My battle with the US military to put distraught soldiers on film

It started with Iraq in October 2006. Condé Nast sent me to film a troop of female US soldiers for the publisher’s annual Woman of the Year Awards ceremony.

In the Green Zone, the women all had one thing in common – within minutes they became deeply distraught when talking through their combat experiences; in one case the memories induced a panic attack.

My producer Sarah J Wachter and I were told by soldiers that the US military wasn’t able to cope with the scale of combat stress, particularly post-traumatic stress, among troops.

The military audibly gasped when Sarah first approached them last year about making a documentary on the crisis. They went to some lengths to manage our expectations of how successful we would be in gaining access.

It was a case of baby steps with an organisation that could genuinely see the benefit of a film on PTSD, but one that also knew how politically explosive it could be when domestic support for the war was turning sour. We wore kid gloves all the way.

There would be approval over a period of weeks, level by level in the chain of command, then we’d be suddenly refused for no given reason. At one point we weren’t entirely sure what we could film as almost anything visually compelling was ruled out.

On the night we left for Afghanistan we still didn’t know what specific access we would get to post-traumatic patients, or the specialist treatment team we wanted to film. We were simply told that our embed was approved. As Newsnight had paid us half of the fee up front, which is industry standard, we thought we’d better go for it.

On the ground we were told the military could not arrange interviews with PTSD patients. Suddenly we had no one to film. So, Sarah ran round Bagram Airfield (BAF), posting flyers on noticeboards asking soldiers to come forward as volunteers. We bought an Afghan pre-pay phone from the base store just so people could call us in confidence.

The real trouble was at a forward operating base towards the Pakistani border. The regional colonel refused us any access to any low-rank soldier – grassroots troops, and the ones suffering most.

As we left, public affairs insisted they spool through our footage to ensure we hadn’t filmed any unauthorised interviews. They then took umbrage at some stock shots we took and they ‘asked’us to wipe them. There was a veiled threat of holding us at the remote base while they knew we had just 36 hours before exiting Afghanistan, and one PTSD volunteer waiting to talk to us back at Bagram.

Then, at BAF, we were informed that total access to any soldier had been approved from on high. I spat nails.

We’d taken on the most sensitive health subject about the US military, so it was never going to be an easy ride. The hurdles induced hypertension and apoplexy at times, but it showed that persistence (and undertaking a vertical learning curve in military methods) pays off.

That’s why the finished film is a career high for me and Sarah.

Dominic Di-Natale is a freelance television journalist and filmmaker. www.domdn.com

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