"Diary of a Disgraced Soldier": Can Art Save the Life of a Veteran Battling PTSD?

Editor's note: Video from Diary of a Disgraced Soldier at the bottom of this page:

Cpl. Martin Webster hadn't slept in more than two days.

The night before, he had killed an insurgent during a firefight. With the sun up, thousands of Iraqis were rioting in the streets and taking out their anger on Webster and the other 100 some British soldiers in his unit, the 1st Battalion, Light Infantry, which was charged with maintaining order in Al Amara, Iraq. They were mere days from the end of their deployment.

The heat was unbearable -- over 90 degrees from dawn to dusk. Each soldier got a bottle or two of water a day and had just about 150 rounds of ammunition each. Their rules of engagement were drafted nearly 10 years early, in 1995, and were intended for Northern Ireland.

But the soldiers had their mission, Operation Telic 3. On this day in March 2004, it meant holding a government palace in the city. They had been under siege for several days by Iraqis frustrated with deteriorating conditions. Some Iraqis threw stones at the troops. Others fired rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). Several youth even threw grenades.

Webster was sent to overlook the rioting from a rooftop. He took out his personal video camera, which he bought on a military base, and started filming. The camera rolled as a group of his fellow military men chased after some young Iraqis and returned with four of them as prisoners. The Iraqi youth were then beaten with batons, punched and kicked. A soldier walked up to one of the prisoners and kicked him between the legs.

During the filming, Webster laughed menacingly and taunted the "naughty little boys." It could have been just another day of the occupation of Iraq but two years later, in 2006, the video was leaked to the British tabloid press and was broadcast around the world.

Webster was arrested by military police but all charges against him were dropped; he left the Army shortly after the media storm. A new documentary, titled Diary of a Disgraced Soldier, follows Webster after his military separation and subsequent struggle with Post Taumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In the film, Webster talks about how that two-minute video clip "destroyed" his life, but he doesn't regret filming his tour in Iraq.

"I thought at times it was ruining my life," Webster, 34, told AlterNet. "But actually it was making me wake up and realize who I was, what I was and basically made me realize the horrors of war and what people turn into in war, including myself."

The veteran said the video did have one positive aspect: it woke people up to the reality of war.

"I'm a soldier and I was designed to kill," said Webster, who also served two tours in Northern Ireland and another in Sierra Leone. "The British government spent 12 years turning me into an angry killer and when I acted like an angry killer and when it was portrayed on TV, nobody liked it or could handle it. That's what a soldier is designed to do."

According to Webster, the mainstream media today hide the reality of war on another front.

"I believe that with the media blackout that we've got now in Afghanistan, it means the general public can't see what's actually going on. Anything that does get out is scripted and vetted," he explained.

Webster wanted to share his side of what happened in Iraq. In 2007, he approached filmmakers Richard Atkinson, Neil Cole and Chris Rowe to make Diary of a Disgraced Soldier. The documentary started off seeking to explain and explore the beating incident and subsequent scandal, Atkinson said, but the story "evolved" into focusing on how Webster coped with his PTSD.

"There seems to be an awful lot of opinion from media commentators but not so much from the soldiers themselves who are, after all, the ones in the firing line," Atkinson told AlterNet. "Our aim was to give a voice to a soldier who had been to war and had been dramatically affected by his experiences out there."

After following Webster for 18 months, Atkinson said the film gets "to the essence of what going through PTSD does to a person" from a soldier's perspective.

PTSD was recognized as a medical condition in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association but, according to Atkinson, is "vastly underestimated by the authorities and misunderstood by the public."

"War is very messy and rarely goes according to plan," Chris Rowe told AlterNet. "The costs in every sense of the word are high and, if we are going to get involved [in a war], we should be very sure the price is worth paying."

"It's like I'm constantly controlling a demon"

A 2008 RAND Corporation study found about one in five U.S. military members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or major depression.

The documentary puts a human face on this statistic. It includes video diaries filmed by Webster himself in which he shows moments of intense rage. In one scene in the documentary, Webster says he feels like he has two personalities. "It's like I'm constantly controlling a demon," he says. Later, he wonders aloud, "Perhaps my true character came out there [in Iraq]. Perhaps I am an evil person. I don't know."

