By Hank Stuever
Thursday, November 11, 2010; C05
"Wartorn," HBO's depressing yet revealing Veterans Day exploration of post-traumatic stress disorders as experienced by American soldiers throughout history, carries a telling subtitle: "1861-2010."
Sending men and women off to war has been a consistent way of derailing our national mental well-being over generations. In the name of winning our freedoms -- to use the patriotic parlance -- we get back a lot of messed-up people and then almost cruelly ignore their despair.
In fact, when it comes to the shock of war and the residual madness it can cause, "Wartorn" dials all the way back to Homer's "Odyssey" for its opening note: "Must you carry the bloody horror of combat in your heart forever?"
The exasperation ("must you?") is what informs this project, which hopes to chisel away at the chronic refusal to see PTSD as a wound that is as injurious as a shrapnel barrage. "Wartorn" is certainly not the first to describe this cultural disconnect within the military and everyday life; inadequate responses are deeply ingrained and, certainly since the Iraq war began, well-documented by reporters and veteran activists. Yet, like me, you may watch the whole thing -- the mothers and fathers weeping over the memory of their ruined, suicidal sons -- and emerge with a lasting funk of helplessness.
Executive-produced by actor James Gandolfini and HBO docu-maven Sheila Nevins (and directed by Jon Alpert and Ellen Goosenberg Kent), the film profiles a handful of American vets, some of whom succumbed to PTSD and took their own lives -- starting with a young Pennsylvanian named Angelo Crapsey who shot himself after a harrowing three years serving on the front lines of the Civil War, and concluding with an Iraq war vet who refuses his wife's pleas to delete from the living room PC his personal photos of the carnage he witnessed.
Then there are others, like a group of elderly World War II vets, still navigating the tightwire that spans memory, trauma and fear, coping as best they can.
Breaking down during and after a tour of duty is still an inconvenient emotion. An infamous story about Gen. George S. Patton, recounted here, claims he disparaged a "yellow SOB" he encountered in a military hospital and had the soldier immediately returned to the front lines. In all our ballyhoo for the "Greatest Generation," we still assume that most of those WWII guys returned A-OK; the spouses and children of the ones who had PTSD might beg to differ.
This is not an angry documentary; it's just such a downer -- and necessary medicine for those who've remained personally unaffected by events of the last decade. Gandolfini travels to various locales, including Iraq, to talk with military personnel and sufferers of PTSD and visits with some increasingly sympathetic brass, such as Gen. Ray Odierno, who commands the Allied Forces in Iraq.
"Wartorn" confronts history's euphemisms for the mentally injured veteran, including "melancholia," "nervous exhaustion" and the cowardly sounding "combat fatigue."
It still dogs us. The film builds to an elegant and quiet finish, following Army Sgt. 1st Class William Fraas Jr., who spent 29 months in Iraq over three tours, on a routine family outing to an El Paso Wal-Mart, which fills him with dread.
Pushing (with clenched hands ) a cart down the grocery aisles, in a scene eerily reminiscent of the penultimate moments from last year's Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker," Fraas resorts to what he calls the "swivel" -- moving his head back and forth in constant vigilance for his demons. Though this dread has a medical name, that doesn't mean anyone can tell Fraas what to do now.
(75 minutes) airs Thursday at 9 p.m.