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Cancer of the Spirit

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Can we squeeze the glory out of the word "war"? Can we talk about savage irrationality and lifelong inner hell instead? Can we talk about the wreckage of two countries?

Can we talk about spiritual cancer?

In the extraordinary documentary On the Bridge -- an unstinting look at the reality of war and the terror of PTSD, directed by Olivier Morel -- each of the six Iraq vets who opens his or her heart in the course of the film has a moment of deep, almost unbearable silence at the end, staring into the camera and through the camera at the viewer... and at the nation they are committed to waking up. In that silence, those are the questions that begin to emerge.

On the Bridge bares the deep psychic wounds of America's returning vets -- "I liken (PTSD) to the comedic scene of opening a closet and stuff keeps falling out," Jason Moon said at one point -- but it does much more than that as well. It puts these wounds into context: We are the aggressor nation, not simply at the geopolitical level, invading and occupying a nation and commandeering its resources, but at the human level, with American GIs routinely dehumanizing and brutalizing Iraqis on the streets and in their homes.

"When I was over there, a lot of saddening stuff happened," Moon explained. "I couldn't process it -- I couldn't cry. I'd have been considered a pussy. You have to stay in the group. If you lose your position, it's dangerous. So you just kind of stuff it all down. Then you get home... 'we'd like to talk to you.' You open that door to converse with an emotion -- it's gigantic. Never (before) in my life did I have emotions I couldn't control."

But the reason for the enormity of these emotions -- provoking endless thoughts of suicide -- is because the vets are haunted by guilt over what they witnessed and what they did.

"I laughed as I heard a story," said Ryan Endicott. "One of the platoons had strapped dead bodies from a gunfight on the hoods of their Humvees and then drove around the city for hours... One (day) they brought in a car that had just been shot up. The driver's fully intact brain was sitting in the back seat of the car. I walked over to the body bag with the passenger in it. The bag began twitching and we could hear his body still attempting to breathe. We laughed as we stomped the bag."

And Moon: "We had some soldiers who would do some really nasty things. They played this game -- if the kids come under the yellow tape, you're allowed to butt stroke them in the head. This is the standing rule. The kids know it. So the soldiers would take a $20 bill and they'd bury it in the sand with just a little bit of the leaf hanging out. Then they'd go hide behind the trucks and pretend like they weren't watching.

"That's a month's pay, twenty bucks, for an Iraqi. So eventually some Iraqi kid comes and starts eyeing it up, and then as soon as he got under the tape they'd come out with the butts of their rifles. It was like a game. They were trying to lure the kid in so they could hit him."

Moon, who was a convoy driver, also talked about the orders all drivers were given at one point: "If kids get in the road, we're ordered to run them over. Don't stop -- it could be an ambush. I said I can't do that. I have a 3-year-old at home. I'd rather die fighting insurgents than run over a kid. I told the chain of command 'I can't.' They heard 'I won't.' They stuck me in the rear of the convoy -- the most dangerous spot."

Grappling with his incredulity at such orders -- at how few of his fellow soldiers acknowledged that running over children, that mistreating Iraqi civilians, might provoke hatred and fuel the insurgency -- he said: "I literally felt like I was in an alternate universe. I was almost convinced for a while this was by design, that there has to be some mad genius (who decided) we need a perpetual war. How can we make this happen? ... I started going numb."

Such truth-telling begins to get at the flavor of On the Bridge. The film opens up the private consciences of deeply troubled, painfully articulate, young men and women. Also appearing in the film are the parents and sister of Jeffrey Lucey, a former Marine and Iraq vet who hanged himself in 2004. The family talked with remarkable candor about Jeff's ordeal, about the private hell that no one could penetrate.

As his father, Kevin, put it: "PTSD is a cancer of the spirit."

Among the horrors Jeff wrestled with was the fact he had killed two Iraqi soldiers at close range. He was ordered to shoot. They said, "Pull the fucking trigger." He closed his eyes and shot. For the rest of his life, he wore the dog tags of the two soldiers around his neck. "He felt personally responsible for their deaths," his sister said. "He wore the tags around his neck to honor them. It reminded him every day of what he did."

Vet suicides have been skyrocketing. According to a figure cited at the end of the film, they may be as high as 8,000 a year now. The VA is an inept bureaucracy, utterly unable to cope with a problem they can't fix in any case, because the problem plunges to the bottom of the American soul. The vets who take their lives are trying to atone for what they were told to do, what they were forced to turn into, in the name of their country.

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, 'Courage Grows Strong at the Wound' (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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