Veterans can spend an entire lifetime dealing with the trauma of war.
While those with severe physical injuries can get help rehabilitating into society, those with emotional trauma often suffer in their own darkness.
Two films, one a documentary, the other a drama based on a real story, showcase the pain and loneliness of veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTS). But the films also illuminate how this darkness can be lifted.
Not Yet Begun to Fight
Steve Platcow's documentary Not Yet Begun to Fight follows Elliott Miller as he slowly heals from the physical wounds he received in Afghanistan.
“Yes, I do have some goals that I’m working towards," Miller says in the documentary, "and one is that I am working on improving my verbal communication abilities and two, I’m presently working towards getting able to legally drive again and three, well, that one I’m just going to save for myself.”
Emotional healing will take longer.
A program called “Warrior and Quiet Waters” brought Elliott and other veterans suffering from PTS to Bozeman, Montana, for some therapeutic recreation.
Marine Colonel Eric Hastings created the program after returning from the battlefield and finding solace in fly fishing.
“It became an absolute desperate physical and mental need," Hastings said. "And I had to do it or I was going to kill somebody.”
Platcow, who says every fish caught and released symbolizes a chance for redemption, is personally invested in the documentary. His grandfather, a World War I veteran and later missionary in what was then the Belgian Congo, suffered from PTS.
“He hunted incessantly, so he was never able to live a life without violence," Platcow said. "The best he was able to do managing himself was to channel the violence in a way he felt it was productive and that he was providing food for himself as well as the villagers that they were serving.”
But for many veterans with PTS there is another kind of violence.
“Violence inward results in suicide," said Platcow. "And there’s been a lot of that coverage of mortality rates of returning troops and just how high these suicide rates are."
Back in Bozeman, the veterans feel inadequate and are reluctant to rejoin society. They are angry and ashamed.
"It’s shameful to think that these people think that you screwed up and killed four good dudes," said Marine Capt. Blake Smith, a helicopter pilot. "Even if you didn’t, it’s shameful.”
Hastings says the men, like many others, will spend a lifetime trying to exorcise their inner demons.
While physicians and society are more aware today of the very real emotional pain of veterans who suffer from PTS, that was not the case in the past. The second film focuses on a World War II veteran who spent years trying to come to terms with his experiences.
The Railway Man
Based on a true story, The Railway Man ? starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman ? follows the journey of Eric Lomax, a British army officer tormented by his past.
After the surrender of Singapore in 1942, he was captured by the Japanese and held and tortured at a labor camp in Thailand. His wife, Patti, who he married in 1983, says it took many years to understand how that torment affected him.
“He could be extremely nice and something can trigger a total change of attitude which is totally confusing," she said. "You are walking on eggshells all the time, frightened that if you say the wrong thing or raise your voice. You can’t be angry with these people, it just reminds them too much of terrible things."
It was not until the late 1980s that Lomax was diagnosed with PTS and finally agreed to counseling.
Lomax had spent a large part of his life fantasizing about killing his nemesis, a Japanese translator who had tortured him. When they learned that Takashi Nagase had written an autobiography, Patti Lomax wrote to him on her husband’s behalf. He wrote back with an apology, explaining that he done a great deal of charity work in atonement.
In 1993, Eric and Patti Lomax went to Thailand to meet Nagase. Patti Lomax says Eric made the trip with the intent to kill his old tormenter. Instead, the two reconciled, and even ? after many years ? became friends.
“He just found that the anger drained away," his wife said, "and he said ‘Sometimes, Patti, the hating has to stop.’”
Eric Lomax died in 2012, and that realization is engraved on his tombstone.