America's soldiers are coming home only to find themselves in an ongoing battle with something that may threaten their lives years after they've left combat: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
Their experiences battling this disorder is what celebrated journalist Soledad O'Brien shares in her new documentary, The War Comes Home, airing tonight on CNN at 9 p.m. EST. The film focuses on a two men, Delon Beckett and Garrett Combs, who've returned home with the effects of war still holding a crushing grip on their lives. Delon and Garrett both suffer from PTSD, which has affected the way they interact with their families, their friends, and has diminished their will to live. In a last ditch effort to pull them out from their suffering, the two men join an experimental five-and-a-half day program called Save A Warrior, run by veteran Jake Clark in Malibu, Calif. The program incorporates counseling, group activities, classwork on the workings of the brain, exercises with horses, and transcendental meditation to help soldiers understand what happened to them overseas and better cope with it back home. Often time, soldiers are not only fighting for their quality of life, but are fighting to continue living. Suicide is a major problem for returning soldiers (there are 22 solider suicides every day), and many of them, having returned to loving families, feel ashamed to talk about their feelings. Instead, they turn to alcohol and other drugs to mask the depression they feel.
O'Brien's film is a reminder that there is much more for society to do for returning soldiers, and that listening to their stories after giving them a slap on the back or a handshake can work wonders. Many times they need more than that.
What sparked your research into PTSD?
Soledad: First I met Jake Clark over breakfast and he invited me to come out and see his program. I did, and had an opportunity to sit down with some of the guys who were going through it. Pretty quickly, you could tell that they were very affected by it by day two of the five-and-a-half days, and when I sat down with them at lunch—even before we introduced ourselves—I asked, “So, how’s it going?” and they started to cry. It was like wow, what’s happening? At the end of our conversation, one guy said, "I’ve told you more than I’ve told my psychologist." I think it has a lot to do with what was happening in the environment, where people just felt very open to figure out how to get off this path that could lead to suicide, or if not suicide, massive depression. That made me very interested and we were able to, within a year, go back and shoot Cohort No. 10, and I think the most important thing was really getting great access to Delon and Garrett, the main two guys that we follow. They were incredibly generous. They opened up their lives, and I don’t think the story would have been any where near as good if they hadn’t.
Did it take a lot of convincing on their end to get that access?
I asked them both the other day at a screening we did, “Why would you agree to this?” Delon said listen, "I was pretty drunk all the time, I just didn’t care. Honestly, I didn’t care, I was completely done. It did not matter.” And Garrett said, “Most people when they watch the media about veterans, veterans feel like they get it wrong and they change the channel. And I thought that if I’m going to participate, I’m going to be very honest, because I want to be honest for the people I served with, I owe it to them to be that person speaking the truth, and not just the sensationalized media crap.” And so I think they both had different motives for why they wanted to do it, but they both just wanted to be incredibly open. So it wasn’t a matter of prying it out of them. When it came to the program itself, Jake was very clear that we could have access. He told everybody who was coming to the program that we were going to be shooting.
Out of the men in the cohort, why did you choose to follow Delon and Garrett?
That’s kind of the classic strategy of how you figure out how to do a piece. There’s a limited number of people—I think 13 people came in to that cohort. So, you just figure out one who’s willing to talk, who’s a good talker, who has an interesting back story. And is it different from the other person’s back story? You know, you find the story, then you find who’s going to be the great character. And a lot of a great character is that if they will speak honestly, are they good talkers? Both of them were great talkers and both of them were willing to be very open.
The Save the Warrior program uses some non-traditional methods in its regimen, and a few instances through the documentary, Garrett and Delon call out certain activities as "bullshit."
What I loved about Garrett after spending so much time with him is that he's literally the most skeptical person I have ever met in my life. He just goes into everything assuming it’s bullshit. He really does. During the equine exercises, he said, "I think that that horse has been programmed, this is a trick. It’s a trick horse, like in the circus, and this whole thing is a trick." And, I was like really? Because that’s quite an involved trick. [Laughs]
I think that he goes into everything sort of suspicious, and skeptical. And yet he’s the guy who’s trying everything, for all of his voicing of being skeptical, he’s never that person who walks away and says, "Well screw it I’m not trying it. I don’t believe in it.” He always tries. Everybody, not just the two of them, who was there had agreed that “I will try stuff because I’m at the end of my rope. This is it.” And that's where breakthroughs come. I think that Delon really loved transcendental meditation, it did a lot for him. He describes it as the thing that transformed him.
It’s like being in a burning building, and it’s so uncomfortable that you have to jump, but you don’t want to jump, but you just can’t take the flames anymore.
