Paul Haggis didn't want to make a movie that would denigrate the military, but he wanted to expose the psychological trauma of war—and show how it messes up the minds of the soldiers who are lucky enough to come home. "I'm as left as you can get—left of Mao," the co-writer and director of the Oscar-winning film "Crash" explains. And yet he speaks for all Americans when he says, "I'm incredibly proud of the military."
The result is the oddly paced "In the Valley of Elah," which takes its name from the Biblical place where David slew Goliath. It is the story of a father's search to find his AWOL son's killer. As a murder mystery, it falls short. But as a study of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the all-too-common consequence of combat, Haggis gets it right. "He captured what psychological trauma looks like after the fact," says Barbara Romberg, a Washington-area clinical psychologist who founded Give an Hour—a nonprofit group launched in 2005 to encourage mental-health providers to volunteer their time to help returning veterans and their families.
"In the Valley of Elah" is based on a true story—the murder of Richard Davis, a 23-year-old Army soldier at Fort Benning, Ga., whose burned and brutalized remains were found in the woods four months after he'd been declared AWOL. The murder trial that followed revealed that several of the soldiers in Davis's unit suffered from severe PTSD; there were allegations of war crimes against civilians in Baghdad. In the movie version, we learn the soldiers chow down on fast food after dumping the body of their comrade. Driving home after the movie's Washington premiere, Romberg's assistant was incredulous. "How could they be hungry after the murder?" That's what happens, Romberg explains. Detachment is the mechanism the brain develops to deal with trauma. The soldier who commits the murder speaks about it in the detached, vacant way that rings true to those familiar with the symptoms of PTSD. Haggis worked hard to find people who could comfortably portray the soldiers; three of the young actors he cast are veterans.
Romberg credits her then 9-year-old daughter with planting the seed that led to the concept of Give an Hour. They were in the car doing errands and saw a homeless man with a sign that identified him as a Vietnam veteran. "Mom, how can our country allow this to happen?" her daughter asked. It was a good question, especially for a mental-health provider who had grown up in the shadow of Vietnam. Romberg had vivid memories how the war affected her small, rural community in California. We didn't know that much about PTSD then, or we chose not to know. A generation of vets paid the price with mental illness and substance abuse. This time we know a lot more. We know that a third of those coming home from combat will show signs of PTSD. Traumatic brain injury is the signature injury of the Iraq war. Romberg wanted to make it easy for busy professionals to give an hour a week to counsel a returning vet or family member. So far she's got 625 providers in her network with the goal of recruiting 40,000, or 10 percent of the roughly 400,000 licensed providers in the country.
The military is overwhelmed with the numbers of returning soldiers suffering from mental-health problems and needing help coping with massive injuries that in an earlier war would have left them dead on the battlefield. The Pentagon said this week that it will take at least another eight months to make the improvements called for in a June report that found mental-health care for the troops and their families "woefully inadequate." Child abuse in military families, primarily neglect, is on the rise because of the strain of repeated deployments. Medical providers on the front lines are burned out and not re-enlisting, prompting the Army to begin recruiting older physicians and mental-health providers between the ages of 48 and 60 willing to make a two-year commitment.
A soldier who read about Give an Hour in Stars and Stripes sent an e-mail that said, "We're having a hard time over here—can you help me?" The stigma of seeking help in the military culture is not as great as it once was, but it's still there. Soldiers who go to their commanders fear they'll be turned away, told they're faking—or worse, punished as shirkers. PTSD is a normal response to an abnormal situation, says Romberg. Educating that young soldier on what he should expect will help him make sense of what he's feeling. "It's not traditional counseling, but so what," she says.
Not everyone will come back from Iraq as troubled as the soldiers depicted in "In the Valley of Elah." The film paints with too broad a brush, but it makes audiences confront the reality of a new generation of wounded warriors bringing the war home in disturbing ways. "The hell with making us uncomfortable," Haggis said at the Washington premiere of the movie. "We're at war. We should be uncomfortable."