WASHINGTON — Chief Warrant Officer Mitch Wiese sat in a concrete bunker – a wry, half-smile playing at the soldier’s shadowed face as he wondered what war was going to do to him and the medevac unit he flew with.
It was 2011, the peak of the surge in the Afghanistan conflict. Wiese, a pilot, and his crew from the 10th Mountain Division’s Company C, 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment, were conducting multiple missions some days – jumping at the crackle of the radio, running to their helicopter so they could pluck wounded off the battlefield, stem the bleeding, patch the holes in human flesh, pump in oxygen or fluids. Frequently, they were covered in blood and dust, ears ringing, chopper blades thumping, adrenaline racing, as they worked to save lives.
To them, it seemed like they had the most demanding and gratifying jobs in the world. Still, Wiese wondered what kind of nightmares the medics – or “back-seaters” — must have. The pilots up front don’t see everything, he says in a just-released documentary “Trauma,” on Amazon and iTunes. But just hearing the struggles of the medics and their victims was enough.
“I know everyone’s gonna go home with a lot of memories – a lot of bad memories,” he says.
Cut to 2014.
Wiese, now bearded, sat at the dining table in his home in Albany, N.Y., watching that wartime clip of himself on a computer screen. He leaned back in his chair. It struck him as strange, he said, that he knew back then what would happen down the road.
“It’s weird listening to myself talk about having problems” in the future, he says, his voice cracking with emotion. “And here I am.”
Following Wiese and five members of his medevac unit from their 2011 deployment in Afghanistan through a five-year rocky journey back home, “Trauma” captures a unique view into the world of men whose job took them to the heart of war with the most noble of missions – and the unavoidable reckoning.
In the documentary, there is no narration other than the voices of the men, interviewed over the course of time. Their lives change and evolve. Some come quickly to the end of their military service, while others carry on until they can’t anymore. Each struggles to adapt back home, to reconnect with their families and do jobs that mean so much less to them.
“We were unsung f-ing heroes,” Robert Speth, crew chief of the 2011 deployment, says in the film. “Dude, if you were getting on my aircraft, you had a good chance of getting off alive. You were having the best worst day of your life. And now I come back, I turn wrenches on rich peoples’ airplanes – nobody gives a sh--. But I am actually OK with that,” he said. “I am fine with that because that other stuff was gonna kill you.”
Even as the medevacs’ lives move forward, the war scenes splash back onto the screen with that same incessant and violent urgency, reminding you that there is no singular narrative of war.
Slowly, you come to realize that the hardest job these men could ever have is finding their own way home.
A binding force
Journalist Harry Sanna started filming the Black Hawk crew on what was supposed to be a weeklong embed with the unit at Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar province in 2011. But there was something about the story that he just couldn’t quit, he said in an interview with Stars and Stripes.
He extended his stay for weeks, went on missions and spent downtime with the men, learning their stories and seeing what the job entailed.
At some point, the crew began to see him as family, said medic Michael Walker, a sergeant first class on that mission, in an interview. Later, when Sanna suffered from the aftermath of war and losing colleagues on the battlefield, they grew even more connected.
“What we all went through over there was a binding agent for us,” Sanna, 30, said from his home in Sydney, Australia. “While at times, year after year, some people were in better places, I feel there was a collective internal reckoning coming for us all.”
Sanna’s struggle isn’t covered in the film, but it is a driving force that propelled him to reach out to the unit years later and fly to the United States in 2014 to interview six of them. He hung out with Walker and Wiese and the others on their sofas, filming at all times of day and night as they spoke with rare candor.
Wiese talked about the struggles he and his wife had with infertility, the nightmares and lost sleep, and what a quick fuse could look like at home.
Walker, now 44, confronted the camera with his raw account of the job that took him back to Afghanistan, how the mission separated him from his family not just physically, but emotionally, until his wife went home to her native Japan, taking their daughter with her.
