I saw American Sniper yesterday and like many, was emotionally stirred by Clint Eastwood’s depiction of the life of Chris Kyle.
Had I not seen The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), watching the graphic deaths of women and children in war would have been even more horrific. Sadly, if movies have to compete with CNN, then we are sure to see more over-the-top violence in movies to come. What I wish we would see more of is the human side of the story which I know is harder to tell (and sell).
After four tours of duty and 160 kills to his name – as you might suspect – Chris comes home a changed man. His post-traumatic stress symptoms and healing are embedded in the story, but more as a side show. We experience him sitting alone at a bar drinking, having one brief encounter with a therapist, and helping some other vets. And then miraculously his PTSD is cured, or so it seems.
To be fair, I have not read the book and mean no disrespect to Chris. There is likely a lot more to this part of the story, but Clint and his team chose to gloss over it. For most who go to war, let alone experience four tours of duty on the front lines, addressing PTSD goes far beyond one therapy session. If you want to see a more powerful depiction of PTSD and how it unfolds, watch Brothers.
We are miserably failing both active-duty personnel and veterans who struggle with trauma and addiction. Reports from the Institute of Medicine (PTSD, Substance Abuse) provide evidence that we need to do a lot more to help those sufferings. But what do we do?
While both IOM reports detail recommendations for improving care, if you are presently in pain, they offer little help. Thus I offer the following suggestions, with the caveat that there really are no simple solutions.
- Education. If you are suffering, or know someone who is and are unsure how to help, then your first priority is learning as much as you can about trauma and addiction. Once you understand how traumatic events and addiction alter the brain, body and emotional systems, the hope of healing becomes more than possible. For learning about addiction, check out the material on this website. For trauma, read Waking the Tiger, The Body Remembers, The Body Keeps the Score, and In an Unspoken Voice. Also, check out David Baldwin’s Trauma Information Pages. These resources alone, if read by active-duty personnel, vets, and family members, would be life-altering.
- Hyperarousal. It’s hard to function in life when blood pressure is through the roof and normal sights, sounds, and smells trigger a flood of chemicals that prepare the body for a life or death battle. While such reactions can be life-saving in the field, they are not such a good thing when you are wanting to successfully reengage in civilian life. Among the best antidotes to address hyperarousal is yoga, breath work, martial arts, and emotion-regulation skills. All of these are discussed in the above mentioned books, so there is no shortage of methods. While medications can be useful, often they can be avoided by engaging in these behavioral interventions.
- Mindfulness. Healing from trauma requires self-awareness. You must learn to reinhabit your body by gradually noticing what your thoughts, feelings and sensations do under different circumstances. There is a significant literature on the benefits of mindfulness for all people, but if you suffer from trauma and addiction, it may be the most important key. If you use alcohol, illicit drugs, pain medication, or gamble to medicate PTSD symptoms, you must become mindful of when and how addiction plays a role in keeping you stuck in life. Check out the site Mindful and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living.
- Therapy. While it’s not always necessary to seek therapy for treatment of trauma and addiction, both tend to be complex challenging problems that benefit from someone who can coach you to health. The key is getting good therapy that goes beyond talk therapy. There are a number of evidence-based treatments like EMDR, Internal Family Systems Therapy, Somatic Experiencing, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy that require a trained therapist to implement the approach. How to find a good therapist, pay for treatment, and ensure good outcomes go beyond this post, but by exploring the links herein I believe you will be armed with knowledge that will help you find what you need.
Lastly, we tend to think of trauma and addiction as pathological problems requiring professional diagnosis and intervention. But in truth, these problems are actually normal responses to abnormal life experiences. I hate that we pathologize human behaviors that at their core actually help us to survive! It’s why my 5 Actions model of intervention embraces the healing power of creativity.
Susan Vaughan says
I saw American Sniper the first night it came out. I really had no idea what it was I was about see. There hadn’t been all the controversy yet. I left the theatre a little confused. You see my son went to Iraq four years ago. He did one 9 month tour. I didn’t feel the movie gave justice to the real trouble that our men and women are going thru. I agree with you that it was merely glossed over and narrowed down to a simplistic fairy tale. I know a lot of Vets are happy that at least they have brought a little bit of light to the war, but I felt literally robbed by it’s simplistic portrayal. Keeping in mind my son did one tour over there. Many people have done many more. Each time being a little more traumatized. Thank you for pointing this out and for the great suggestions.
