****** candy.”) One, who has tattooed the message, “Forgive me, for I have sinned” on his back with bloody claw-like hands as the illustration to the phrase says, “I just wanted to talk to somebody. I just want to have someone I could call 24 hours a day, 24/7. I don’t have somebody’s number that I can call 24 hours a day.” The staff at Clement J. Zablocki Veterans’ Administration Hospital is indifferent. There is no front desk. There is no person to talk to, and the procedure, for Marines is that they start with the Chaplain, who preaches religion, and then the Chaplain sends you to “the Wizard,” who prescribes drugs. The stories of souls in torment, entire families torn apart, no relief in sight, are the same whether the veteran lives in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

One female veteran says, “We have these chemical imbalances. It’s not a gradual process to readjust.” Another vet added, “There’s no time to process it. You stuff it all down. Never in my life have I had emotions that I couldn’t recall… PTSD will follow you everywhere you go. It’s an ongoing struggle.” Wendy Barranco, President of “Iraqi Veterans Against the War” put it this way: “We’re so fucking broken it’s not even funny. They’ll never be able to grasp that. They just won’t. “

Describing “a sea of men screaming in pain” (Lisa Zepeda) and “a kid with half his head blown off talking to you, begging you to save his life,” the doctor who treated him at least is glad that he was able to keep the wounded boy alive long enough so the 18-year-old soldier (he received the Medal of Honor for throwing himself on a live grenade to save the lives of his comrades in arms) could make it home to see his family before he died. Eviscerations. Disembowelments. One man with a foot hanging by a small piece of tissue sitting there not even screaming in pain. Bodies decapitated and left by the side of the road. One veteran relating how he was forced to shoot an insurgent in the back of the head (“Just pull the trigger, Lucey.”) Said a veteran, onscreen, “These are the things that happen in war. Put yourselves in the Iraquis shoes who’ve encountered these events every day for the last 10 years.”

What comes across loud and clear is that decent men and women have a hard time in a war zone, precisely because they are decent. Those soldiers who were decent human beings, first and last, failed to see humor in the Abu Ghraib prison pictures, but other military personnel around them, when the scandal broke, laughed.

“I think we create a lot of it (hatred for the United States),” says one soldier. “There is a line between resistance and terrorism.” Describing how some of the soldiers would put dead bodies of enemy soldiers on the hoods of their Humvees and drive around with the enemy corpses, one soldier further described helping stomp a man to death while the man’s brain sat on the back seat of the car, perfectly intact, but his brain stem continued to cause his body to twitch and try to breathe within a body bag. Said one soldier, “I literally felt I was in an alternate universe. I started going numb. It’s a mob mentality…Does anybody give a f***?”

When he complained about the order to run over children (saying he would not do it), Jason Moon was told, “Shut up, Moon, and keep driving the truck.” He was also moved to the back of the convoy, the most dangerous spot. The title “On the Bridge” comes from the constant realization that, in a war zone, an attack while you are on a bridge would be deadly. Even though the man is no longer in a war zone, his training and reactions still stem from his military conditioning while in the war zone. “This is not something you are ever going to be able to wash away. Letting go is the only way you know how to escape the pain. You have just nowhere else to turn. The simple things that used to make you happy don’t.

One soldier, Jason Moon, wrote haunting song lyrics (and has now released an album), which provide the backdrop for the film. Some of the lyrics tell it all: “When you’ve given up, given in and lost your life to a ball of sin.” He adds, “When I wrote it, it was a very desperate time, about a year and a half before I attempted suicide.” Lyric: “And you just can’t win no matter how you try. And you fall on your knees and begin to cry. Hold on for one more day.”

Unfortunately, 23 veterans, daily, 8,000 annually, cannot hold on for one more day. There is an epidemic of veteran suicides. One such doomed young soldier, Jeff Lucey, hung himself on June 22, 2004. His father, Kevin, and his mother, Joyce, and his sister Debbie describe Jeff Lucey as he returned from war: “Empty eyes. Tunnel vision. His voice a whisper, vague. Thinking out loud. And you feel totally powerless.” Debbie Lucy, Jeff’s sister, describes begging the V.A. Hospital for assistance and receiving none, even though she told them on June 4 that if they didn’t help her brother, he wouldn’t be around in a month. And he was not, as Jeff Lucy hung himself on June 22, 2004. His father described his son’s homecoming from the war this way: “The feeling is indescribable. Maybe like being at the second birth of your son.”

Lyric: “It’s not so easy to bury the scars of war in Iraq. Too lost to find anything.” The newly-elected female leader of “Iraq Veterans Against the War,” Wendy Barranco, is shown breaking down in tears, saying, “I enlisted at 17. Then, at 19, I was putting Iraquis to sleep for surgery. A lot of them were my age (19). I gave 200%. (crying) A lot of times, I think I would have rather gone than to have someone with a son or daughter go. .. That pain is hard to put out.”

The veterans who agreed to look straight into the camera and unflinchingly tell their stories or the stories of their loved ones hope that by sharing their experiences, better methods will be found to help the returning victims of war. During the after-film Q&A the veterans who were present said, “This is about us as a country” and noted, “There’s just no way to prepare soldiers for this in advance.”

Lyric: “Somewhere between lost and alone. Trying to find my way home.

I’m trying to find my way home.

It’s hard to fight an enemy that lives inside your head.”

This is a film that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld should be forced to watch every day for the rest of their lives. It is searing, unforgettable, intense, and heartbreaking.

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