Wendy, born Mexican and sent to Iraq at 19, saw the hell of war in a combat support hospital; Jason lives with his medication, his refuge in songs, his poignant lyrics and haunting voice; the angel-faced Ryan’s rage and deep political about-turn; Lisa, a police officer in one of America’s roughest neighborhoods of Chicago, traumatized by her presence at Abu Ghraib; David served 13 years in the Army and 13 years in the Navy as a commissioned officer. He had eight combat tours and retired after his last one in Iraq in 2006; Vinny’s multiple lives, torn between loyalty to the Marines and disgust with what he saw and was ordered to do.
This film is haunted: by the figure of an “unknown soldier,” Jeff, who incarnates the 23 veterans who commit suicide every day in a (still) scandalous relative indifference in American today.
Olivier Morel, Director
A Zadig Productions-Arte France Film, 2011
“On the Bridge:” Olivier Morel’s Documentary About PTSD in Returning War Veterans Hits Hard
War is Hell. Watching This Movie is Difficult. It is an Absolutely Necessary Precautionary Tale
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 ofIraq 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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Exclusive Interview: Director Olivier Morel Talks About “On the Bridge,” His Documentary About PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)
8,000 a Year, 23 a Day—returning Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Are Killing Themselves at an Epidemic Rate Never Seen Before
Shakespeare wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them.”
Olivier Morel’s film “On the Bridge,” which I viewed on Saturday, October 8, 2011, at the Chicago 47th International Film Festival, is a powerful, intense examination of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), focusing on interviews with veterans, families and friends affected by this “cancer of the spirit,” (as it is termed by one soldier in the film.)
Veteran Jason Moon, whose original songs provide the musical backdrop for the film, put it this way in one haunting song lyric:
“Somewhere between lost and alone, trying to find my way home.
I’m tryin’ to find my way home. It’s hard to fight an enemy that lives inside your head.”
Nowhere is this truer than in those returning Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans who suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Olivier Morel, a French-born film-maker on the faculty of Notre Dame, began filming a documentary about returning veterans in cities across the United States over three years ago. The film, which is showing at the Chicago 47th International Film Festival, is “On the Bridge.” (*Review to follow).
What follows are exclusive interview remarks from Olivier Morel, the Director, who was kind enough to answer five questions about the documentary that screened on October 8, 2011 (www.onthebridgethemovie.com).
1) What initially inspired you to start making this documentary 3 years ago? Did you personally know some returning veterans …what?
This film would never have been possible without the fantastic women and men, the Iraq War veterans that I met while starting to develop what was at first a simple curiosity for the “subject:” They are the ones who inspired me. My initial intent was not necessarily to make a “film.” The very reason why I started working on the issue of war trauma among returning veterans from the war in Iraq is that I got really angry about the epidemic of suicides by returning veterans of the wars…8,000 a year, 23 a day.
The soldiers who are struggling with war-related psychological trauma “survived” the war, but many kill themselves at home and most of those deaths are completely anonymous. In most cases, those deaths are not seen as are war-related but rather as “personal” matters affecting “individuals.” It tells a lot about how our society relates to the current wars and those who are sacrificing for them.
To put it in a nutshell, I have the unpleasant feeling that, on the one hand, there is a positive perception that “glorifies” the “heroes” who are coming back from the war zones, and that, on the other hand, there is a negative perception, a discomfort, a taboo, or worse, a profound and insidious disgust with regard to what the soldiers have been through in combat zones, regarding the kinds of actions in which they have been involved, the things they have done, etc.
Instead of helping us comprehend what the soldiers have been through, this attitude is blocking us from understanding in all of the senses of the word, what is going on here. I had the unpleasant impression that neither the families nor the communities nor, the soldiers themselves were prepared for their return from war. And that raises enormous questions: about our culture, our culture of the war, our understanding of what it means to be a soldier, to serve a country, to sacrifice, to be a warrior, and of course, to make the highly challenging adjustment back to civilian life when they return, surrounded with civilians who have no clue of what being in a war means. So, the consequences of this gap between the “good” and the “bad” soldier are just devastating.
That’s why the film is “devastating.” A good friend of mine, who runs a movie theater, after having watched the film, said: I have tried to film in this “in-between” zone, this grey zone, trying to avoid the “good” and the “bad,” guy. This is an observational documentary.
