Three days before the 82nd annual Academy Awards, Paul Rieckhoff discussed how American soldiers were portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film “The Hurt Locker,” As the founder and Executive Director of the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Rieckhoff has become the voice for those who fought overseas and are now readjusting to a new life stateside.
The Luncheon Society sat down with Paul when he was in San Francisco for his third meeting with us in three years, the prior being in Los Angeles and Manhattan. The latter gathering shared with former Slate.com military affairs writer, Phil Carter, who later served during the early months of the Obama White House as the Assistant Secretary Defense for Detainee Affairs.
As “The Hurt Locker” tallied up 6 Academy Award after being nominated for 9, you could sense Paul’s frustration grow throughout the evening from comments posted on Facebook; in the final analysis, he believed, the filmmakers did not get Iraq right.
Rieckhoff rarely moonlights as a movie critic. However, he leads of the first and largest non-profit organization to support those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the recent legislation to overhaul the GI Bill of Rights, Paul and the IAVA performed a pivotal service. They were the human face to the long-needed policy upgrade. Today, the IAVA has over 125,000 members and the organization is critical to those vets coming home.
After Rieckhoff returned home in 2004 from his tour in Iraq, where he led hundred of combat patrols throughout Baghdad, he penned a critically acclaimed memoir Chasing Ghosts. When he could not find an organization that he felt met the need to today’s returning troops, he founded the IAVA.
Why would Rieckhoff be frustrated by the movie portrayal of those fighting on the streets of Iraq? We live in a disengaged nation where the war effort is carried by the broad shoulders of the ½ of 1% who are doing the fighting and dying overseas. The rest of us show our support through ribbons placed on our SUVs, which hardly constitutes a home front. With media coverage on the wane in Iraq and muted in Afghanistan, movie portrayals of those “in country” may be the only connection that bridges that narrow minority with the rest of us.
In a piece in Newsweek, Rieckhoff wrote, “At first glance, The Hurt Locker looks all right. The setting seems accurate, the acting is solid, and it is one of the few war movies to rightly do away with the tacky combat music. Yet a closer look reveals that Hollywood’s latest attempt to define the Iraq War and the American troops who have fought in it is just as disappointing as all the others produced so far, but with better window dressing and an Oscar nomination.”
“In the military, precision is critical. Take, for instance, the role of Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) units, a heroic and prestigious group, and the focus of the film. EOD is a specialized job in the military that does one thing exceptionally well: disposing of bombs. Members do not generally patrol looking for bad guys, kick in doors, or execute sniper missions. Yet there is a whole scene in The Hurt Locker when the two EOD characters clear a building to find a bomb inside a kid. Securing the area for the EOD specialists to come in is usually the role of infantry or military-police units. As Tom Tarantino, a former cavalry officer who led patrols in Baghdad told me, “EOD arriving on an unsecured scene alone to find ground forces huddled and hiding together in a courtyard stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. The portrayal of the ground forces was outright insulting.”
“The great Iraqi movie is still out there waiting to be made,” Rieckhoff told us around the table. However, great Vietnam War movies like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Coming Home were created after the fall of Saigon, nearly a half decade after the last troops returned from South Vietnam and the final POWs were evacuated from the Hanoi Hilton and other less savory places. Oliver Stone’s Platoon, released in the mid 1980’s, came nearly two decades after the first Marines came ashore at Da Nang.
Most of the films on Iraq have been deficient in a number of ways, with a few exceptions. Multiplex fare like Stop Loss or Grace is Gone missed the target. Others like In the Valley of Elah or The Green Zone were unable to find an audience when the real thing could be found on CNN for free.
The simple grace of “Taking Chance.” Rieckhoff felt the one film that could tell the story was produced by HBO Films titled, Taking Chance. This film centered on the final return of Chance Phelps, a young man who was killed on Good Friday 2004 outside of Ar Ramadi by small arms fire. Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl, a Gulf War I veteran portrayed by Kevin Bacon, volunteered to escort the body home and later wrote about his experiences, both for the San Francisco Chronicle and later the Marine Corps Gazette. Throughout the final journey of Chance Phelps, Strobl is moved by the simple decency of those he encounters along the way. He also comes to terms with the guilt of choosing not to deploy back to Iraq for the current effort.
Doonesbury gets it right, too. One person who has received high marks from the military community has been Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, who through the reactivation of BD, has used the strip to accurately note what is found in on both onthe battle theater and the home front. The introduction of a new character, “Leo “Toggle” DeLuca, a soldier who lost an eye and is working through an acute brain injury, has offered insight to what returning veterans face.
Mission Critical. More Iraq veterans have died from their own hand than battlefield wounds. What distinguishes the IAVA from other groups has been its message that it’s okay, even a measure of strength, to get counseling upon reentering civilian society. Within the “Warrior Culture,” reaching out for mental health historically signaled a perceived weakness, even though the numbers of suicides are at shocking levels.
What was considered Shellshock during the First World War, Battle Fatigue during the second is now better understood as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Today 20% of those who served in Afghanistan or Iraq will find that PTSD will follow them home. PTSD surfaces when environmental flashbacks trigger soldiers into “fight or flight” moments, even when they are safe at home, thousands of miles and months away from the actual fighting. As a result, vets with PTSD often have trouble concentrating, become easily distracted, and falter into self destructive behavior. They have higher rates of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide. These undiagnosed maladies became the recipes for lost lives and early deaths, long after the last solder has left the battlefield.
The Marlboro Man. One of the stories that brought PTSD into full focus was the case of Marine Lance Corporal James Blake Miller. In late 2004 during the Marine offensive of Fallujah, Los Angeles Times photographer snapped a photo of Miller on a smoke break, which became one of the iconic photos of the war. The contrast of the white cigarette against the backdrop of an exhausted and muddied Miller found itself on hundreds of front pages in the next morning’s newspapers.
Sadly, Miller’s story goes downhill from there. After returning from Miller sank into a deep depression and contemplated suicide on several occasions. Prompted to help Miller after conducting a follow up story, Sinco arranged for him to get help but after a short period of time Miller left the program. Within a year he divorced his wife and now lived in a trailer behind his father’s home in rural Kentucky.
In reality, there are thousands of Lance Corporal Miller’s out there. To break down the wall of resistance, the IAVA and the AD Council have launched a series of public service annoucements that getting help is not a sign of weakness. In fact getting help from your peers, especially from those who understand your story, is really a sign of true warrior strength.
The IAVA advocates for early intervention but the challenge continues to be the antiquated process at the Veterans Administration. While the process has improved with the new administration, it still takes 160 days for a claim to be processed and untold additional months to get the help needed. Meanwhile those with PTSD continue to flounder.
Movies come and go. Many feel that it took “Saving Private Ryan,” Stephen Spielberg, Tom Hank, and 5 decades of distance from the actual landings at Normandy Beach to adequate tell the story of the D-Day landings and their aftermath. However as a nation, we can ill-afford to ignore those who have fought in far away places. They need help now. That is what the IAVA does best.