Part of Webster's recovery process has involved art. In the documentary, Webster and fellow veteran Lee Kamara are shown at a music concert they held to raise money for homeless veterans, the Royal British Legion and the charitable organization Combat Stress.

But, in the film, Webster realizes that "people aren't interested."

"They don't want to hear about war and depression," he says in the documentary. "Nobody wants to know." In the video diaries, Webster also contemplates suicide and is himself homeless for a period. He said his PTSD "completely overwhelmed [his] life." The former infantryman said he saw hallucinations of an Iraqi he killed.

War, for Webster, is itself "madness."

"You take somebody's food away, you take somebody's water, you take away their sleep, you're asked to basically live like an animal. You're asked to kill. You're asked to do things above the call of duty of a regular civilian," said the ex-soldier said.

Further, Webster explained that PTSD "isolates you from society." During the film, he says, "I'm still trapped within these confines of this palace wall here," gesturing toward one of his paintings.

With Kamara, Webster formed a non-profit for veterans called Voices of War so soldiers "can hold their heads up and not be ashamed," according to the organization's website. The pair paint, write poetry and make music about their time in Iraq.

Kamara, who served in Basrah, Iraq, said he dealt with PTSD through music.

"Music takes me to a different place and helps me relieve stress," Kamara told AlterNet. "I find that being with the piano on my own helps me have happiness and peace."

A new father, Kamara recommended other soldiers use art to channel their military experiences. "Anything that relaxes [soldiers]," he said, "is a great way of forgetting."

Lovella Calica, a multimedia artist, also encourages veterans with post traumatic stress to use art as part of their healing process. She is the founder and director of the Warrior Writers Project, a creative community for veterans articulating their experiences.

"It's worth a try," Calica told AlterNet. "There are points in the process where it might be hard and it might be difficult. But I think you have to really push through that stuff to get further."

Calica, who has edited two anthologies of veterans' writing and artwork, recommends that all veterans try writing. "Everybody can write," she said.

"Pen and paper -- just put it down," she said. "It's a way to start and there are a lot of different art forms out there and I think that you should try and see what you feel inspired by."

For Webster, painting proved helpful. "[My] artwork has softened. At first it was very, very fiery. Very angry. Now if you look at the artwork, it's smoothed out," he said.

Calica, who has worked with about 130 veterans and active-duty soldiers in about 20 Warrior Writers workshops, said soldiers like Webster go through a process to change their "activities and actions and beliefs" when they enter the military. But when they leave the military, she said,"there's not such a process. They just leave."

"[The soldiers] come back and they're just like, they don't know what to do with themselves," said Calica, who has worked with Iraq Veterans Against the War for about five years. "They don't need how to relate to people sometimes. They don't want to come out of their house. They don't want to talk about stuff."

Changing from "an infantry soldier, from a trained killed into a normal human being" was difficult for Webster.

"I don't kill anymore. I get up. I go to work. I might mix some cement. I might have dinner at 12 o'clock for half an hour. Boring mundane things," he explained. "I'm not jumping out of tanks and using grenade rocket launchers."

Eerily, "Diary of a Disgraced Soldier" intersperses footage that Webster took in Iraq with video from his life in the UK.

Calica says that art can help veterans reintegrate into society, by giving them "something that they can do with their time and with themselves in their lives that has meaning."

"It helps them continue on and isn't something that's just like normal everyday life," she explained.

"In my experiences working with veterans, I've seen how resilient they can be and how much they can get through and their strength."

Yet, according to Calica, the Veterans Affairs (VA) department is not doing what it should be to treat PTSD. "They're highly underfunded and they're more often than not pushing drugs on people and I don't think that's the answer. And a lot of veterans don't want that. It's just not working," she said.

Where government fails, alternative medicine steps in

The inability of the VA to adequately deal with PTSD is familiar to many Vietnam veterans.

"Sky" David Pies, a 62-year-old Vietnam combat veteran who lives in Carlsbad, Calif. told AlterNet that veterans who "got out of line" were given "zombie drugs."

