PTSD Myths, Part 2: Hollywood and the Wounded Warrior Project

Hollywood and the Wounded Warrior Project should be ashamed of themselves.  Actors and directors claim artistry in portraying the struggles of combat veterans, but their accuracy avoids serious scrutiny — as does their profit motive.  Their dramatization of real issues has done more harm than good.

Ditto to the Wounded Warrior Project, who only partially acknowledged their black eye this week by firing their two top executives over allegations the charity spent donations on lavish parties.  My concern with them is less about the spending and more about their furthering an unhealthy stereotype, the same as the Hollywood types who star in their commercials.

Are there broken warriors?  Of course, but they are the extreme minority.  Most of us are dented and scratched, but far from broken.  However, movies like The Deer Hunter, Windtalkers, First Blood, and The Hurt Locker promote this fictitious norm.  In a worst case scenario, the Veteran shoots up a town or develops a death wish.  In the best case they simply become a shell of who they once were.

While not as damaging, the Wounded Warrior Project television commercials have long bothered me.  Where is the line between raising awareness and allowing my comrades to become attractions in a P.T. Barnum sideshow?  I think they crossed it with at least two of their ads showcasing serious brain injuries.  But hey, they were raising money so they could throw parties help Veterans, so what’s the harm?

Greed knows no humility.  I’ll tell you where the harm is.

Public perception of Post-Traumatic Stress focuses on the possibility of violent outbursts.  Therefore, when a combat veteran commits a violent crime the news media springs into action and assumes PTSD is to blame.  Eddie Ray Routh, the man who shot and killed Chris Kyle, is a perfect example.  The media immediately embraced the story as an example of a broken warrior doing what broken warriors do, but the trial revealed more serious mental health and drug abuse issues that were unrelated to Routh’s military service.  Of course the media is just trying to report the news and is not interested in sensationalizing headlines to make money.

Based on this popular stereotype, why would an employer hire a Veteran when they could just snap at any minute and shoot up the workplace?  Why would a landlord rent to a Veteran who might be hoarding a doomsday arsenal in the basement?  Or why would any father let his daughter date a Veteran?

There is also the inevitable pity party for a Veteran, because that is the emotional response inspired by the Wounded Warrior Project commercials.  They might as well have Sarah McLachlan singing a sad song while the camera zooms in on the big brown eyes of a veteran shivering on the cold concrete floor of a shelter.  Opening your wallet will make you feel better.

Veterans don’t want to be feared and they sure has hell don’t want pity.  Likewise, they don’t really want respect and admiration.  I am wary of any Veteran who asks for any of those things, because it is a sure sign I am about to be told some embellished stories or a collection of sorry excuses.  (Some Veterans are not good people and we shall talk about them someday soon.)

Most Veterans I know would be happy to simply be understood and appreciated, the universal desire of all mankind.

In The Hurt Locker, the only part of that movie that was accurate was near the end when Sergeant James is sent by his wife to the cereal aisle.  Get a group of Veterans together and they will all describe a similar moment.  All those colors and choices are a lot to process when you return from a monochromatic landscape with few options.  For most Veterans, that is as complicated as their transition will be.

For those with PTSD, it is mostly about sadness and guilt.  Sadness for the friends they lost.  Guilt that they couldn’t save them or didn’t do more.  Sadness that they can’t hang out in a crowd anymore because their pulse quickens as they watch for threats.  Guilt that the sound of fireworks makes them momentarily forget where they are, thus ruining another family outing.

Those are the lessons I have learned from working with Veterans.  I don’t make pretenses at artistry or beg you for money for my noble work.  I just ask that you challenge the stereotypes and don’t assume you know what your neighbor endured because you watched The Deer Hunter.  Every experience is different, but very few resemble what you see on a television screen.

Clifford M. Gray

About Clifford M. Gray

I grew up in Enfield and moved to the Bangor area in junior high. I enlisted in the US Air Force Immediately after graduating from Hampden Academy. During my 20-year career I served in intelligence, command & control, and the Air Force's history and museum program. Following my retirement I completed my undergraduate at California State University, Chico, with a BA in History and Social Science. I returned to Maine last year to attend graduate school. I currently work as a veteran advocate in the area of peer support.