written by L. Chris Cannida, February 6, 2015
I have never been to war. I’ve never held a weapon while facing the decision of whether to pull the trigger and take a life. I’ve never had my soul go from 100 to 0 while trying to reconnect with family and friends as I yearned for returning to battle buddies I’d left behind. So, I can’t say first hand how well the movie American Sniper expresses what it’s like to be a warrior in the United States military. Certainly, it’s a film that has drawn marked opinion, both positive and negative. I can’t know if there is a side that speaks more truth than the other about the film.
What I have done is sit in rooms with warriors when they’ve returned from combat, to a land for which they fought, standing on ground that felt so still and seemed so unfamiliar it couldn’t be trusted. I’ve joined dialogues with warriors and their spouses as they reintroduced themselves to one another after 12 months apart, both asking “who is this familiar stranger in my arms?” What I can say is that I’ve seen the facial expressions and heard the words spoken by the actor portraying Navy Seal Chris Kyle, only the expressions and words I witnessed were those of actual people. The kinetic energy present as these men and women told me their stories was palpable, undeniable.
I don’t know that there is a most effective way to help warriors find their way back home when home is defined as the ability to recognize oneself while wrestling the self-doubt or even self-contempt felt when looking in the mirror. What I do know is that with all the organizations and advocates funded to help in the cause, we still fail many of our active duty military and veterans. As a nation we must caution against just throwing dollars at the issue, and keep our focus on the mission of assuring the training we provide to those equipped for helping is sharp and set solely on supporting those whose spirits and souls need a reintroduction. Not that there aren’t plenty of people with a sincere desire to help. However, with so many platforms supporting these valiant efforts, those efforts seem lost in a sea of civilian patriots vying for a place at the head of the helping table.
I trembled through most of the film only because the scenarios depicted have played themselves out in my office by not only highly trained snipers, but by young staff sergeant infantrymen (and women) who are barely twenty-four years old. I’ve witnessed tears falling down the face of a commander’s wife as she described the slow erosion of her husband’s identity through multiple deployments. The stories are real for spouses and children who want nothing more than to enjoy the presence of their precious warrior during the backyard picnic only to find that warrior staring into a blank television screen.
After the film ended, there was a respectful silence as the movie credits rolled. Every viewer seemed to be deciding for themselves the authenticity of the story, hoping it was realistic enough to honor our men and women in uniform and praying it wasn’t real at all. If real, the burdens carried by our nation’s warriors seems overwhelming.
American Sniper was “just a movie” (as I’ve seen some internet-dwellers scream). Actual post-combat stress is anything but “just”. It is baffling.
The romantic patriotism some use to prop themselves up in alliance with the cause will not be enough to support the need. I’ve even witnessed colleagues in my field (mental health) develop such fascination with the phenomenon of the American warrior that they lose sight of the task at end – to help healing take place.
The movie was dramatic. My plea for situational awareness and well-developed effort is equally as dramatic, unapologetically. If you feel called to help in some way, there are many ways you can begin. For mental health professionals and collateral caretakers in the clergy, continue the mission with acute precision. For all others, be steadfast in paying attention when veterans and their families speak. We will learn so much that can turn our sentimentality into steps of concrete support. We could possibly make all the difference to a former sniper trying to find a purpose that might match saving lives in sandstorms, or to a medic searching for the stamina to enroll in the home-town community college and relearn what she’d already learned while under fire in an ambush.
Here’s the thing. American Sniper was a movie. However, there are living, breathing veterans scattered throughout our country who are in the throes of reintegration everyday. Chris Kyle was one of them. There are scores of that 1% scattered throughout the states. The adjustment can, and does, last a lifetime for some. Let’s hope our steadfast interest in walking that journey with them lasts as long.