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

Entertainment
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.

The San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Chris Roys)

The Navy is investigating reports that a female Marine discovered a hidden camera in one of the women's restrooms aboard the USS Arlington, an amphibious transport dock that's currently on at port in Greece, NBC News originally reported.

Read More Show Less
The sun sets behind a C-17 Globemaster III at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, as Soldiers wait in line to board Nov. 17, 2008. (Air Force/Tech Sgt. Erik Gudmundson)

Today, an American service member died in a "non-combat incident" in Ninawa Province, Iraq according to a statement by Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.

Read More Show Less

First came the explosion. Then, the cover-up.

"I held one [sailor] in my hands as he passed. He died in my arms."

news
USS Iowa on April 19, 1989. (Wikipedia Commons)

It's been 30 years since an explosion inside the number two gun turret on the USS Iowa killed 47 American sailors, but for Mike Carr, it still feels like yesterday.

"I knew all 47 guys inside that turret because as part of the ship's policy we had rotated between all three turrets," Carr, who served as a gunner's mate in the Iowa's aft 16-inch turret, told Task & Purpose. "We all knew each other rather intimately."

On April 19, 1989, the day of the blast, the ship was preparing for live-fire training at Vieques, Puerto Rico Naval Training Range.

Carr was wearing headphones that allowed him to hear what the crews in the other turrets were saying.

"At 10 minutes to 10 a.m., somebody came over the phones and said, 'We're having a problem, Turret 2, center gun,'" Carr recalled. "Then approximately two minutes later, I recognized Senior Chief [Reginald] Ziegler, who was the chief in charge of Turret 2, yell into the phones: 'Fire, fire, fire! Fire in center gun, turret 2. Trying to contain it.'"

Then came the blast, which was so strong that it ripped the headphones right off Carr's head.

Read More Show Less

Barracks to business: Hiring veterans has never been easier

Organizations offer training, certifications, networking to connect veterans, businesses

career
Jason Sutton

As a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a newly minted second lieutenant, I felt well-prepared to tackle the challenges facing a junior field artillery officer in the U.S. Army. When the time came to leave the Army, however, I was much less prepared to make the transition into the yet-unknown civilian sector.

One of the primary issues facing veterans after we transition is that we lack the same sense of purpose and mission that we had with our military careers. Today, more than ever, our service members volunteer to put themselves in harm's way. They are defending our freedom across the globe and should be recognized as our country's true heroes. It's critical that employers educate veterans and provide viable options so we can make informed decisions about the rest of our lives.

Read More Show Less
Maj. Gen. David Furness

The two-star general in charge of the roughly 15,000-strong 2nd Marine Division has turned micromanagement into an art form with a new policy letter ordering his Marines and sailors to cut their hair, shave their faces, and adhere to a daily schedule that he has prescribed.

In his "Policy Letter 5-19," Maj. Gen. David Furness lamented that he has noticed "a significant decline in the basic discipline" of troops he's come in contact with in the division area, which has led him to "FIX IT immediately," instead of relying on the thousands of commissioned and non-commissioned officers below him to carry out his orders.

Read More Show Less