Sitting a comfortable distance from the U.S. military conflicts abroad, I had envisioned “coming home” as both a welcome departure from the battlefield and a new beginning for returning veterans. However, my perspective shifted upon interviewing one of the subjects from my first documentary. After Dennis Murphy came back from Vietnam with severe, combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder, he engaged in an endless and losing battle with alcoholism, ultimately walking out on his wife and three young children forever.
As a wife and a mother of two children, I was deeply saddened and even surprised by his story. I always had subscribed to the popularly held view of home as a peaceful retreat, a reliable constant, a place one longs to return to. But for Murphy, along with others who have experienced the brutality of combat, home seemed more complicated. And I wanted to understand why.
In 2010, we began filming Not Yet Begun to Fight, a documentary about a retired Marine colonel who teaches veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan to fly-fish in a Montana river. In the film, Colonel Eric Hastings, whose personal experience was the catalyst for founding his nonprofit, Warriors and Quiet Waters, candidly admits that the home he returned to in 1969 did not provide the comfort he sought. So instead, he went to the river: “When I came back from combat, I found I needed relief. And the more I went fly-fishing, the more I knew I needed more of it. It became an absolute desperate mental and physical need, and I had to do it, or I was going to kill someone.” He discovered that catch-and-release fishing can be transformative for someone who has been trained to kill; that holding a live, fragile creature and gently placing it back in the water can alter one’s psyche. Combat taints your soul, he says. The river became a home of sorts, a place to undo some of the damage.
I also interviewed twenty-one-year-old Marine Corporal Erik Goodge, who lost an eye to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. When he speaks to the camera a year after his return, he is deliberate and unflinching. “I just want to go back to Afghanistan. That’s all I want to do.… In combat, you’ll do anything for the guy next to you, anything to lighten his load, and he’ll do anything for you.… I wish the world was like that. Obviously, it’s not.” Home was where Goodge had left his fellow Marines, no matter that it was an inhospitable place where, he conceded, “too many bullets” fly. He rejected the assumption that the comforts of home (including a warm bed and the absence of deadly threats) were in some way a suitable replacement for the camaraderie he experienced in combat. Home was with his platoon.
Military training offers those who serve a clear identity and a tremendous sense of purpose and community, each of which is substantially reinforced by experiences on the battlefield. Combat is “what I was put on this Earth for,” Goodge says. So, for him and many others, coming home feels more like entering a stranger’s house; their identity as warriors is often met with skepticism or a lack of understanding from friends and family, and even society at large. And to further complicate matters, successful reentry to civilian society often requires that veterans just “adapt”; they must forge a new identity and define a new sense of purpose, often without sufficient support or direction. Or they are left to awkwardly fumble ahead with the old persona, fostering yet more dissonance. They have survived; they have come home. But now they are somehow alone.
During discussions that follow screenings of the film, veterans and civilians often remark that there is an unspoken but strongly felt division between the two communities. These comments make me consider the possibility that the home we need to create for returning veterans is less a physical space for them to retreat to and rehabilitate in (often in relative isolation) and more a place that fosters conversation and a reconnection to the world and to those around them. And it must also provide an inviting passage and a safe transition from where they were to where they are headed.
But how might we accomplish this? What can we do to inspire a unified approach among community, government, and the broader society to provide a network of genuine and compassionate support?
Perhaps for home to fulfill its lofty calling as somewhere one longs to return to, it is, in fact, we who must be willing to evolve and to adapt. Instead of passively allowing the chasm between us and those returning to widen, we must actively engage and listen. Only then will we make space for our own human and vital response to another’s personal tragedy, one for which we have collective responsibility. And only then might home offer what is sorely needed to begin the healing of a broken soul.
Sabrina Lee '91 studied film at Duke and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She lives in Montana with her husband and two children. Not Yet Begun to Fight will be available on Netflix in the fall.