Interview: ‘Wartorn’ Director Ellen Goosenberg Kent On the Reality of PTSD

Veterans Day is a time to remember those who have served in our armed forces, and often the cinematic honor that is given is in the form of combat films, with everything from the flag-waving The Green Berets to the more introspective Vietnam war films of the 1980s.

One way that HBO Documentary Films has chosen to honor those who have fought for the United States is to bring to light a very real issue that is slowly getting more attention. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychological condition that results from trauma faced during combat, and if untreated, the results can be disastrous for the service member and his or her family.

Wartorn: 1861-2010 is a documentary premiering on HBO tonight at 9 p.m. ET (and sure to be rerun several times in the ensuing weeks), which examines the reality of PTSD and how it has been a cost of war for all time. Using letters and documents written by soldiers in the Civil War and World War I, as well as first-person interviews with veterans of World War II and the current military conflicts, Wartorn takes a look at PTSD over the years.

Earlier this week, Wartorn co-director Ellen Goosenberg Kent visited the Ohio State University and had a chance to talk with me about her film, the dangers of PTSD and what sort of reaction she hopes the documentary will get.

Kent first got involved with veterans when she worked on the film Alive Day Memories, which featured soldiers who had been severely wounded in Iraq. “PTSD was the backstory,” she explained as she discovered the struggles the soldiers faced when they tried to reestablish themselves back home. “They weren’t who they were when they went away,” she said.

“The more we delved into it, we saw that there was no surprise here,” Kent explained. “Psychic wounds have been a part of war, and an inevitable part of war.” She found her contemporary subjects mostly through first-person contacts. Sometimes soldiers were not comfortable talking about their situations, but they often knew of other families that would.

The older conflicts were harder to understand on this level. Kent and her crew had to rely on primary sources, which were only available from the Civil War on, and even then the record was spotty. “It was the first war where you could retroactively go back and say what was really going on with these people,” Kent said, finding some of the documentation in the files of old mental institutions. But the anecdotal evidence is there for as far back as anyone cared to go. “What we really wanted to do was to find out whether, in fact, trauma was a part of war since recorded American history. These kinds of psychic wounds seem to have been around since the Trojan War,” Kent said.

“There’s nothing crazy about PTSD,” Kent said. “That is the cost of war.”

Kent and her team screened Wartorn recently at the Pentagon, where they received a “relatively positive” reaction. Her hope is that there are further changes in how the military deals with PTSD and “that the military recognizes that this is a huge problem, and not that guys who have problems are problems for us.”

Probably the most grim reality of the condition comes from what she heard at this screening. Kent said, “Somebody said at the Pentagon, the only to really prevent PTSD is to end war, and that’s not happening anytime soon.”

Wartorn: 1861-2010 premieres on HBO tonight, November 11, at 9 p.m. ET.

To hear the full interview with Ellen Goosenberg Kent, visit the Fat Guys at the Movies site.

Kevin Carr crawled from the primordial ooze in the early 1970s. He grew up watching movies to the point of irritation for his friends and was a font of useless movie knowledge until he decided to put that knowledge to good use. Now, Kevin is a nationally syndicated critic, heard on dozens of radio stations around the country, and his reviews appear in a variety of online outlets. Kevin is also a proud member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA).

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