The film is straightforward in that sense. No sentiments, no myth, but, I hope, a profound compassion, at the end. This is also what I have done with those mute portraits of the protagonists who are watching the viewer, looking straight into the lens of the camera, at the end of the film. To a certain extent and without sounding too convoluted I am trying to give the impression that this is a film that watches us, that interrogates us, instead of a film that we are passively watching.
So after the initial shock, I started investigating around 2007. Now the subject is less and less anonymous, mostly because the post 9/11 era veterans are organizing themselves and starting to constitute a real “political” and social lobby in our society. Also because there are wonderful individuals who are publishing books or making great films (think about the unexpected recognition of a feature film like The Hurt Locker, great documentaries like Restrepo, Poster Girl, Where Soldiers Come From, for example), that are, very slowly, exposing the general public to these issue. I still do not see a drastic change in the overall people’s attitude toward the issue, but I hope this will occur.
My interest in the subject might also be related to the fact that I am European citizen (born and raised in France) who emigrated to the U.S. in 2005. While I was developing this project, I was also applying for United States citizenship. As a European, I belong to the first generation that never got drafted in a war since the beginning of the 20th century.
2) How did you first become interested in film, and what is your “official” title at Notre Dame?
I have worked as a radio, print and TV journalist in Europe for almost 20 years (I started when I was just 18…). While I had collaborated on many TV documentaries, I never had directed one before On the Bridge, which is feature-length.
At the University of Notre Dame I teach as a lecturer and also work for the Doctoral program in Literature.
3) We talked a bit about your country of origin. Do you have any insight into how the people(s) of Europe (including France) view the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan at this time?
It is very dangerous to generalize. Historians, sociologists, among others, are already investigating this very carefully. Without misrepresenting things here, one can say that in most European countries, including those who joined the coalition which invaded Iraq in 2003, a vast majority of the population was, to say the least, very suspicious about the reasons to go off to war against Iraq, and more specifically, I think there were not many European citizens who believed in the official version(s) provided by the U.S. administration: the existence of WMDs, for example, but more importantly, the fact that Iraq had anything at all to do with the 9/11 attacks, etc.
Now, I am only focusing on Iraq in my response. The case of the war in Afghanistan is slightly different in many ways, and it would take me a long time and too much space here to explain why. You probably know that the French are involved in Afghanistan, and that, by the way, more French soldiers died in Afghanistan this year than ever since the beginning of the war ten years ago.
4) I worked with head injury patients at a Sylvan Learning Center I owned for close to 20 years. Your film is about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, another serious mental condition. What do you think is going to happen to all these returning damaged young men and women? More of them were “saved” in these conflicts than in any other previous wars, but saved in what fashion? Do you think the U.S. is equipped to deal with such serious mental disorders as these, and, if not, what would you as an educator and a human being like to see done to help these injured soldiers that isn’t being done?
In his second address, President Abraham Lincoln said that the Nation had to “care for him who has borne the battle and for his woman and orphan.” Unfortunately, instead, the Veterans’ Administration is far from living up this motto.
There is massive agreement in the veterans’ community about the fact there is a shameful lack of preparation and adequacy in the current system. The lack of preparation has a strong impact on the epidemic of suicides by soldiers/veterans in the U.S.
This was not only a lack of anticipation, but, I think, also a political choice. Shortly before the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, on February 3, 2003, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld told the soldiers in Italy that the war “could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” (*On the 10th anniversary of the war, on-air commentator Wolf Blitzer marveled somewhat disingenuously that no one thought the war would last ten years when it began. This may be true for Wolf Blitzer, but some of us who were protesting it as it started felt otherwise.)
Also, in 2003, in January, the Veterans Administration announced that a cost-cutting move would start turning away middle-income veterans who applied for medical benefits. As a result, in 2007, a team of researchers from Harvard found that 1.8 million veterans lacked of health insurance. This is just an example taken among the many cuts that were imposed on the VA’s budget in this period. For me, this was extremely difficult to comprehend and I think that it is also the case for the vast majority of our fellow Americans who are aware of the sacrifice that the soldiers of the United States are making, as well as their relatives, friends, and communities.
For the majority of these returning veterans, just being able to survive the VA’s hurdles, and bureaucracy, the delays, the complexity of putting together the required elements to make your case plausible, is a huge struggle. It is made even worse by the fact that the veterans are asked to repeat “their story”, to explain their “problems” over and over, with all the consequences that one can imagine: the system is set up in such a way, that it is re-traumatizing them…
5) When you were filming, I know you became close with these returning veterans. Have you “lost” any friends from these groups? In other words, have there been any instances of some of the veterans whom you interviewed saying, “I can’t handle this” and, in an extreme case, committing suicide? Conversely, have you seen any signs of recovery in any individuals you, specifically, became acquainted with?
