20 March 2007

First Blood and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

I was born in 1973, during the last days of the Vietnam War. My father was in the Army, but he was in the medical corps and stationed in Washington, D.C. (in the currently infamous Walter Reed Military Hospital) where I was born, so he never experienced any combat or the horrific aspects of that war. My experience with Vietnam has therefore been that of a descendant of the generation of those who fought it, and whose vision of it comes from documentaries, movies, memoirs…and the few veterans I know who want to speak about their experiences. And very few wish to speak of it. It reminds me immediately of the closing lines of one of my favoirte films, The Outlaw Josey Wales: "I reckon' a little bit of all of us died in that damn war."

I've only heard brutal, searing honesty about combat experience from one person, a co-worker named Karl. Karl served in 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, also known as "The Walking Dead." The war utterly changed Karl's life. In his own words, "I left a good Catholic schoolboy. I returned a drug-addicted burn-out. Every day I was there I thought would be my last." Karl's honesty about his time in 'Nam and the dark days that followed it were an eye-opener for me. I had never heard combat described so vividly before by someone I knew personally. My uncle Cico served in Korea, but has never said much about it. My uncle-in-law Bart was in Vietnam, but worked a technical job loading bombs into the fighters (although he did have a harrowing story to tell about watching a friend of his drive off in a jeep and then explode seconds later when a rocket obliterated it). Niether of my grandfathers served in World War II because of medical exemptions: my maternal grandfather was disqualified because of his poor eyesight, and my paternal grandfather was already on the road to being a full cripple because of rheumatoid arthritis (by the time I knew him, he was a sad hunched over figure in a wheelchair barely able to pick up a knife or a fork; and to imagine that he was once a handsome lady's man and a superb dancer). It is only from Karl that I've heard first-hand stories of the terrors of war and its impact on the common foot-soldier. And Karl fought in one of the most unpleasant wars of recent history, one that sent many youths home scarred for life. It terrifies me to think of how many more of our men and women overseas are suffering the same thing now. I hope they come home safe (and very soon) and come home able to enjoy civilian life.

But back to Karl, and the eventual point I'm reaching here. Karl suffers from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attends the hospital at the VA and takes medication. He tells me how much anger he still has boiling in him, how much it tries to break through. On a day-to-day basis, Karl is a wonderful man: funny, pleasantly gruff, and the sort of guy who is proud to be himself and who you're proud to know. But he knows the dark places of his own mind very well from his time in Vietnam. Karl is fortunate enough to have the best medicine of all for his problems: a daughter named Julia, who is going into the sixth grade. Julia came along late in his life, when Karl least expected to start a family, and as he told me, it was like: "Life, Part II." I've tutored Julia during the last summer, and she's a sunny, active, wonderful kid, and I can see how much she's done for Karl.

This week I talked to Karl about the ultimate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder movie. No, not The Deer Hunter. I've never liked that movie that much. I mean First Blood, the 1982 Ted Kotcheff film that turned John Rambo into a movie icon. The two sequels, Rambo: First Blood—Part II and Rambo III have altered our perception of the character into a sort of jingoistic cartoon. I'll admit an enormous affection for Rambo: First Blood—Part II: if you take it as a modern version of a World War II propaganda film, it's great fun. And Jerry Goldsmith's score is awesome—I miss that guy. The less said about Rambo III, the better. However, taking First Blood on its own, and looking at it in conjuction with David Morrell's 1971 novel (which is even more violent, and brings, in the author's own words, "Vietnam to America"), it's a superb cinematic work and one of Sylvester Stallone's finest momemts. It's vision of a man suffering from PTSD. He begins the film as a non-threatening, but low-functioning individual, "almost autistic" as Stallone says in the DVD commentary. He discovers that the last member of his unit has died: he survived 'Nam, but rotted away from Agent Orange. Rambo is suddenly a man with nothing left, symbolized when he tosses his address book into a fire pit.

And then somebody pushes him just a bit too far. And the illness in his brain from his service, his torture, the horrible things he did, kicks in and he becomes a pure machine of survival and rage. That's all he knows. And Karl tells me that when watching the film he knows that exact feeling. When you fight for your life everyday in a world seemingly gone insane, where suits have sent you out to die for whatever pencil-pushing reasons they have while they sit at comfy desks, you have to rely on almost pure animal instincts. First Blood captures this perfectly, and Stallone's final breakdown at the end in front of the man who created him, Trautman (a great performance from the late Richard Crenna) is one of the actor's best—even if it buys a bit too much into the "spit on the soliders" myth (see the great documentary Sir! No Sir! for more about this; veterans of Vietnam were amongst the strong protesters and critics of the war, and indeed were the first to start it). The movie gives me a better sense of what Karl went through, and what all the other men in Vietnam went through.

And what, tragically, our men and women in Iraq and Aghanistan are going through now. Please, come home safe... and come home sane.