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Trooper Shines Much-Needed Spotlight on Iraq Vets and Uranium Poisoning

02/18/2015 08:08 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Movies, said film critic Roger Ebert, are like an "empathy machine." Their mission: to help us understand a bit more about others' hopes, their fears, their dreams. Movies allow us to walk in others' shoes. They help us "identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us."

Director Chris Martini took that mission to heart. His grandfather served in World War II, his uncle in Vietnam. Martini was inspired by their post-war struggles and was angered that the struggle of soldiers following war received minimal media exposure. The director became determined to change that.

The result is Trooper, a beautiful, heart-wrenching film that offers far more than empathy. It dares viewers to explore a disturbing corner of the Iraq War, a realm that no film has yet to touch: the blight of depleted uranium poisoning, which has infected thousands of Iraq veterans but is yet to be acknowledged by the Pentagon and is virtually unknown to the American public.

The film follows Murphy O'Shea (Martini), a specialist who returns home from Operation Iraqi Freedom to a New York City suffused with sunshine and tranquility. Murphy's friends welcome him home, but the specialist feels strangely locked out of their joy and clouded by an odd illness.

The doctor at the local V.A. doles out some pills and tells him it's "just some post-traumatic stress." But the grueling headaches, chronic diarrhea, and some bizarre burns on his shoulder hint that something more is going on. He reaches out to his father (Gary Swanson), a Vietnam vet who tries to assist but is struggling with his own illness from Agent Orange. He reaches out to his brother, who is still serving in Iraq and can do little to help over the phone.

Amidst a city at peace, Murphy finds himself once again in a fight for his life, this time to figure out what's wrong with him and what, if anything, he can do to fix it.

Trooper has just been released on iTunes, Xbox, Vimeo, Playstation, Google Play, and Shaw on Demand. Martini spoke with me about creating the film and why Iraq and the depleted uranium scandal was one story he simply had to tell.

Martini: I was working as a film editor, editing a documentary on Gulf War veterans. I watched hours and hours of soldiers telling their stories, and I was struck by how our soldiers were being put in harm's way by our own weapons system. I decided I wanted to write a movie about a soldier, a film that wasn't pro-war or anti-war, just one soldier's experience.

Kors: Was that difficult to write?

Martini: The script actually came out pretty quickly. The voices of those soldiers were fresh in my mind. Shooting the film, that was the real challenge. We had almost no money. And every location we went to, we'd rush to shoot before getting kicked out. [Martini laughs.] But there are benefits to shooting low-budget. When you don't have millions of dollars behind a movie, you have more freedom. There's no pressure to appeal to the mass market. You can push the envelope.

Kors: Like delving into depleted uranium and how it's affecting our vets?

Martini: Exactly. This is not a topic that anyone wanted to touch. And so it's still so unknown. The people who see the movie, they're completed amazed about it. Most of them have never heard anything about it.

Kors: What do we need to know?

Martini: Well, depleted uranium is a byproduct of uranium, and its half-life is 4.5 billion years. It's used as tank armor, on warheads, in bullets. When you shoot it, it pierces through anything. Our military has fired hundreds of tons of it in Iraq. Now it's in the earth, in the air, in the dust, the soil. Our troops are breathing it and drinking it, not to mention the Iraqi population. There's been a spike in cancers in Iraq because the children are playing in the dust and the debris.

Kors: What about our soldiers?

Martini: It's funny: in my movie, there's a clip from an old U.S. Army training video, created to train soldiers how to handle depleted uranium. It's a pretty detailed video, explaining what to do when walking through a contaminated area, what gear you need to wear when entering a bombed-out building. The irony is, the Army doesn't show that video anymore. When I show the video to soldiers, they're completely amazed because they've never seen it. Right now the whole depleted uranium issue is being dismissed by most military officials.

Kors: The uranium-related illnesses, the military is saying they're not "service-connected."

Martini: That's exactly it: the soldiers' illnesses are not "service-connected," that their uranium poisoning didn't come from their service in Iraq. [Martini laughs.] A Marine captain who's been helping me promote the film, in Desert Storm he and some other soldiers in his unit, they'd dig a hole in the earth and sleep in it, like little graves, just like in Jarhead, to avoid getting hit by artillery. That soil was completely contaminated with depleted uranium. That's why he thinks he got sick.

Kors: Yeah.

Martini: The radioactive particles, they last forever. Everyone over there is still breathing this stuff.

Kors: The music in the film is wonderful: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and a fantastic song by Hershel Yatovitz.

Martini: "Let Me Go Home." Hershel is Chris Isaak's guitar player. He wrote the song for this film, and it absolutely sticks with you. With Bob and Bruce, we got lucky. They don't put their songs in many movies, and I had heard that Bob charges a lot of money for licensing. When I was writing the script, I was listening to "Devils and Dust" and "Let Me Die in My Footsteps" over and over. So I thought, let's give it a shot. We appealed to them, and they both approved our use of the songs.

Kors: You've screened the film in front of all kinds of audiences.

Martini: Oh yes. We've shown it to left-wing liberals at the Actors Studio and at the 101st Airborne Reunion in Florida, paratroopers from every war, the most conservative guys you could imagine. The left-wing people think the film's anti-war; the right-wing people think it's pro-war, though I think people's political views become secondary one you start caring about the soldiers in the film.

Kors: The core of the film is Murphy's relationship with his father. Murphy is sick with uranium poisoning, his father is sick from Agent Orange, and they're both trying to take care of each other. There's a parallel there between the uranium poisoning of Iraq veterans and the Agent Orange poisoning of Vietnam vets, isn't there? You see history repeating itself.

Martini: Definitely, I do. I think that's why so many Vietnam veterans have supported the film. A lot of Vietnam vets have flown me around the country to screen the film for their veterans groups. They see that parallel too. And they share the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans' frustrations with the V.A., the labyrinth you have to go through to reach some medical care.

Kors: It's extensive.

Martini: Very extensive. And I've seen from screening the film, viewers that aren't in the military don't know that. They see these commercials with soldiers strolling home, through the airport, as everyone applauds. People think that our soldiers are welcomed home and that the medical care that they need is right at their fingertips. And for most of them, that's not the case. For me, getting that information out has been the most meaningful part of releasing the movie.

Kors: That the sanitized version of the veteran's experience isn't what most veterans experience.

Martini: Right. And that what the military says about caring for soldiers isn't what it's doing. They're telling everyone that they're taking care of our wounded soldiers, and yet there are now rising homeless populations of Iraq and Afghanistan vets. The message that the military is putting out there—that it's easy for veterans to get care—it's a fabrication.

Kors: Have you heard any positive stories about the V.A.?

Martini: I have. A few veterans have told me that they did get good medical care at their local V.A. Which is great. But I've spoken to a lot of vets, and those experiences seem pretty rare. People need to know about all the other veterans and what happens when they try to get care. You look at the sacrifices each of them has made. If it's happening to one veteran, that's one too many.

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