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Piecing Life Together

September 25, 2007 Topics: Society Tags: Six-Day WarSoviet UnionThe Israel LobbyTory

Piecing Life Together

Mini Teaser: HBO’s new documentary provides an evenhanded and riveting picture of wounded veterans’ struggles.

by Author(s): Nassim Sultan

Alive Day Memories: Home fromIraq, 60 min., HBO, 2007.

The documentary's quasi-cryptic title finds its source in what is known as a soldier's "alive day", the day that he or she narrowly escaped death. The product isn't simply an impression of life after Iraq for ten soldiers. Rather, it delves into the psyches of these physically and emotionally scarred soldiers, and what it finds is at times horrifying. The production as a whole is spartan: It makes use only of a black background, black furniture, bright white lights and little additional media interlaced with the actual interviews. It is, in most ways, the antithesis of a Ken Burns or Michael Moore documentary. There isn't any preaching; it's just simple statements from these men and women with a few small facts about the war interlaced with the dialogue. Narrator James Gandolfini wisely chooses to listen and ask very few questions. In that way, Alive Day Memories deftly sidesteps the explosive political issues associated with the war and provides valuable insight into the healing process.

As the Iraq War drags on, the percentage of veterans returning home as amputees is at a historical high. They cheated death only to face a life of physical or mental impairment.

One feels compelled to ask, "How bleak is life after brain damage or amputation?" Pvt. Dexter Pitts's answer, "I don't want to live like this anymore", reels the viewer with its disconcerting frankness. He is clearly not considering suicide, but it is also obvious from his demeanor that his disabilities have made life burdensome and joyless. When Sgt. Bryan Anderson, who lost both his legs and his left arm, is asked about his alive day, he tells Gandolfini that if he had lost his other arm, then, "at that point, it wouldn't be worth it to be around." Anderson is optimistic in the crudest sense: at least he's still independent. There seems to be a precarious mental tipping point between preserving life and choosing death.

Another soldier, Sgt. Eddie Ryan, who has essentially lost two-thirds of his brain, provides additional insight into the mentality surrounding these questions. Two strikingly different images are provided of Sgt. Ryan. Ryan is shown dancing in a video clip, but the Iraq veteran sitting across from Gandolfini exhibits little of the exuberance he once had. Sure, he remembers the Marines' Hymn and wants to become a drill instructor, but it's hard to call him the same wholly able man.

And then there is a soldier-SSgt. Jay Wilkerson-who is clearly unnerved by all the different forms of therapy he must endure every week. His speech and mannerisms indicate that the trauma and its aftermath are exacting a harsh mental toll. There's a cry for help in his tone.

The documentary also sheds a bright light not only on the veterans' current predicament, but also on the path each faces for the future. Each of these soldiers is under an incredible amount of stress, and whether or not they can survive the pressure remains an open question. Cpl. Michael Jernigan is clearly in pain. He lost his sight, and then his wife left him. He had the diamonds ground out of his wedding band and put into one of his prosthetic eyes. Pvt. Pitts can't sleep without medication and has become a pariah within the military community because he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, an illness that is frowned upon and mocked by soldiers. But he also doesn't feel welcome in the civilian world, and so he's left with a general feeling of isolation. Each of these soldiers gives a viewer a peek into what goes through the mind of a person with a disability.

Although the road ahead looks bleak, many of these soldiers push on, thanks to an outlook that is equal parts optimism, resignation and stubbornness.

Pvt. Jonathan Bartlett says:

I was a soldier, I got hurt, it's what happens. I used to be very angry about it because I didn't know what I was going to do with my life. . . .And then I saw people like myself who live and prosper, and everything's groovy. And I began to believe everything [would] get groovy, and it got groovy.'

SSgt. Crystal Davis adds:

I never really felt sorry for myself because of this, and I told everybody ‘Don't . . . if you're gonna cry, do it in another room, cause I'm happy, keep me happy, and we'll all be happy.

Perhaps the documentary's most poignant moment is when Lt. Dawn Halfaker, shaken up by the thought of being a bad mother, slowly pulls herself together and says, "I hope I'll still be a good parent. You know, what can you do?" Even Sgt. Anderson speaks in a positive-though not cheery-voice, he's "getting sensation back in three of his fingers", and he says that that gives him hope. It is the cumulative perspective offered by these soldiers that is vital to a viewer's understanding of what keeps these soldiers going.

There's something more, though. In the photos shown of hospitals, almost all of the patients are smiling. Two men, both with missing legs, have huge grins on their faces as if nothing bad had happened to them. It is an astonishing testament to human resiliency. Even tepidly hopeful Sgt. Anderson has a shirt that proudly says "Stumpy" in large, bold, black letters. These veterans' willingness to keep going, even in the gloomiest circumstances, is what makes this documentary riveting. Perseverance and acceptance seem to be the keys to moving forward, and the disabled veterans seem to have that quality in spades. "I'm just happy to be alive", several soldiers say in the documentary.

For all its bleakness, the documentary holds a startlingly optimistic message at its heart: Even when the body has been damaged beyond repair, we-slowly but assuredly-can heal.

Nassim Sultan is the Assistant Editor at The National Interest.

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