John Fitzgerald says
Thanks Susan, glad the post resonated with you. We need to be doing a lot more for our troops, and not shying away from the reality that PTSD is more common than people realize is a good first step. Also, taking the shame out of the diagnosis and recognizing that how the body responds in war is often not a choice, but thankfully a survival reaction, would also help a lot. My thanks and honor to your son for his services for our country.
Setting the issues about the movie aside, I enjoyed this movie. It provided insight into the life and culture of Chris Kyle, the American military in Iraq and Texas. They tried to instill conflict and a plot into the story in various ways, but this is essentially a story about Chris with the focus being on several tours in Iraq. That is all. There were some scenes that I felt kind of gave you an idea of how it is like to be one of them.
Posttraumatic stress disorder is also portrayed very authentically and respectfully. Eastwood deftly shows that war can nearly destroy a person even when they are not fighting. Ultimately, PTSD proves to be Kyle’s downfall, but not in the way you might expect.
Is Chris Kyle a hero? I’m not sure. But I didn’t need to think that to enjoy this movie. It’s interesting enough that this guy has become an icon to many in America.
Jadyn McMillan says
I saw American Sniper shortly after it came out and while I had a pretty emotional response, like most I’m assuming, I also noticed that there wasn’t as much information on his PTSD as you mentioned. I don’t know a lot about the military or what they have to go through during the years they serve, but I did watch a video in my Psychology class about how members during boot camp are trained to respond to intense fear and still operate under those conditions. While watching the video I felt that what they go through is harsh and not necessary. However, then I realized that marines go through hell and back when serving on missions. They see, hear and experience terrible things causing serious emotional damage. When they come back they are far from being able to live a normal life. After seeing this video on the recruits in training, and then watching the American Sniper, I feel I better understood what people in the military go through, and why their training is close to cruel because nothing can prepare you for the misery of battle and the effect it has on you.
Here is the video I watched in my Psychology class if anybody is interested,
Ben Adena says
After watching the movie, I also thought the movie was glorified. I know a couple people who have been on duty on the front lines and they have said it is not an experience you can move on from that easily. Many lose their lives completely to PTSD by getting into alcohol addictions, drug addiction, etc. and those who do get treated from PTSD struggle to get over it. The suggestions of education, hyperarousal, mindfulness and therapy are all very excellent suggestions. I just think that we need to promote these things more and get more people that are willing to help our veterans out. I enjoyed reading your post and thank you for a really good insight to the movie.
Thank you so much for mentioning yoga in relation to hyperarousal. I am currently completing a yoga teacher training program and it has truly changed my entire philosophy regarding treatment, pain, trauma and more. It is difficult to overcome obstacles if your body never reaches its parasympathetic state. Now I have no background in formal mental health treatment. I am just barely beginning to dip my toes in the water. I believe yoga really has the power to influence positive progress within treatment programs. I watched a great documentary on Netflix in which yoga (with specific incorporation of breath awareness) seriously curbed the symptoms within a group of veterans suffering from PTSD. I, of course, stand firmly behind the powers of yoga. It is sometimes to convince others of the same. It seems to “hippy-esque.” Do you have any suggestions or tips on how I can incorporate my yoga into addiction? I plan to help others with their addiction and/or trauma in the future.
John Fitzgerald says
Tessa, thanks for your comment! My best suggestion is to read the chapter on yoga in Bessel Van der Kolks new book The Body Keeps the Score. There are also a number of websites dedicated to “integrating yoga and behavioral health.”
John Fitzgerald says
Jadyn, thanks for feedback and posting the video! Yes, was is a type of hell.
Daniel B says
I watched the movie and have to agree with what has already been said, it was really glossed over. I am a Vet and all though I never saw combat when I was deployed, I knew a lot of people who did. When I was enrolled at STAP, I’m an addict in recovery, through the VA there were a lot of men and women, mostly men, who were in my classes. They were older and they were trying to deal with what happened to them from the 1960’s and 1970’s. All of them were covering up what happened to them with a lot of different substances.
It was really disturbing to hear what they have had to go through. From my understanding there was nothing in the way of help until the recent few years, this was back around 2010 through 2012. I believe that the education part along with the therapy part is the key to helping these guys, women as well. I believe that the government needs to really debrief soldiers coming back and have mandatory sessions after coming home.
