Who is the top employer of master’s level social workers in the United States? To many people’s surprise, the answer to that question is the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Military social work with veterans is a practice area so deeply integrated into the supports provided to the nation’s military and veterans that there is a direct link to the VA on the National Association of Social Work (NASW) website.
Military social workers undergo intense training to learn how to aid this high-need population, but nothing can replicate the experience service members live through. Years of training obviously prepare the social worker to treat such challenging conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder, but what can supplement that training to help them better understand the horrifying experiences that can trigger psychotic breaks?
Great films can help. For any social worker, watching a film can be an excellent way to gain insights into what service members and their families really experience. The veterans who return from unspeakable carnage may be unable to express their feelings or articulate their pain, but films can tell their stories.
American Sniper is based on the true story of Chris Kyle, a decorated Marine sniper credited with 160 kills, making him the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. Kyle served four tours of duty, returning to battle each time after struggling to readjust to civilian and family life. After his final tour, Kyle joins a support group of disabled vets and finds a new purpose: to teach these vets to shoot. Kyle was adjusting to this new life when he was killed by one of the vets whom he was teaching.
American Sniper helped put a public name and face to PTSD, sparking conversation and hopefully making it easier for veterans and their families to acknowledge the condition and seek help. A massively popular movie during its initial release, American Sniper is a likely reference point for many veterans coping with PTSD.
Behind Enemy Lines
Lt. Chris Burnett, an elite Navy flight officer, flies an unauthorized reconnaissance mission over Bosnia, where he and his pilot Lt. Jeremy Stackhouse discover a mass burial site of Bosnian Muslims. Burnett’s plane is spotted by Serb forces led by General Miroslav Lokar, the commander behind the genocidal campaign; Lokar orders Burnett’s plane shot down. After they eject, Stackhouse is captured and executed, while Burnett escapes. Lokar, hoping to suppress any information about the Bosniak genocide, sends his soldiers after Burnett. The movie then follows Burnett’s efforts to elude capture and the U.S. military’s efforts to extract him from danger.
Behind Enemy Lines provides a window into the horrific conditions that downed service members face, highlighting for social workers the intense and weighty decision-making that can accompany a tour of duty. It also points out that soldiers are not just fighters in direct combat; they can change the course of history, as Burnett does with his discovery.
Black Hawk Down
Based on a best-selling book chronicling a military mission gone wrong, Black Hawk Down tells the 1993 story of an elite team of Army Rangers flown into Somalia to capture two high-ranking Somalian lieutenants. Dropped by helicopter into the capital of Mogadishu, they encounter heavily-armed Somalis and unexpectedly fierce combat. During the confrontation, two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters are stuck down, resulting in casualties and injured survivors.
The film accurately depicts harrowing combat conditions and movingly recounts soldiers’ heroic efforts to save downed comrades. Survivor’s guilt, a condition that puts veterans at a heightened risk of suicide, is among the many psychological problems warriors are exposed to in this kind of combat.
Lucy Hyde is married to a service member and accustomed to playing a devoted wife. She is also under the thumb of the Officers’ Club, which has stereotypical expectations of how a military wife should behave. When her husband goes to war, Hyde finds herself breaking free and doing new things, including volunteering in the local Veterans Administration Hospital. There she encounters Luke, a former high school classmate who is now an edgy and raging vet paralyzed from the waist down. The two develop a relationship, through which Lucy helps Luke better manage his post-war anger. The film treats themes of social unrest over American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Anyone helping veterans with debilitating injuries will find this film informative and educational. Coming Home treats the subject of Luke’s paralysis and that of his fellow paraplegics with raw honesty and detail. This no-holds-barred depiction of Luke’s struggles and triumphs is helpful in understanding what life, with all of its awkward limitations, is like for those living with permanent physical injury.
Flags of Our Fathers
Flags of Our Fathers is based on a New York Times best-selling book and tells the real-life story of the six men who raised the Flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima. The story focuses on the flag-raiser’s loss of innocence, the carnage they endure in combat, and the struggles of the surviving three to return to post-combat life.
This film is an important must-see for social workers because it focuses on what it means to experience the large-scale loss of comrades. Further, it calls into question the futility of war, an issue many veterans grapple with once they return home; the power of this theme is heightened by its framing within the context of World War II, a war over which there is relatively little dispute regarding the necessity to fight.
The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker opens with a quote from New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and almost lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” What follows is the tale of Sergeant William James, a bomb-disposal expert during the Iraq War. Thriving on risk, recklessness, and an indifference to death, James takes the squad into ever-more-dangerous and life-threatening situations. With just four weeks left on their tour of duty, the servicemen on William’s squad just want to survive and return home, but his risk-taking forces them to engage in direct combat that compromises their emotional and physical safety
The Hurt Locker portrays the ways in which soldiers can be pushed to the edge, how some find their identity and manhood under enemy fire, and how soldiers cope with a difficult, eccentric, and arguably reckless leader.
Lioness is the real-life story of the first group of female Army support soldiers assigned to direct ground combat. Lacking the training of their male counterparts, they nonetheless fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq war.
This film tells their story through first-hand accounts, archival footage, interviews, and journal excerpts. It is arguably the only film to tell the story of the devastating effects of war from female soldiers’ perspectives.
Thank You For Your Service
A biographical war drama story, Thank You For Your Service follows the veterans of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment as they struggle to re-enter civilian life after a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq in 2007. The film focuses on their battle against illness and PTSD.
Any social worker in this practice area will find it illuminating to watch these characters’ struggles. The film focuses on the soldiers’ re-acclimation to civilian life, presenting a fuller picture of the process than do films that split time more evenly between causes (battlefield trauma) and effects (PTSD).
We Are Not Done Yet
The documentary We Are Not Done Yet follows the post-battlefield journey of ten veterans and active duty members who join a poetry workshop to deal with their traumatic experience with death and combat. Hoping to tell their stories through the written word, these soldiers come together and find a tribal identity with each other. Fighting against PTSD, they reveal their silent battles and ultimately share their poetry in a live, recorded performance at the Washington D. C. Lansburgh Theatre.
This film offers an inspiring example of how the power of community and connection can help veterans heal. The novel approach the veterans use to tell their stories—writing, journaling, and poetry—offer potentially fruitful pathways through which other veterans might work through their experiences and find closure. The public validation these vets receive in the final segment is incredibly meaningful to them and powerful to viewers.
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