These friendships that we have built over the course of the past three years with veterans, are among the most inspiring, powerful and beautiful things that happened in my life. And I want to name them, they are my heroes: Wendy Barranco, Lisa Zepeda, David Brooks, Vinny Emanuele, Ryan Endicott, Jason Moon, Chris Arendt, Derek Giffin, Sergio Kochergin, but also my dear friends Jason Lemieux & Kevin Stendal, the veterans’ friends and relatives whom one should never forget when we talk about war-related psychological trauma: Eduardo Zepeda, Louis and Sylvia Casillas, Cecelia Hoffman, Paulina Brooks, Alejandro Villatoro, Aaron Hughes, Pete Sullivan, Hans Buwalda, Nikki Munguia, Sarah Dolens-Moon, Dylan Moon, Molly M. Taylor and of course the parents of Jeffrey M. Lucey, Joyce and Kevin, and his sister Debbie, who are playing a crucial role in the film.
The reason why I am mentioning these names is because when you ask about how the vets could “handle this” one can never forget the great men and women who are behind them: this is not an individual who is being deployed and then comes back to civilian life. For the reasons I mentioned earlier-the lack of institutional care, notably-the first in line who “cares” for the veteran is a husband, a wife, their children, a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, their friends, their neighbors, the overall society… They are the one who are, at first, exposed to the consequences of the war on a soldier’s soul. And when most of these exposures to the soldier’s tormented souls, occur in private, when the first “symptoms” or “crisis” erupt in the middle of the night, or during the Thanksgiving meal, or… on the 4th of July (you know why… the explosions…), I deeply think that it is not a fully “private” thing, on the contrary! We are all involved, concerned, and this is why I have put these animated “pictures” of mute, immobile veterans, looking straight into the camera lens, head on, at the end of the film: to give the viewers the idea that this is not a film that they are watching, that this is not for entertainment, but rather, that this story regards them, that the vets are watching them at the end, asking them questions.
It is still a source of astonishment to me, that they all gave 200% in the project, from the very beginning, and this is not “my” film, in a certain sense, or a film about “them”, but our film, a film about us in every sense of the term).
I really admire the courage that the veterans and their relatives and friends showed, to testify without a filter, straight, head on! I could not begin to tell you all the amazing stories behind the film (this would be another film), but for example, this fascinating singer, Jason Moon (http://www.jasonmoon.org/fr_home.cfm).
We filmed Jason in March. Around the middle of July, I received a long email from him. When you watch the film, you will know that Jason is, was, and has been extremely disturbed after his deployment to Iraq, to a point that was debilitating.
After he came back, Jason went through all kinds of phases, from the happiness of being back home, to hell. The only thing that he could still do from time to time was take his guitar, write songs, but even that, he could no longer do after a few months.
During this period, he wrote the most powerful, violent, sad and haunting songs I have heard in my life… (Jason had written a few songs upon his return from Iraq, in which he described the different phases of his PTSD, but was unable to “touch” those, because of the overwhelming emotional charge that was associated to those songs…I got this email in July: Jason explained that it had taken him eight long weeks to “recover” from the filming session (March), that he was starting to feel “better” and that he came out of the post-filming depression, wanting to finish writing his songs, and that new songs were pouring out of his soul, that he wanted to record an album. Not only had Jason been profoundly affected by our filming session, but he had been able to beautifully overcome, and come back stronger than before he was deployed! I was so impressed and proud of him… of us! Today Jason is performing every week, he has been invited to perform in all kinds of contexts, including at Walter Reed Army Hospital. I could mention similar stories of veterans who are doing much better today than when we first met three or four years ago. Not that the film has always necessarily played a role, but I think that it was the case for many of them: the sensation that they would touch other people’s minds, was indeed, very rewarding from them.
That’s why I also deeply hope that this film will reach people. This is not a selfish affirmation. This is our contribution. We want to change things. It’s urgent that we do so as a society.
Olivier Morel, Director of “On the Bridge”
South Bend, Indiana, October 7, 2011
 Again, read Aaron Glantz’s book in which he details all those cuts and the political justification that motivated them… op. cit., chapter 10, p. 118.