There also needs to be more services and outlets for them too. The VA was terribly under staffed and so far behind that even if there was a way to fit everyone into classes there would not be nearly enough staff to teach them. What I also didn’t like is how the VA would mainly just push medication instead of a all around treatment for them. I’m very glad to see that at least someone is thinking about this and is trying to find a solution.
I watched American Sniper as well the first night it came out and by watching the trailer i thought it was maybe going to show more of the stresses these combat veterans endure back as civilian life but as John Fitzgerald mentioned Hollywood is selling the action. I remember a veteran came and spoke to one of my psychology courses and told his story and his story of recovery. His main emphasis is that he feels at first had no one to speak to about his issues and relate to on a personal level as people who haven’t experienced can’t walk in their shoes. I believe we as a society should stop stigmatizing disorders and make them more common place so everyone can have a platform to speak. I also enjoyed your 5 action model of intervention and enjoy reading about new creative ways to heal instead of going by the “book”.
John Fitzgerald says
Thanks for the comment!
John Fitzgerald says
Thanks for the insights, I agree fully we need to do more for the men and woman who participate in our military!
I read the book American Sniper before the movie was produced and I have watched the movie a few times since it came to theaters. The book had much more of a voice from Chris Kyle and went into much more detail about his experiences throughout his tours. There is much more in depth detail about his emotional processes and hardships overseas as well as at home with his family and every day life back in the states. It seems as though movies tend to leave out important aspects of the story by over exaggerating or dismissing specific pieces. Entertainment movies aren’t intended to be packed full of educational information or be completely informative, they are entertainment. Documentaries seem to more intended to report on specific topics, stories, and real life things. I like to think that Eastwood intended to shine light on some things that are many times overshadowed or dismissed in mainstream media and movies that have to do with war and the lives of soldiers, which he did in many cases through out American Sniper. That said, he left out a lot of important things like what Chris Kyle experienced with his PTSD, how he dealt with is in positive and negative ways, and how it effected his relationship with himself and his family which were briefly skimmed over in the movie. By including the reality of these things the movie could have been much more powerful and helpful for those people who have experienced it first hand as well as those who are naive or unaware. The movie did seem to glorify war and the 160 kills of Chris Kyle, to and his team he was doing this to save the lives of his brothers, which I believe is an honorable act. I think we should all also remember that Chis Kyle was recently shot and killed along side his friend Chad Littlefield by a Marine veteran who had suffered from PTSD and diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Basically everything that you stated above is everything that should be addressed and people should become educated about. Yoga and mindfulness are things that can bring people back to themselves and create safety and comfort within a person. I LOVE the 5 action model of intervention and I think it is so powerful! Thank you for shining light on these issues that are often dismissed and hard to understand.
John Fitzgerald says
Tayler, thanks for reminding me of the power of books over movies, I will add the book to my reading list! I am also glad to hear that the book fills in more of the PTSD details. And appreciate greatly your kind words about my 5 Actions model, will keep evolving it in ways that make it more accessible to those in need.
The movie “American Sniper” really hit home with me. I am a veteran myself and have a lot of veteran friends here in the Portland area. While I personally never went through anything like Chris Kyle went through, I have my battles with PTSD and other military related things. In my opinion, the movie was never produced to show the effects of PTSD on Chris Kyle. While they had a few short scenes in the movie, it was more based on his time “in country.” Unfortunately, there are a large number of reasons that many service members will not come forward and talk about it or admit to it.
Many people do not understand what it is like to be put in some of the situations that some of us have been through. When “we” are put in a traumatic life or death situation, there is something inside us that never lets go of that moment, and it haunts us for the rest of our days. Many veterans will not talk about it for one main reason, “I am not the same person I used to be. I feel weak, helpless. When I stop and think about how I am feeling after what happened to me, I feel like a failure, I feel less of a man. No one knows what I have been through or how I feel.” These words are verbatim from what some of my friends have said.
I have a close friend who is a pastor that is also a veteran and has many degrees, one being in psychology and he has said it best. “At one time or another, we have all been through tough times or traumatic events. It doesn’t matter if you were “in country” and had to do what you had to do to protect your own life or you were at home one night and someone broke into your place. The feelings incorporated with that event are all the same. Fear from a home invasion is the same fear that you felt when someone tried to take your life in Afghanistan. We need to stop thinking that no one else knows how I’m feeling. We need to put the story that is involved to the side and think about the feeling that you are experiencing. It is at this moment we can finally start to relate to one another and begin to realize that we are not alone.” This comment from him really hit me hard. It was a true eye opener.
