On a dreary day in late fall, Jason Moon slowly brings his car to a stop. He is a third of the way across a bridge. Moon’s head is framed from the passenger seat, his face turned over his left shoulder, as if he were checking to switch lanes. He gestures to a bunch of trees: “That would be the perfect place for an ambush.” The camera pans to the spot, a physical manifestation of the trauma that has pursued this Iraq War veteran across the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and all the way back home to the United States. As Moon crosses this bridge, his memories surge forth, just one of many routine situations in civilian life that invoke the sensations he encountered overseas as a convoy driver: panic, fear and confusion at what may lie around the bend. But the bridge also stands for something more than a jolting reminder of the war in Iraq. As Moon’s vehicle sits motionless on it, the bridge symbolizes veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): They are caught between two worlds, soldier and civilian, carrying and trying to cope with the psychological and emotional costs of war. Olivier Morel’s new documentary On the Bridge explores this no-man’s‑land haunting U.S. military veterans by giving audiences an intimate look into an American experience woefully undocumented by media, pundits and politicians.
At the film’s final screening at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival on October 16, Morel, a French-born filmmaker on the faculty of Notre Dame University, spoke alongside a handful of veterans who participated in the project. (For information about future screenings, visit the film’s website.) In the Q & A proceeding the film, an audience member asked Morel what his inspiration was for making On the Bridge. He replied that, as a reporter in France, he had traveled extensively to interview the remaining veterans of World War I, many of whom—to his surprise—still suffered debilitating trauma acquired on the battlefields of the Somme or Verdun. Relating this trauma to modern experience, Morel stated: “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: I was stupefied when I learned about the epidemic of suicides among soldiers and veterans” The epidemic he refers to are the more than 8,000 American veterans who annually commit suicide. The figures come out to 23 suicides a day. According to the filmmaker, however, On the Bridge is less about these challenges as they pertain to individual soldiers and more about the thread that connects their experience to humanity writ large. In the film, soldiers probe their experience without captioning—their names, titles, and ranks absent from the screen. This subtle omission places their testimony in a purely human context, delving into how human character interacts with (and is ultimately incompatible with) the trials of warfare. Wendy Barranco, who worked as a medical assistant in Iraq, notes that she was emotionally shattered from day one of her tour, when an 18 year-old—the first patient she ever received—died from his wounds. A doctor by the name of David Brooks speaks of the callous, though necessary, procedures in combat emergency rooms. If a large influx of casualties arrives at once, medical staff must sort through the victims and treat those most likely to survive first. He tells of one such scenario: After having taken care of all the soldiers with treatable wounds—a task that took nearly 48 hours—he was finally able to work on the worst, most hopeless case. “I had to pack his brains back in,” he says, fighting back tears. The soldier was able to survive long enough to make it back to a military hospital in the U.S. and see his family one last time. He received the purple heart, Brooks explains, as he sustained his life-ending injury by leaping onto a grenade to protect his comrades. Soldiers are expected to accept the commonality of these experiences as token elements of their life—as if the emotional stamina of a balanced psyche adequately covers these traumas. Ryan Endicott, a young man who enlisted after 9⁄11, reflects on his average Tuesday serving in Iraq—a run-of-the-mill day replete with the faces of Iraqi children recoiled in terror as U.S. soldiers stormed their home in the dead of night, as well as the laughter of fellow soldiers hovering over a wiggling body bag containing an insurgent hitherto believed dead. According to Endicott, when these experiences pile up and people seek help, they are sent to one of two places. They either meet with a chaplain, who assures distraught soldiers that Jesus differentiates between merely “killing” and the sin of “murder,” or they meet with the “wizard,” who, without word, dispenses a wide-range of psycho-meds to keep those suffering from trauma operational in the field. As the military turns to 21st-century methods of dealing with psychological disorders, soldiers are increasingly buried under myriad prescriptions for PTSD. Moon, displaying his military medical record, thumbs through dozens of pages that list every medication that military medical personnel tried on him. Moon then encloses his hands—index finger to index finger, thumb to thumb—around his current regimen placed on the breakfast counter. He begins his day with an amphetamine, ends it with valium, and intakes a slew of other pills throughout the day. “This is my red badge of courage,” Moon remarks with a faint chuckle. Sharing these stories on film could not have been easy. But it is probably necessary if American sociey is to fully acknowledge the extent of PTSD among veterans, and do something about it. At the screening, I sat in front of a group who, after the film, I learned where members of the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). The group agitates for peace and social awareness of the physical and psychological effects of war. When one IVAW member entered the theater and spotted the group in the fourth row, he ran over. “Look at all these fucking people,” he exclaimed to his friends, evidently impressed by the audience turn out. One of them replied, “I know, man, we’re going to start a revolution.”
Patrick Glennon is a writer and musician living in Chicago. He received his B.A. in History from Skidmore College and currently works as Communications Manager for the Michael Forti for Cook County Court campaign and as the web intern at In These Times.