'Wartorn' examines combat's emotional toll on U.S. soldiers | USA Today

'Wartorn' examines combat's emotional toll on U.S. soldiers | USA Today

By Gary Strauss | November 11, 2010

Had HBO's Veterans Day documentary concentrated on the fallout from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts on soldiers and Marines, it would have been a powerful statement about the emotional suffering of modern-day war.

But as Wartorn 1861-2010 (tonight, 9 ET/PT) demonstrates, the military and their families have dealt with largely ignored, little-understood post-traumatic stress disorder far longer.

Co-produced and hosted by former Sopranos star James Gandolfini, Wartorn is a somber, gut-wrenching reminder — and warning — about combat-related stress that can lead to depression, violence and suicide.

Civil War-era doctors called it hysteria. In World War I, it was known as shell shock. By World War II, it was termed combat fatigue and, as in the aftermath of past conflicts, considered cowardly and left largely untreated.

"For me, the striking thing is the emotional cost these kids and their families go through," says Gandolfini, who interviewed physically injured vets for HBO's equally gripping 2007 documentary, Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq.

"Alive Day is about heroes; this is about emotional suffering," he says. "If you are over there, you're going to be affected. It's going to change you."

Wartorn opens with the bravado of Angelo Crapsey, an eager 1861 Union Army volunteer. Over the course of his combat experience, letters home grow increasingly dark. By 1864, he has been mustered out, and at 21, commits suicide. "If ever a man's mental disorder was caused by hardships endured in the service of his country, this was the case with my son," father John Crapsey writes.

Later in the 75-minute documentary, Minnesotan Cheryl Softitch painfully recalls the 2006 suicide of her tormented son, Noah Pierce, 23, an Army specialist who returned home troubled by the accidental shooting of an Iraqi civilian. Pierce joined the Army out of high school in 2002.

"His goal was 20 years," Softitch tells USA TODAY. "But he started showing signs of PTSD after his first tour. When he came home, I could tell I was losing my son. His body came home, but he never did. He tried to cope with the real world. He'd reach out for help at the VA Center. They didn't know what to do with him."

Executive producer Sheila Nevins says she was surprised by the military's support. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, until September commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, appears in the documentary, noting that nearly a third of those stationed in combat areas report PTSD symptoms. (Odierno's son, Army Lt. Anthony Odierno, lost an arm while on patrol in Baghdad in 2004.)

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who also appears, says the military has begun ramping up treatment of those diagnosed with PTSD and has initiated 10 hours of basic-training coursework to help personnel deal with potential issues.

"The wonderful thing this powerful movie does is bring awareness to a real issue. It's the largest single injury we see coming out of this war," Chiarelli says in an interview. "We have to change the culture of not talking about it."

Nevins notes the film wasn't intended to retrace history, until a researcher found similarities dating back to Crapsey. "It makes a much more poignant story about the nature of war and what it does to people."

Gandolfini hopes the film raises awareness and helps expand treatment. "If you know someone who is coming home, try to understand what the kid is going through. Maybe it'll make their transition a little easier."