Stacy Young says
War movies are high on my list of favorites, so I was very excited to see how they would portray Chris Kyle in this movie. After watching American Sniper, I feel that Eastwood should have portrayed more of the underlying behavioral aspects of what Chris was going through. Of course this movie was meant for entertainment, not educational value. To make the movie more effective Eastwood does pepper in small snippets of what Chris is going through. We see signs of his disease briefly displayed when Chris is state side with his family between deployments. Being someone who has to manage PTSD myself, I found your suggestions on education, hyper arousal, mindfulness, and therapy all very interesting suggestions. I do not take medications as I feel too many people dull the pain with pills, rather than addressing the underlying causes of PTSD. It is encouraging to read your blog, and to find alternative ways to heal.
John Fitzgerald says
Aaron, thanks for the feedback. I agree with your pastor friend that where trauma occurs is less important than the fact that those who suffer from trauma experience similar symptoms that are treatable. But I don’t agree that we need to “put the story aside.” Instead, it is integrating the story in the head with the feelings in the heart that ultimately helps resolve trauma.
Daniel Walker says
I never had PTSD or knew anyone with PTSD, but the movie almost reminded me of the time I was alcoholic. I’d do all sorts of crazy stuff, got into arguments easily and would verbally abuse nearly everyone around me. But I do believe that proper treatment, both mental and physical would have helped him, like in my case. I went through rehab at an alcohol addiction program in Calgary for a full 7 months. Depression is a nasty mental state. Today, I try to spread the word as much as I can about the problems of alcoholism and drug abuse.
Julie Nicklas says
Thank you for your post. I think that it is incredibly important to raise awareness of PTSD and other issues that returning vets face when coming home. It is so important to be proactive on these issues so the harmful outcomes are minimized. I did not see the movie, because I was too afraid of the violence (I do not do well with violence). But, I can only imagine how the need to sell and make a lot of money off the movie, and compete with CNN would cause the true issues to not be addressed adequately. I think that education like you mentioned is very important. In some of my classes, we are studying PTSD and learning what it looks like to be proactive in these situations.
Allen Doyle says
I thank everyone for their perceptive and constructive comments. On a side issue, I am grateful the comments don’t descend into grandstanding then personal attacks that happens so predictably on many comment threads. It is relieving and appropriate that the comments are civil on this website. Are these comments moderated or are people just less activated and polite on this site? Have the trolls been banished? This is not just a hypothetical question when I see so many comment sections get crazy, and I’d like a solution for civil discourse. I’ll be happy to take a response off line. Thank you.
John Fitzgerald says
Allen, thanks for the comment about the comments in general on this site! People are respectable and all opinions are welcomed. The only time I do not allow a comment is if it includes a link to a treatment program where the intent of the feedback is to redirect traffic to a site for marketing purposes. Otherwise, all trolls welcomed :)
Celeste Williams says
This post rang very strongly with me since I work at the VA hospital in my area and see so many veterans, but new and older, that have told me about their struggles with addiction trying to “hide” from the PTSD that they find themselves facing. I draw blood for a living and one of the most chilling things that has ever been said to me when I ask if the needle stick hurt to bad is when they look at me and say “What sucks is that I’m waiting for the good feeling that usually comes after a needle and I am not getting it.” It raises the hair on my arms and it makes me sad when I realize that they fight a battle on both the military and civilian sides of their life.
As far as the movie, I haven’t seen it. I chose to keep to the book as that would be a much closer depiction of a heros struggle with PTSD.
John Fitzgerald says
Wow, that is powerful! We need to be doing more for those in our military, and I am presently developing some online programs to contribute to the effort. Thanks for your feedback, and agree, books are always better than movies.
I was in the service and deployed once. Talked to a lot of soldiers who deployed more than once and heard the things they went through and how some were traumatized by it and how some were not affected by certain events. Then I came to realize that people will react to the same events differently. Some in a negative and traumatizing way, and some as if it was just an event. From my experience in the military, there should be more options and avenues of help for the ones who’s serving and have served.