The whole idea of a brotherhood where you’re connected to other people going through the same thing and you’re having breakthroughs together, was important. But when I asked Garrett what was the thing that was most important to him, he said it was the classes on how the brain works. To sit there and see the whole description of your brain and what’s happened to your brain under post-traumatic stress, that this is what’s going on, was so interesting. He said this is stuff he could have looked up online, but to have someone sit there and tell you, “You’re not crazy. This is what’s happening to your brain and here are some tools to manage it. But you’re not crazy,” I think that for him that was what transformed him. And for Garrett, Mr. Skeptical, that makes sense. To be in a classroom with someone lecturing him around something like the function of the brain, he really needs to see it laid out. And he’s not necessarily going to transform via a feeling he has, he’s not going to believe a feeling. But for as much as he felt the exercises with the horse was bullshit, which he clearly felt in the beginning, at the end he pats the horse and says thank you, because he walked away from the moment admitting for the first time he was going to kill himself. He never told anybody that outloud.
What did you learn from conducting your research and talking to these men?
I think it was really helpful for me as a civilian. My dad served in the Australian military but he was never in the American military—my dad’s Australian my mom’s Cuban—so I’ve never really had a family member in the American military. I want people to see the impact post-traumatic stress has on the family, as devastating as it is to the individual who’s going through a traumatic time, the impact on the family is just horrific. Delon’s wife just describes this so well. She was really able to articulate what’s it like to have to bolster your husband while having little kids, it’s hard and scary. She’s the primary bread winner. It’s terrifying.
Delon and Garrett were so great about describing what it’s like to have post-traumatic stress as a movie that runs in your head non-stop, but also describing what it’s like to be suicidal. Delon said it’s like being in a burning building, and it’s so uncomfortable that you have to jump, but you don’t want to jump, but you just can’t take the flames anymore. And he compared living to those flames, and how he just wanted to get out of the pain of being alive.
"I want to jump—I don’t really want to jump—but it’s got to be better than what I’m doing," that was his description of what it feels like to be suicidal and I thought it was pretty amazing. I've never heard anyone describe it like that before, and for somebody who’s never been suicidal, I was like, Oh my god that makes sense to me. And I think both of them were trying so hard to really articulate for an audience that this is what it feels like. Could you imagine doing that while you’re going through it? They were so generous with their time. He could have just said that this feels really bad and I’m really sad. But he didn’t say that. He really tried to articulate a way in which other people would understand what it feels like to be at the end of your rope. And so I think that those little details are what makes the movie great. Because you really get into the psyche of two guys who have loving families and have a lot going for them. And they’re done. They’re really miserable. And is that fixable?
People always ask people in combat, “So did you kill people?” Always.
Do you feel like most of the soldiers who come back want to tell their stories, but nobody’s listening?
It’s a combination of two things, I think when you tell a story to somebody, they’re a civilian, and they don’t know what to do with that story. They have no context. People always ask people in combat, “So did you kill people?” Always. Nobody really knows outside of them what it’s like, so it’s just easier not to talk about it. It’s just a really challenging conversation to have with civilians, honestly. They just have no concept, they don’t understand the context. They don’t understand what happens in war, and no one really takes the time to say let me walk you through what happened, that it was awful. I’ve even had guys tell me that they don’t want to talk to their therapists, who are civilians, in their case. They feel that they could explain what’s it like, but they’re never going to get it. I think that’s one thing, and why this program was really successful for these guys is because it created this brotherhood with people who have been there and done it. When you talk about being afraid, it’s like “Yup! Been there.” When Bobby Farmer, who’s this highly decorated veteran, talks about putting a Glock in his mouth, these guys are all like, “Well crap, if Bobby Farmer has been there and it’s okay to talk about, well then, I can talk about what I want to talk about.” That’s a pretty amazing thing, so I think it’s those nuances, the guys who’ve been there who can talk about making it through, that’s a pretty powerful thing.
When Bobby Farmer told the story of putting a pistol in his mouth and thinking of suicide, he mentioned that he was on the phone with Veterans Affairs for more than forty minutes before he hung up. Is the future programs like Jake Clark’s?
That’s impossible to say, I don’t think the V.A. is never going to be a lost cause. There are a lot of people who still need to figure it out, there are too many people who rely on the V.A. for it to be irrelevant. But the thing that’s particularly interesting to me about Save A Warrior is that it’s relatively inexpensive, about $1,500 a person, and it’s relatively short, a five-and-a-half day commitment, and it’s pretty scalable. There’s no sort of magic thing in Malibu [where Save A Warrior is]. Therapy is already done in a lot of places, transcendental meditation is already done in a lot of places, and ultimately bringing in providers who can talk about what’s happening in the brain is done in a lot of places, but there’s no sort of magic of Malibu that’s critical. So I think the key thing is ithat f it’s scalable and if it’s something that can be worked into what the V.A. is doing, versus spending time villainizing the V.A., which I think is a little bit of a waste of time.
Were there any women signing up for Save A Warrior?
In the cohort we did there were none, but they have since done a female cohort, Cohort No. 12, I believe. They’re grassroots and they’re a small organization, so they put a relatively small number of people through this whole course, 120 or so, not a thousand, but I do know they just started doing their female cohorts.
Are there plans for expansion?
