Ellen Gray: HBO documentary 'Wartorn: 1861-2010' proves that combat stress is nothing new | Philadelphia Daily News

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Ellen Gray: HBO documentary 'Wartorn: 1861-2010' proves that combat stress is nothing new | Philadelphia Daily News

Eighteen-yer-old Angelo Crapsey went off to fight for his country, but it wasn't long before the Pennsylvania native was writing home to a friend about a Company D sergeant who'd committed suicide, commenting, "He seemed to be a little shattered."

Some soldiers were so afraid they were fleeing, but it wouldn't happen to him, he vowed.

Three years later, though, after a stay in a military hospital, Crapsey was discharged from the service as unfit to fight. Back in Roulette, Pa., he appeared so disturbed, his friends were afraid to take him hunting.

He followed them, anyway, and at the age of 21, took his own life.

The year: 1864.

So much for the good old days. If there's a message in HBO's Veterans Day documentary "Wartorn: 1861-2010," it's that soldiers returning from the nation's wars have never had it easy.

Actor James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos"), who also produced HBO's 2007 "Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq," has again put his reluctant celebrity to good use, focusing most of the attention on the stories of the psychically shattered veterans of the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam and Iraq, whose ailment, once described as "hysteria," "shell shock," "combat fatigue" or "lack of intestinal fortitude," is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

When Gandolfini's on camera, it generally involves an interview where his name probably eased access, since it's likely not every filmmaker gets to quiz the head of U.S. forces in Iraq about the incidence of PTSD or to talk to the general who's been charged with trying to bring down the Army's suicide rate.

"You're fighting a culture, a culture that doesn't really believe in these things . . . The idea that you are somehow a weaker person because you see something that no human being should ever have to see, that that causes an injury to your body, is hard for some people to accept," Gen. Peter Chiarelli tells Gandolfini.

"We're never going to convince everybody that these are hidden injuries, as serious as losing an arm or a leg," says Chiarelli, who acknowledges that treatment strategies "aren't as mature" as they are for more obvious injuries.

"Wartorn" recounts an incident in World War II in which Gen. George C. Patton reportedly slapped a soldier hospitalized with exhaustion, declaring, "I won't have the hospitals cluttered up with these sons of bitches who haven't got the guts to fight. Send that yellow son of a bitch back to the front line."

The attitude at the top may have changed. When Gandolfini says he's read that the incidence of PTSD among soldiers is about 15 percent, Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq, tells him it's likely closer to 30 percent.

"I think people don't understand what people go through here," says Odierno. "Nobody's immune."

That said, rhetoric's one thing, results another.

Interviews with recent veterans and their families, some of them frankly heartbreaking, demonstrate that that the institution that couldn't save Angelo Crapsey still has a long way to go before it can hope to heal the wounds some people are only just learning to see.