Soldiers Once ... And Young
After serving a 12-month tour of duty in Iraq last year, Marine Lance Corporal Jeff Lucey returned home to his relieved family with no injuries – or at least none that were visible. When we didnt see him tremendously traumatized when he returned, we thought, 'Oh, thank god,' says his father, Kevin Lucey. And then it exploded.
For months the 23-year-old battled his wartime demons; nightmares, bouts of depression and anxiety, and crushing guilt – classic symptoms of acute post-traumatic stress.
He told me he was a murderer, says Jeffs sister, Debra. He said, 'Dont you understand? Your brothers a murderer.
On June 22, 2004, Jeff Lucey lost his battle. He hanged himself from a rafter in the cellar of his family home.
He did something, or he saw something, that destroyed him, ventures his mother, Joyce. So that when he came back, he took his own life.
The story of Jeff Lucey is the emotional centerpiece of Patricia Foulkrods short documentary, The Ground Truth: The Human Cost of War, a collection of interviews with Iraq combat veterans whose experiences have, up until now, remained largely invisible to the American public. Producer/director Foulkrod lets her subjects tell their stories without interruption or prompting, and the effect is nothing less than devastating.
Like most of the young vets in "Ground Truth," Rob Sarra went to Iraq trusting in the rightness of his mission. Today he is a tormented man, haunted by a memory.
Sarras unit had just been in a firefight when he saw an elderly burkha-clad woman carrying a bag on her arm walking toward a nearby armored vehicle. The soldiers raised their weapons and began yelling at her to stop. Sarra, a Marine sergeant, then made an instantaneous and fatal assumption: if the woman did not respond, she must be carrying a bomb.
She did not stop.
Sarra had a clear shot and he took it. As soon as he fired his second shot, his fellow soldiers opened fire and cut her down.
She fell to the dirt and as she fell she had a white flag in her hand, that she had pulled out of her bag," says Sarra, staring past the camera into the distance. "At that moment right there I lost it, I threw my weapon down on the deck of the vehicle, I was crying, I was like, Oh my god what are we doing here."
One of the most treacherous aspects of battling the insurgency is that much of the combat takes place in the streets, intersections and marketplaces of urban neighborhoods – places that are often crowded with innocent Iraqi civilians.
There are no clear enemy lines," says Steve Robinson, the films narrator and executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center. "The battlefield completely surrounds the soldier: its above you, its below you, its to the left, its to the right. Its 360 degrees you dont know where the enemy is. That is an incredible amount of pressure to operate under." Robinson believes that post-traumatic stress disorder will be this wars most destructive legacy, just as Agent Orange afflicted Vietnam veterans for decades, and Gulf War Syndrome still sickens soldiers who served during the first Iraq war.
Having lost their son, the Luceys worry about what other veterans and military families may be going through. Were just wondering, Kevin Lucey says, to what extent are so many young men and women coming back [unable to] deal with the experience of being over there?
Denver Jones, a specialist in the National Guard whose spine was shattered in a truck accident in Iraq, describes seeing a soldier drive over an Iraqi child who had walked into the roadway. But the Army told us, Jones says sadly, if someone got in front of the truck, to run over them.
U.S. Army Sergeant Terry Atchison confirms the directive: If someone jumps out in front of your vehicle, regardless adult or child, then just run em over. When you value life, you dont really want to do it. But then again, if you value your life enough, youll do it. Its a very hard decision. Im glad I never had to face that decision.
This war just emotionally destroyed me in a lot of ways, says Marine Lance Corporal Michael Hoffman. I just break down some nights knowing that I took part in something like this; that I took the lives of people. I see pictures of Iraqi children in hospital beds, and I cant help but wonder – was it my unit that did this? Was I part of this?
Yet the same military that trains these soldiers to be killers, gives them little support when they return bearing the scars of psychological wounds.
National Guardsman Paul Rieckhoff, who came home in February, kept hearing from guys in his unit who had suffered injuries over the course of a year of combat and were fighting to get adequate medical treatment, disability pay or benefits from the Army. So the fiery, articulate lieutenant founded Operation Truth, to help his fellow servicemen and to educate the public. Rieckhoff – who is still on active duty and could be sent back to Iraq – is appalled at the shoddy treatment that wounded veterans are receiving from their government, especially National Guardsmen and reservists.
You come home and you have to deal with the nightmare that is the Armys bureaucracy, Rieckhoff says. Theyve got to battle, bite, beg and steal to get taken care of or even to get looked at by the VA. And thats just unconscionable.
At 18, Robert Acosta didnt think his future in Santa Ana, Calif. looked too bright, so he was an easy mark for Army recruiters and their promises of excitement and adventure. After being deployed to Iraq, Acosta lost his hand and the use of his left leg when a grenade thrown into his vehicle exploded before he could toss it back out the window.
Acosta believes that the American public does not understand the enormity of this wars toll. People hear injured but they dont realize that injured is missing both his hands, or his legs, or whatever, he says.
Double amputations, crushed spines, and severely disfiguring burns were some of the physical trauma Dr. Gene Bolles saw on a daily basis as the chief neurosurgeon at Landstuhl Hospital in Germany. The average age of the soldiers he treated was 19 and a half – just kids, he says, who put their lives on the line not for abstract concepts of patriotism, but for the powerful bonds of camaraderie.
Kids dont go to war and put themselves in danger for the good of the country, or anything else, says Bolles, a civilian doctor who is also a Vietnam veteran. "They go there because theyve learned to love their buddies And when they get hurt, they feel guilty because theyre hurt and they cant be there for their unit. Its an intense training process. And all of a sudden, its over. Theyre hurt, theyre wounded, theyre out of the service and its over. And that, in and of itself, is very traumatic.
Brokenhearted War Story
Even at just 30 minutes long, The Ground Truth packs a powerful cumulative punch. This is documentary filmmaking that has no need for showy cinematic tricks or grandstanding; the narratives are eloquent, raw, and unforgettable just as they are. Says Foulkrod, who is working on a feature-length version of the film, I dont want you to ever look at a veteran again, from any war, in the same way.
Shes right; you wont.
These guys are brokenhearted because they really love their country and they really thought this was going to be a good experience, Foulkrod continues. You can play hardball and say, well, what did they expect? And thats a good question: what should they expect?
Visit TheGroundTruth.org to read more about the project and to order a copy of the 30-minute DVD or VHS. Purchases and donations will help fund the feature-length version of the film. Copies are free to veterans and military organizations through October.