For eight years, former soldiers entered The Pathway Home in Yountville in search of a hand up from the depths of the mental trauma triggered by their experiences on Iraqi and Afghan battlefields. Some 450 men emerged from the treatment program, each receiving a yellow rose from the home’s founder and a hope for a brighter civilian life.
But few people outside the Pathway walls got to see the transformations up close – until the release of a documentary film showing the emotionally wounded veterans at their most vulnerable, and their journeys of healing at their rawest and most intense.
The flashes of rage, the impulsiveness, the strains on marriages and family relationships – these and other open scabs of post-traumatic stress disorder are on full display in “Of Men and War.”
“It takes only one thing to (expletive) send me off,” an unnamed veteran confesses to the camera to several fellow veterans. “You felt strong. You don’t feel as strong as you used to be. You feel defective. This anxiety (expletive) sucks – I (expletive) hate it.”
“Of Men and War” is an most intimate look inside The Pathway Home, whose therapists helped veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars come to grips with the demons that stuck with them long after their tours of duty ended. Completed in 2014 after more than five years of work, the non-narrated documentary follows the lives of a dozen Pathway clients during their nine months of therapy, as well as their spouses and relatives trying to welcome them back into civilian life.
Following showings at several film festivals and a theatrical run last November, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) will give “Of Men and War” its first U.S. telecast on Memorial Day, as part of its “POV” (point of view) series. KQED-TV, the Bay Area’s PBS outlet, will carry the documentary at 10 p.m. Monday.
The holiday showing of “Of Men and War” is sharp, stark departure in mood from the flag displays and grave decorations that usually mark the occasion. But Laurent Bécue-Renard, who directed the film as the second installment of a war-themed trilogy, hopes the airing will remind Americans of how deeply – and how long – the aftereffects of combat can stretch out.
“I really hope the public will have a different view of the war experience,” the director said Wednesday by telephone from his Paris home. “Who they are today may be linked to what happened to their fathers, their grandfathers. We cannot avoid the fact that war has an enormous legacy within families. The Western Hemisphere has so much of a war legacy; this is a part of who we are.
“I would like American audiences to not only thank veterans for their service when they come across them, but also to think about the real cost of war — on them and on their families.”
Preparations for what eventually became “Of Men and War” began in 2004, a year after Bécue-Renard released his trilogy’s opening act “War-Wearied,” which follows the recovery of three women caught up in the Bosnian war of the 1990s. There was no Pathway Home to document – but there was a friendship between the filmmaker and Fred Gusman, then a Veterans Affairs clinical social worker in Menlo Park.
The two got to know each other over the next four years, as Bécue-Renard came to know veterans, family members and therapists, and when Gusman opened The Pathway Home in 2008, Bécue-Renard spent five months observing daily life at the Yountville facility before bringing cameras to follow a group of clients through a nine-month program that ended in 2009. (Attempts to contact Gusman this week were unsuccessful. The Pathway founder left the organization in September.)
In confronting the emotional detritus of combat, the veterans appearing in the film often must revisit acts unconsciously covered in a cocoon of toughness.
“Don’t know, don’t care. He was running. I shot him,” one veteran says in a low, flat voice while describing the killing of an enemy soldier. But when he recalled trying and failing to close the dead man’s fixed-open eye – the eye that was not already obliterated – the mask of apathy dissolved in tears.
“That’s why I don’t sleep,” he forced out between heaving breaths. “Because when I sleep … I see him.”
Such labored confessions are a sign of the difficulty many soldiers have in leaving behind feelings of shame long after returning to the home front, according to the French-born Bécue-Renard, who had one grandfather wounded in action and another taken prisoner during World War I.
“It’s not shame as we are used to knowing it,” he said. “We are used to saying someone is ashamed of doing something or not doing something. But the shame, in this case, is what I call the shame of the human species – each one of them has seen, has witnessed, has touched with own hands something shameful for the human species, namely its capacity to destroy itself.”
“This is beyond this side or that side, the enemy or yourself. It’s everybody in the context of war.”
A Pathway Home director who saw “Of Men and War” during a 2015 screening at the nearby Lincoln Theater credited the documentary with making plain the need to support those scarred by their military experiences.
“If you don’t have a military background in your family, that’s not your reality,” said Mike Horak, Pathway’s development director, who is part of the home’s ongoing transition into a program serving veterans enrolled at Napa Valley College. “You don’t necessarily understand what military life is like and you don’t have the concept of what happens. This (film) brings home that harshness and brutality in stronger, more graphic, no-holds-barred terms – that this is why it’s ugly and brutal and nasty.
“That’s the part Laurent captured very well; he got permission from all those guys to film them at their rawest moments, and they didn’t hold back.”
The closing scenes of the documentary, filmed in the years after the veterans’ graduation from Pathway, show their divergent paths – marriage for one man, a new job for another, but suicide for a third.
Not all who are treated for their post-combat suffering will enjoy a happy ending, but to Bécue-Renard, their efforts to heal are at least as admirable as their service for their country.
“It’s a battle, an everyday battle, but they are very courageous,” the director said of Pathway’s graduates. “With these guys, there’s no (expletive); they know what life is about and we have a lot to learn from them. Seeing their journey of resilience is very uplifting and inspiring.
“… We are witnessing a battle within each and every one, a battle to survive. It’s a battle to root themselves into life again.”