ACRONYM: A Documentary About Veteran Mental Health

acronym
A HMMWV drives along a road in the Kuwaiti desert following Operation Desert Storm. DoD Photo.

There are some movies that are helpful when trying to explain combat and the impact of experiencing combat to those who haven’t been there. I’m not talking about Hollywood, although I do have a love-hate relationship with war movies. I don’t have the experience of Vietnam, but something tells me that Platoon was about as accurate reflection of Vietnam as Hurt Locker was of Iraq. I’ve gotten tired of throwing stuff at the TV because someone’s uniform was out of whack. Why in the heck did Samuel L. Jackson wear a cape in Basic?

No, I’m talking about real movies about combat and it’s impact on veterans. Documentaries, like Gunner Palace and Restrepo. Movies that show those who haven’t experienced combat what it might really be like; even then, though, it’s interpreted through a lens and a point of view, but it’s real.

You can add Acronym: The Cross-Generational Battle with PTSD to that list.

Acronym is about combat, but it’s not directly about combat. It’s about combat as much as the lingering acrid smell of smoke is about a recent explosion, or the ringing in your ears is the aftermath of a firefight. It’s as much about combat as the total exhaustion you feel after returning from a mission, when the adrenaline is all used up and drained away. Acronym is about the aftershocks that follow the earthquake, the rumbling in the distance of a huge thunderstorm that reminds you of the power that just passed; it’s representative of combat as much as the devastation left behind is representative of the tornado.

Acronym is about PTSD, suicide, recovery, and hope.

As a mental health professional, this movie was intriguing to watch; as a combat veteran, this movie was difficult to watch. I can imagine, if I were a spouse or loved one of a combat veteran, this movie would be hard to watch as well; I don’t have to imagine, as a matter of fact, because my wife told me that it was, not just as a spouse of a combat veteran, but as a family member of Vietnam veterans and seeing the impact that war had on them.

I’ve also written about this film recently for the American Counseling Association Blog Project, in an attempt to bring greater awareness about veteran mental health and the impact of combat to my fellow mental health professionals. Although my audience here is different, many of my points there are appropriate here as well.

This movie was created and released on Veterans Day, 2015. I will embed a link to the trailer shortly, but after watching it, and then the whole movie, I feel as though I need to advise you: the trailer is powerful. It will take eight minutes out of your day, but the impact of it may last beyond those eight minutes. There are clips of combat and trauma. If you are a family member or a loved one of a veteran, I highly recommend that you watch it. If you work with veterans, or want to do so in any way, I recommend that you watch it. If you’re a veteran, I think it’s extremely important that you watch it, but you might also want to make sure you’re in a good place, both emotionally and physically. It may impact you in ways that you’re not prepared for. This is a punch in the gut for anyone who chooses to watch it.

As powerful as the trailer is, the movie is infinitely more impactful. The Executive Producer and Director of the documentary, Steffan Tubbs, and the Mountain Time Media team have gathered a group of veterans, mental health professionals, and other service providers in order to provide some insight into the very real struggle that veterans are experiencing.

As you can see by the trailer, the mental health challenges experienced by veterans are not limited to just Vietnam veterans, or Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. War being hell, hell is not selective to a particular conflict or generation; the movie provides an in-depth look at the impact of combat trauma on veterans from World War II to today. It shows the impact that combat has on families, on wives and children. It provides a brutal, unvarnished, and critical look at how combat impacts those who experience it, as well as those who care for them.

As I watched the movie, several points stood out to me as both a combat veteran and a professional counselor, and I’d like to share a few with you now:

WHAT COMBAT DOES TO WARRIORS, AND HOW THEY’RE TAUGHT TO DEAL WITH IT

I went to throw up after my first kill, and my Sergeant said, “Swallow it, meathead. You got eleven more months of this.”

The impact of traumatic stress reaction as a result of exposure to, and even perpetration of, combat is different than other forms of traumatic stress reaction, such as natural disasters or automobile accidents. I am in no way downplaying the significant impact that these events have, but consider the impact of perpetrating trauma, then being told to get used to it. To “suck it up.” To “drive on.”

A WARRIOR’S REACTION TO TRIGGERS, AND DETERMINATION TO NOT QUIT

What happened in Somalia didn’t beat me once, I’m not going to let it beat me again

There is a grim determination that many veterans experience in their lives, once they’ve chosen to not quit. There is courage in this statement, just as there is courage in every one of these veterans to tell their story in such a public way. There is another veteran in the film who talks about his experience in combat, and then says, “this is the first time I’ve ever told anyone about that.” Why? In what possible world is it all right for a veteran to keep such painful and impactful events in for so long, only to express these events in the most public way possible? Would it not have been better, if the opportunity were there, for the veteran to talk about these events with a caring, competent, and trained mental health professional? We, as professional counselors, have the ability to support and sustain that veteran’s grim determination to achieve wellness.

VETERAN SUICIDE IS REAL, PERSONAL, AND PERVASIVE

I was at the choice line, and that’s a choice of, “do I want to keep living, or not?”

There are so many impactful statements in this film, and I don’t think they were scripted…they were raw, real, and spoken with the veteran’s voice. Can you imagine a point in a veteran’s day, where they are considering a choice between life and death as deliberately as they consider a choice between dine-in or take-out? Of going to the ballgame or the park? Again, I’m not implying that the choice is as casual as “what am I going to do today,” but for many veterans, it’s as constant as that. Many veterans…including myself…have lost more of their brothers and sisters to death by suicide and self-harm than we lost during combat. As the years go on, that’s only going to become more true. Again, professional counselors have the training, experience, and ability to make an impact.

THERE IS NOT ANY SINGLE PATH TOWARDS WELLNESS

It’s most important for veterans to find the treatment that fits them, because we all have a different path and the path to recovery isn’t right or wrong, it’s not designated by anybody but the person walking it.

One of the common things that I talk about with veteran organizations is the fact that, when we talk about veteran mental health, mental health professionals are often not a part of the conversation. That is another great thing about this film, though; mental health professionals with direct experience of working with veterans are integrated into the story. I personally have some challenges with so many various things being called “therapy,” but recognize the efficacy of anything that can help a veteran take their mind off of their experiences. Golf, working with horses, gardening, fishing…each of these requires concentration, mindfulness of current environment, deliberate learning and application of skills and techniques. These all can stimulate the prefrontal lobe and allow the executive functions of the brain to manage the automatic responses generated in the limbic system.

So there you have it. The movie, Acronym. If you are interested in working with veterans, take a look at it. Reach out to the Mountain Time Media team on their webpage and figure out how to get a copy of the movie for yourself. Follow them on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ACRONYM_PTSD and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/acronymptsd/. Take the time to watch the movie: you may not enjoy it, but you will not regret it.

Did you enjoy this post? Please comment below and share with your network in order to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health. You can sign up for updates from Head Space and Timing and follow Duane, a combat veteran and mental health counselor, on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.

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1 thought on “ACRONYM: A Documentary About Veteran Mental Health

  1. Duane, yet another raw and impactful perspective to bring mental health to the forefront and continue to make it accepted and embraced!

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