John Fitzgerald says
Yes, one reason why people respond differently to the same event is that people have different underlying vulnerabilities based on past experiences. We learned from Vietnam that the soldiers who had past trauma histories were more likely to get PTSD from war than those who had no prior trauma histories.
Emily Kelley says
This is so true and, unfortunately, the struggles of veterans are not only “glossed over” and sensationalized in the media and in Hollywood, but in real life too. So many veterans, concerned that they will appear weak or cowardly, do not ask for help and the signs that someone struggling with PTSD needs help can be confusing to civilians or outsiders, thus making the first steps to recovery hard to even achieve. This so often leads to the rabbit hole of self-medicating with alcohol and/or other substances, making it more and more difficult to seek the appropriate help that is needed.
Thank you for posting. I lost my best friend, a veteran, to suicide after a long battle with PTSD and substance abuse just over a year ago. This is an issue close to my heart and a system that needs so much help.
John Fitzgerald says
Emily, very sorry to hear about your friend’s death. We as a society to need to provide vets with better behavioral health services to prevent such tragedies from continuing in the future. For my part, I am working on an online program that can be accessed 24/7…hopefully up and running soon.
Thanks for you comment
Jen Martinez says
I have not yet seen American Sniper, but I have watched pieces of both Zero Dark Thirty and Seal Team Six. Both of these movies focused on the raid and the tactics itself, and each movie gave very little looks into their personal lives or their return home after the raid. Like American Sniper, it sounds like violence, blood, and other disturbing images where extremely visible, yet the effects of witnessing such things were absent. Upon analyzing that, perhaps that is why there is little known to the public about PTSD. Maybe the lack of talking about it or showing its true effects in movies continues to keep society from talking about it or understanding it. I believe this may also add to the stigma of PTSD. (How have we still not learned anything after Vietnam and the vets who returned from that war?)
Obviously PTSD is a real problem and its really not being talked about. Regarding the treatment options for PTSD, as a Social Work student, I wonder how fast MDMA therapy will grow. Although I definitely like (and agree) with the treatment options suggested in this blog, I am a firm believer of MDMA assisted therapy and the results it has on PTSD. Maybe this new form of therapy can offer new solutions and new approaches since society continues to forget about the negative consequences of war.
Josiah Loos says
I agree the there are many measures that need to be taken as far as treatment and therapy for the traumas that our loved ones endure while in the armed forces. I hope that with the presentation of the movie that more people will read the book and become aware of how dangerous it is to let people with this disease, PTSD, to go unnoticed because Chris Kyle lost his life over it. He found strength and relief from his PTSD from helping fellow veterans integrate back into life and take them out shooting not in a warlike, and also as a plus was an honor to do it with Chris Kyle. It shows that we need more professionals to be monitoring them more closely because while Chris’s efforts are very admirable, he put himself in a situation with someone who was very unstable and needed more help than Chris was trained for, even with his own arsenal of personal experience. I applaud Chris for his efforts because he gave those veterans a therapy that is hard to find and that is one outside of an office, not on some lousy sofa where you just talk with some guy who has never experienced what you have or knows some of your pain. For example, the hyperarousal, if we had therapists who were veterans and overcame it themselves and worked with a lot of vets and had a lot of suggestions. I think we need to think like Chris did and make more programs like that so that therapy or treatment doesn’t seem as stereotypical which I think deters people from doing it.
John Fitzgerald says
Josiah, thanks for the feedback, I am sort of with you… Yes, we need more out of the office, out of the box, creative solutions for those who struggle with PTSD, addiction and other issues, but I don’t agree with your assessment that therapists have their heads in the sand. We know how to treat trauma, and just like a brain surgeon who can do her job well without having had a brain tumor herself, therapist can treat trauma without having to have had experienced war. That said, not all therapists know how to treat trauma well, and vets who have served our country deserve the best treatments, and therapists that understand the context of being part of the military.
Jacqueline P. says
I saw American Sniper a few months after it came out, and I have to say I was shocked and sad to see the struggles of this young man trying to reenter civilian life. I believe in the power of therapy, and the positive impact it has in rehabilitation and coping with issues, so I would one hundred percent recommend therapy. I think Dr. Fitzgerald makes excellent points on how to help someone suffering from PTSD, understanding the struggle a little bit better can be a key factor in rehabilitation.