‘Almost Sunrise’ Documentary

The movie begins with a definition of moral injury; a definition that I believe captures the essence of moral injury, stripped of the medicalizing language that’s been contorted to comply with VA’s ‘evidence based’ strictures. To wit:

‘Moral Injury’ is a wound to the soul caused by participation in events that violate one’s deeply held sense of right and wrong.

This documentary centers around two Army veterans having troubles since their deployments to Iraq. Like many veterans, the external symptoms did not really surface until well after they had been back in the United States and discharged from the military. Tom is extremely quiet throughout the film. As the film opens, he is so distraught that he has decided to walk from Milwaukee to his friend’s house in Los Angeles. Tony, his former platoon mate, hears about it and asks if he can tag along. Tom agrees, but you can tell that there is tension as Tony turns it into more of a spectacle with media coverage, blogging, etc. You can see this tension throughout the film as the camera shows them separated, walking along within sight of each other, but not side by side or within speaking distance.

At the beginning of film, the two friends are interviewed and they are prepping to start out. They exhibit almost all of the behaviors that Dr. Shay chronicles in his book Odysseus in America. The feel the need for ‘protection’ so they ‘check their pistols’ by target shooting, then carry them with. They exhibit survivor guilt (especially Tom). Their homes are disorganized and chaotic, with stuff piled everywhere. Finally, anger. Tony says:

It’s just that it never seems to change. Anger. Anger. Anger. Anger. Anger. That’s it. It would be a great day if just one day that I could feel something sustainable for that day that wasn’t anger.

Mike, the friend Tom borrowed a backpack from and is walking towards in California is also suffering from his time in Iraq. Though he plays a minor role in this film, he breaks down at one point and asks:

How can a just God let humans do this to each other?

Then he states what many vets of the Iraq war feel (myself included):

That’s not what we signed up for, to go terrorize people, basically.

I have a few critiques, first of how they did the walk (a minor quibble) and (not minor) what happened along the way.

My minor quibble is that Tom & Tony seemingly walk from war memorial to war memorial or their proxies such as VFW/American Legions. This is a minor flaw, I believe, in helping them to achieve their objectives. It is important to not forget, and as Tony points out at one of the stops (and a veteran that meets them there concurs) is that they only memorialize the ones lost in combat and completely ignore the much larger issue of post-war suicides, which is often 3-5x (or more) than the combat losses, at least since Vietnam. Perhaps this going from memorial to memorial is just film making and not what actually happened, but it did seem odd that to ‘get their heads straight’ that they would walk from one set of grave markers to the next.

The larger issue I have is how people along the way began valorizing them. By this I mean calling out the boy scouts, planting flags in the town, saluting them, etc. Thanking someone for their service, when they are battling with the fact they think of themselves as a murder, is akin to thanking them for murdering people. This behavior wasn’t in every town. There are heartwarming scenes where a veteran comes out and just walks silently with them in solidarity. This silent witnessing their pain, is incredibly difficult and incredibly healing.

One thing that enraged me was learning that the military withholds death benefits for those service members who commit suicide, even in the war zone. Talk about re-traumatizing the poor relatives and friends! This is not only a moral injury, it is a moral outrage.

Finally, Tom’s girlfriend irritates me… she goes on film, after Tom has left and states that unless, I’m paraphrasing here, Tom gets his shit together, she’s going to “remove herself from the situation.” If I had someone who supposedly loved me say that on camera, I think I’d remove myself! At one point, on a phone call she asks him “are you processing any of these memories, is this helping you?” because he hadn’t given me any indication that anything was getting any better. She comes off as very narcissistic which is ironic given she styles herself an anthropologist of the PTSD diagnosis. This just points out she doesn’t get it: Tom has a moral injury…which may be co-morbid with PTSD, but that fact has apparently not sunk in.

In all, a must see film. Especially for civilians. You can see it free if you have Amazon Prime here or rent it for $3.99.