"The pharmaceutical companies are the biggest drug pushers and the VA is like the addict," he said. "That government money just keeps up the addiction. All of these anti-depressants shut down the ability to feel. They kill the spirit."

While some of his fellow veterans encouraged Pies to apply for PTSD disability, he denies he has PTSD. In his experience, "the symptoms like inability to sleep, contact with irrational worlds, etc., are all an advantage to the artist."

"I had many dream-like experiences and would yell very loud every night, many times a night," he said. "Inability to sleep is a plus to the artist."

According to Pies, "The making of art or any creative form of activity that moves a former soldier out of the combat zone and into the self empowerment of a new life is positive."

Bob Paxman agrees that art can be helpful. The founder and chief executive of the non-profit charity Talking 2 Minds, Paxman served in the British military's Special Air Services in "many hostile environments around the world" for 10 years and himself suffered from PTSD.

"For somebody that's very visual, painting would be fantastic," Paxman told AlterNet. He has helped about 200 active-duty soldiers and veterans who suffer from PTSD.

Like Martin Webster, Paxman sought unorthodox treatment for his combat stress. He found a unique process that uses hypnosis, therapeutic neuro linguistic programming (which is based on solving conditions people feel they have, rather than those they are diagnosed with), and timeline therapy (a form of cognitive behavior therapy that seeks to help people let go of past experiences). According to Paxman, his PTSD symptoms disappeared after one day of treatment.

Webster completed the Talking 2 Minds program last month and says he no longer has PTSD. In his opinion, the treatment could "revolutionize mental health systems around the world."

The search for alternative treatments for PTSD is partly rooted in the fact that governments are falling short in helping veterans deal with their war trauma.

According to Paxman, the British government is providing adequate care to active-duty soldiers or veterans returning from war. "It's a systematic problem," he said.

Webster concurs.

"It's just neglect, pure neglect," Webster said. "It's pure criminal negligence the way [the government] treats soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. We're almost treated like second class citizens."

Across the Atlantic, Marvin Heskett is dealing with similar problems with the VA.

Heskett, a U.S. Army veteran, told AlterNet the VA is "poorly funded" and "lacks human resources to treat all the veterans from all the wars." Heskett was wounded Aug. 1 near Baghdad by an improvised explosive device (IED) that destroyed his vehicle and killed a fellow soldier.

In addition to about six to 12 flashbacks a week, Heskett said he sleeps alone at times with all the lights on and a loaded gun in his hand. While he is seeking mental health care with the VA, he says that art and music have provided an outlet that allows his mind "to be free from the horrors of war."

Heskett received an art kit from the Wounded Artist Project, a nonprofit organization that creates and provides art kits for veterans. The art kits have been sent to military hospitals around the country and Heskett said it has been "very useful."

Back in England, Webster said he has learned to forgive himself and now feels in control of his own life.

"A year ago, I would get angry and irate. Now, I feel totally at peace with myself," he said, adding that he has "totally left Iraq behind" but will always have memories from his six months there.

"For the rest of my life, I'll never forget it," he said.

Webster claims the documentary saved his life. But he still has trouble watching the beating video itself, which he describes as "very, very disturbing."

"I prefer to watch it with the volume down because the voice is so disturbing. It's not a nice feeling. It's very hard to put myself back in that position," he explained. "The way I'm acting on that camera is not me."

Looking back, the former soldier said his unit was sent into Iraq without a mission. "We were sent up a creek without a paddle and we did the best we could," he said.

Webster said he hopes the documentary wakes people up. "I think at the end of the film, it says, 'Question your media. Question your values. Question your government. Question things. Don't just accept things. Don't accept the way things are,'" he said.

Diary of a Disgraced Soldier made its world premier Nov. 14 at the Cornish Film Festival where it sold out for two screenings. The filmmakers are looking for distributors to get the documentary shown in the United States.

Here's a clip from Diary of a Disgrace Soldier:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/v/ZOEbr8d9p3g&hl=en_US&fs=1& expand=1]

Click here to watch another clip.


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