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The Ground Truth

A Too-Short Documentary on a Vitally Important Subject

As the occupation of Iraq by the United States military continues without a definite endpoint, the obvious, unasked question (at least by the mainstream media) is, "What about the returning soldiers who served in Iraq?" Filmmaker Patricia Foulkrod attempts to answer that and other related questions in The Ground Truth. In three and a half years, almost 2,700 soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq. More than 16,000 soldiers have been injured, some seriously (and permanently), leaving them incapable of returning fully to civilian life. All of them, whether they've suffered physical injuries or not, have to deal with readjusting to civilian life.

Serving in Iraq (some for as long as a year) has left some returning soldiers with deep psychological and emotional wounds (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD). The Ground Truth doesn’t make any claims to being anything but a straightforward, traditional documentary. Foulkrod uses a mix of "talking head" interviews with Iraqi war veterans, family members, professionals involved in the care and treatment of veterans, video footage taken from Iraqi combat zones (some of it graphic), and video stills or photographs to construct a powerful, poignant plea to treat returning soldiers with the resources necessary to ensure their mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Not surprisingly, The Ground Truth goes further, allowing the veterans to express their doubts, if not for serving their country (for whatever reason, economic or ideological), then for the poorly defined mission in Iraq.

One veteran, Robert Acosta, a specialist in the U.S. Army, expresses his now-discarded belief he shared with other soldiers that Iraq was integral to the global war on terrorism and a necessary response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Instead, Acosta and other veterans found themselves fighting both insurgents and civilians, without the ability to differentiate between the two groups. That alone brings up a key parallel to Vietnam War, which another interviewee brings up later in The Ground Truth: insurgent-led asymmetrical warfare (e.g., guerilla warfare by another name) has a profoundly negative impact on the soldiers forced to make life-or-death decisions on incomplete, often incorrect, information. Without clearly defined enemies to fight, innocent civilians can and will be killed. Some soldiers can live with the inevitability of making a wrong decision.

Other Iraqi war veterans, like Jimmy Massey, a former sergeant in the Marine Corps. and recruiter turned anti-war activist, couldn't. When he sought psychological counseling through the Veterans Administration (VA), his claim was rebuffed (the therapist categorized him as a “conscientious objector” for refusing to fire on civilians). Unlike Massey, however, another returning war veteran, Jeff Lucey, committed suicide months after his return to the United States, convinced that he was a murderer. Others, like Chad Reiber, a decorated U.S. Army Ranger who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, found himself facing felony charges after assaulting another man at a party. Luckily, Reiber’s service record helped him avoid jail time. Another veteran, Herold Noel, found himself homeless and persistently haunted by nightmares of Iraq. Unfortunately, the VA refused to help him, due to a misdiagnosis of his condition.

If The Ground Truth has any weaknesses, they can be found in the brief running time and in Foulkrod's apparent unwillingness to explore different, potentially contradictory points of view. As it is, Foulkrod includes one psychologist to describe the general parameters of PTSD as suffered by Iraqi war veterans and, earlier on, author David Grossman to describe the dehumanizing effects of basic training. The evidence of neglect Foulkrod amasses against the VA and the current administration is anecdotal at best. Foulkrod could have strengthened her case by including interviews with representatives from the VA (especially considering claims that the VA has actively under-diagnosed PTSD), Republican and Democratic legislators (on the armor issue several veterans bring up), or other experts. Last, Foulkrod’s decision to wait until the end of the documentary disclose the anti-war associations of several veterans leaves The Ground Truth open to claims of liberal bias.

Still, the Iraqi war veterans make compelling, perhaps irrefutable, claims about the psychological damage they've experienced as a result of serving in Iraq. From the descriptions of their experiences in Iraq, primarily the killing of civilians, these men and women are and will continue to be haunted by their actions in Iraq. As one expert steps in to remind us, the psychological impact extends from the veterans to their families, friends, and anyone else who comes into contact with them. They may no longer wear military uniforms, but they aren't civilians either. One soldier describes re-assimilation into civilian life as "ghosting" while several express disappointment that civilians will never understand their experiences and how they've changed them. Unfortunately, it’s one lesson (among many) that every wartime generation has to learn for itself.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars