As a civilian, Soledad O’Brien knows she can’t explain what it’s like to suffer from post traumatic stress.
But her new film, “The War Comes Home,” tries to approximate the feeling as much as possible by profiling Delon Beckett and Garrett Combs, two veterans home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beckett has struggled with alcohol, and Combs (pictured) with the sense that he is still fighting. Both have suffered thoughts of suicide.
They are among the 2.5 million sent to fight America’s recent wars. They returned to uncertainty: The film reports that nearly 8,000 veterans of all wars kill themselves each year.
But the documentary, the first long-form project for O’Brien’s Starfish Media Group since she left her CNN anchor job last year, shows how the two are getting better. It profiles the Save a Warrior program, which uses techniques like transcendental meditation and equine therapy to help veterans return to domestic life.
We talked to O’Brien about what it’s like to suffer post-traumatic stress, and how Beckett and Combs are recovering.
TheWrap: How do you explain what it’s like to have post-traumatic stress to someone who’s never experienced it?
Soledad O’Brien: I think that was my biggest challenge. … It’s really hard to understand what it feels like to have post traumatic stress. It’s really hard to understand what it feels like to want to kill yourself. I thought Delon’s description of being inside a burning house — you just don’t want to burn, you’ve got to jump, you don’t want to die, you just want to get out of the horrible feeling you have — I thought that was an excellent description.
And then Garrett [said] it’s just like this movie playing: it doesn’t end. You close your eyes and it doesn’t end. It’s like that horrible annoying song that you can’t get out of your head. But it’s not music and it’s not an annoying song of the summer. It’s these horrible graphic existence that have made up your existence of the last five years. It’s horrifying.
It’s why I think meditation is such an important thing to them. They learn how to relax without turning the movie off. Transcendental meditation is all about allowing experiences to happen while you’re meditating … I think for a lot of those soldiers it’s very freeing to realize, I don’t take drugs to stop these things I’m thinking. I can manage having this movie playing.
But it’s hard. I think their descriptions are incredibly helpful. But as a civilian I’m never going to have a tenth of a sense of what it’s like.
You can cover whatever you want now. What made you focus on veterans?
I really just found a great story. It happened to be about veterans. I haven’t done a lot of journalism around the armed services. I did a few pieces over the years. But I think what really appealed to me was this was a very personal and up-close story.
About a year before we started shooting this past March, I actually went out with a cohort, they call them. And it was so emotionally draining and grueling for the veterans who are in that cohort, I thought, “Gosh, if we could really get access, then we’ll be able to tell this story incredibly well.”
Watching coverage of the Veterans Administration scandal, it’s easy to get the sense that the government is botching the job of caring for veterans. Is it?
Oh gosh. We did a screening for this doc the other day and at one point Garrett said — because people were asking questions about the VA — “We all know what’s wrong with the VA. Let’s stop talking about the VA. Let’s just talk about things that work.” … I think that there’s a certain pragmatism that he espouses that I agree with.
If they were called upon, do you think the veterans you’ve talked to would ever be willing to go back to serve overseas?
I’ve never asked them that. The guys who I talked to who were so ready to get out — and the ones I’m dealing with had severe post traumatic stress — so in many cases they just wouldn’t go back in. … honestly, their focus is ,”How do I deal with life here? How do I navigate a quote-unquote normal life when so many of my experiences have been completely abnormal?”
Why does equine therapy help some veterans?
There’s actually a fair number of equine therapy classes for veterans and people who suffer from other kinds of post traumatic stress. It was interesting to see how soldiers react to something that you can’t just tell what to do. A horse is not a dog. …You certainly can’t push it in the direction you want it to go. The horse has to respect you. A horse has to be made to feel safe, like what you’re asking is something it’s willing to do.
Part of the tension is to make them communicate and see how much they communicate with these horses. The only way to break through and communicate is to rethink how you’re doing it. Yelling at a horse isn’t going to work, and yelling at a person isn’t going to work.
How is it different for you to run a film company as opposed to being an anchor?
In some ways it’s a lot harder because I’m responsible for everything and that’s been an interesting challenge. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. … It reminds me a lot of what I did at CNN. I had a tremendous amount of autonomy at CNN and I really enjoyed it and now I get to people you handpick, who you want to work with, who want to be on projects, who are excited, who do high quality work. I had a really great experience at CNN and now I feel like I get to extend that.
“The War Comes Home” premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.