A lot of that is going to depend on if they are able to raise money, and a lot of it depends on the kindness of donors. It’s all a fundraising thing, they can’t put a cohort in place if they don’t have the money to do it. It’s very on a shoestring type budget.
This is more a comment than a question, but what I found interesting was the cinematography. There’s one point after we meet Delon that he outright says that he’s thought about bashing in the brains of his children, and the next scene is of him standing outside with his family—and he’s wearing Batman pajamas. That’s quite a powerful contrast.
You know what I thought was so interesting about that? It’s the disconnect. No one said ,“Put on Batman pajamas.” That’s what he walks around in, and when we asked them to get together for a picture, that’s what he picked to wear. Nobody said here’s the outfit I want you to wear. We took people’s picture in what they wanted to wear in their picture. Even more than the Batman outfit was the way everyone in the family was just laughing and shuffling and he’s just sitting there staring out with a frown on his face. He’s somewhere else! The Batman outfit is weird enough, but the disconnect of his look, where it almost doesn’t look like he’s in the same picture as they are, was even weirder. I’m telling you, this is a guy who literally was telling his wife everyday, that’s it, I’m done, I’m going to kill myself. He’s just completely disconnected. You can really see it and feel it.
This story is about two guys who, for five-and-a-half days, try to figure out a way to change their lives. That’s it. That’s what the story is.
Because Delon was so animate about this being his last chance, was there a Plan B if Save A Warrior didn’t work?
I asked Jake that. How is your answer when someone says they want to kill themselves not: hold on I’m going to call the paramedics, and we’re going to put you in a 72-hour hold and send you off to the mental hospital. Right? That could be an option. Jakes said that would be the worst thing to do because it doesn’t work, that is not going to save his life. Someone like Delon has to decide that he wants to live. He can sit there in a 72- hold and get out and kill himself if he wanted to. So the bigger thing is how we create a scenario where you actually want to live.
Were the effects of Save A Warrior lasting with Delon, is he still meditating?
I saw him last night at a screening; he’s been sober for five months now, we shot that in March. He meditates two to three times a day. We talked a lot about that and he was very openly about that. He said if he didn’t do Save A Warrior he’d probably be dead, or he certainly wouldn’t have made it to now. So that was pretty chilling. For Garrett, he said that he transformed in the ability to think differently about his life and opportunities. I mean his big challenge, which you see in the doc, is that he has a lot of good stuff, but he was having a hard time appreciating it and getting it together.
Will they keep using what they learned?
I think that’s a great question. And it’s a part of the reason we ended the doc with Garrett saying, "Time will tell.” Because, I don’t know. And I think, very intentionally, a lot of these guys’ survival is going to be on them. They have to help each other, they have to be the brotherhood to each other, they can’t expect other people to understand everything. I think it’s Jake that says, “Society doesn’t really owe us anything, we have to figure it out, we have to be that support to each other because we’re the ones that know what it’s like.”
What is your ultimate goal and hope for The War Comes Home?
Every time I do a documentary it’s to start a conversation, it’s never to say that this is the end-all be-all definitive word on something. It’s more, “Here is a story.” And this story is about two guys who, for five-and-a-half days, try to figure out a way to change their lives. That’s it. That’s what the story is. So, I think our strategy is to put a conversation out there and see if people are interested in tackling what I think is a massive problem.
Do Delon and Garrett still talk with each other, is the group still friends?
Yeah! We’ve done three screenings in about a week, and Delon’s wife spoke for the first time last night. She’s an amazing woman. She was basically single-handedly raising those kids and putting herself through school full-time. It’s crazy. Imagine doing that? Everyday you’re not sure what bad news you’re going to get. She told me last night that Delon and the baby are really close, and they all talk to each other all the time. A bunch of the guys from Cohort No. 10 came to the screening last night. We had a guy, Capt. Charlie Swamp, who was a Vietnam era POW in the Hanoi Hilton for more than six years. He was very interested in having a conversation with the guys. He said he never had post-traumatic stress. He talked to Jake after the screening and said that when he was held in the Hanoi Hilton, the POWs were a tight-knit group and supported each other. That was the key. He said that after coming back after six years as a POW, the military told his wife that he was going to have raging post-traumatic stress, and he likes to joke because he’s in his seventies, “Well I’m waiting for it any day now!” I do think his situation gives a little insight into why someone gets PTSD and why others do not. That isolation is almost the worst thing you could do. If you can figure out that brotherhood, you can figure out how to give it to other people. There’s tons of research that says community is important for everybody.
What’s next for your production company, Starfish Media Group?
We have many projects in the works for CNN and Al Jazeera. There’s tons of work to be done around veterans, certainly, and so many people are quick to slap them on the back and say thank you for your service, but there is so little we know about what they went through. Part of our mantra at Starfish Media Group is telling untold stories. A guy who’s drinking every night and can’t figure out how to move forward. Finding those stories that are falling through the cracks.
Jason Duaine Hahn is a News Editor at Complex. He tweets here.
You can donate to Jake Clark's program, Save A Warrior, here.