Afghan War Documentary ‘Trauma’ Does Justice To The Difficult Job Of Combat Medic

Entertainment
Scene from "Trauma"
Screenshot YouTube/The Colony Media

I’m beginning to suspect that constantly writing about war isn’t good for my psychological health. Since starting at Task & Purpose two years ago, I don’t think I’ve had a single dream that didn’t feature at least one firefight or an incoming mortar round. I’ve heard other veterans say that they find writing about their war experiences therapeutic, and, honestly, I thought that was going to be the case. But it hasn’t been at all. My first job as a writer was at Maxim. I liked those dreams a lot better.


This isn’t a resignation letter. It’s a review of Trauma, a documentary about a U.S. Army Black Hawk medevac crew that debuted Jan. 18 on iTunes and Amazon. The film’s title is just as much a reference to the physical wounds of war as it is its psychological aftershocks. Director Harry Sanna spent several weeks embedded with the crew in Afghanistan in 2011, which stands as the second deadliest year for coalition forces since the start of the war. The film, a study in contrasts, jumps back and forth between footage of the crew in the thick of the action and small-town U.S.A., where several years later we find our subjects still struggling to adapt back to civilian life. It’s hard to tell which is worse: Afghanistan or the suburbs after you’ve spent a year constantly flying in and out of shitstorms pulling wounded soldiers off the battlefield. Our subjects seem a lot more miserable in the latter.

I interviewed the film’s producer, Ryan Cunningham, in April 2016, right after his team had launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to complete the production. He told me that “the reason for making this film is to offer civilian audiences an unfiltered glimpse at what it’s like to be a medic at war.” He certainly made good on that promise. Like the film’s subjects, I served as a medic in Afghanistan during the surge. And while I wasn’t on a medevac crew — I was attached to an infantry platoon — watching Trauma was like watching a highlight reel of all the memories from my own deployment that I had suppressed long ago. To give you a sense of just how unfiltered the film is, it made me remember what it feels like to hold human brains.

Perhaps more unsettling is how the film captures the crew members’ lives after combat. Interwoven throughout these scenes are themes we’ve seen in plenty of other movies and documentaries about the War on Terror: anger, islamophobia, nightmares, flashbacks, alcoholism, antidepressants, failed relationships, suicidal ideation. But what sets Trauma apart is how much time Sanna let pass before he caught up with his subjects. The juxtaposition will resonate with any combat veteran who looks back at old deployment photos and hardly recognizes himself. In Afghanistan, these men were dirty, sleep-deprived, and neck-deep in death and human suffering. But it hardly mattered because they were hooked on the cause. One describes it as “highly addictive.” He’s right. There’s no better job in the world — that is, while you’re doing it. Then there’s the come down.

Medics are confronted with the tragedy of war more than most. Mutilated bodies, wounded children, the smell of cauterized flesh, the feeling of a young soldier’s pulse as it fades into oblivion: Like the subjects of Trauma, when I reflect on my time in Afghanistan, those memories overshadow everything else. It’s hard to have all that stuff in your head and also feel how you expect to feel when you come home from war — like a hero, or at the very least, someone who deserves to be thanked for their service. I imagine that the subjects of Sanna’s documentary feel the same way, and I applaud them for allowing a filmmaker to scrutinize their lives so closely. This isn’t an uplifting film, but it’s not a total buzzkill either. A few of the characters do, ultimately, find solace. And if there’s one overarching lesson to be gleaned from their stories, it’s that you won’t find the light at the end of the tunnel as long as you remain fixated on the past. That, of course, is easier said than done, especially when you used to save lives for a living.

Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.

However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

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The Department of Veterans Affairs' Inspector General pushed back against Secretary Robert Wilkie last week, after Wilkie called an allegation of sexual assault in a D.C. facility "unsubstantiated."

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Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects. Not surprising then that Pentagon bureaucrats and Washington political operators are regarded with skepticism throughout the movie.

When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

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With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

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The Defense Department has remained relatively tight-lipped regarding the brazen Jan. 5 raid on a military base at Manda Bay, Kenya, but a new report from the New York Times provides a riveting account filled with new details about how the hours-long gunfight played out.

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