“Yeah, there is a price you pay,” Walker says, shortly after his family left. The camera stayed on him as his eyes filled with tears. “But the job is too important,” he says. “The people that would be left behind. I can’t ...”
Each of the six men Sanna followed took a different path, but they all struggled to find an identity as dramatic and intense as being a combat medic.
“In my mind,” pilot Julian Gilbert says in the film, “it’s going to be difficult to top that year we had in Afghanistan, as far as finding meaning and purpose.”
Speth had been gearing up to go back to Afghanistan when his daughter bit her lip while jumping on the couch and started screaming. He held her, but said she smelled like hydraulic fluid. His wife was calling from upstairs to see if she was OK, but in his mind, he’s hearing the radio call and helicopter noises. Only he was holding his daughter on that chopper. “It was at that moment when I realized, ‘Dude, you can’t do this — you need help,’” Speth says in the film. He traded in his mission for civilian coveralls and found his way back to his family.
“I still wonder how I made it home, after what we did on a daily basis,” Wiese, 42, said in an interview. “Now I sit in a cubicle.”
For Sanna, the difficult journey was redemptive.
Through a Kickstarter campaign, he raised enough money to hire an editor. When he joined forces with producers Ryan Cunningham and David Gaddie, the film came into focus – shifting from a documentary about the work of a medevac crew in Afghanistan to a story about what happens to them in the long years afterward.
Gaddie said there was a pivotal point early on in their effort when Sanna was showing him his Afghanistan footage and it was “all really tame.”
“Isn’t there anything else?” Gaddie asked.
A day later, Sanna called him and showed him a very difficult scene. “He showed it to me shaking. He had avoided certain footage,” Gaddie said.
After that, Sanna summoned the courage to go back and look at all the footage, coming to terms with his own journey. That’s when he grasped what he was trying to get from his subjects.
“The film sort of took a new turn at that point,” Gaddie said.
A stop along the way
The documentary was in the editing stages in 2015 when the filmmakers began to realize that some stories were incomplete.
Wiese and his wife, who struggled with infertility, had a son. Wiese has been consistently in therapy, and in his last onscreen interview, he says he is in such a good place.
But for others, things were far less certain.
No one had heard from their colleague Bart Prouty. Prouty, like Walker, had gone back to Afghanistan after his 2011 tour. But the tour was tough for Prouty, and he left the deployment in the middle. Sanna and his crew reached out to Prouty, but he stopped responding to them and his medevac buddies. Sanna decided to go back to him and capture his journey.
After his deployment was cut short, Prouty had been in and out of treatment programs, he and Speth said in the film. Prouty was drinking too much and struggling to find steady ground. The last time Prouty saw Speth, the two buddies fought.
“You are gonna be one of the f-ing homeless vets sitting on the side of the road with the ‘I served’ hats begging for handouts because you couldn’t get your sh-- together looking for answers at the bottom of the bottle,” Speth, now 38, warns him in the film.
Prouty, now 37, remembered it this way: He’d stopped taking his medication and he was spiraling. He felt like he had no control, he says in the film, and he didn’t care if he lived or died.
Then his friends intervened, encouraging him to check himself into treatment. “It was my brothers trying to take care of me, and um,” he says, his voice welling with tears, “that meant a lot.”
Worth the price
From the start, Sanna immerses viewers in the powerful story of rescuers in battle who were called to save lives. Only late in the documentary does he call post traumatic stress disorder by its name. Sanna says that was no accident.
By then, you are invested – in men troubled by war, and in men whose job it was to save lives on the battlefield.
“I wanted to push past the definition,” Sanna said of PTSD.
That’s when you see the flip side. The guilt over those they couldn’t save; the smell of burning flesh that never quite dissipates; the eyes of wounded children — wide in terror and pain – with no language to console them; the heavy, dark toll this mission would take on their families.
Throughout the film, medic Todd Fuchigami, aka Fuji, serves as the joker who likes to keep things light. Toward the end, he tells the story of having to help reposition a casualty whose head had been split open. He could feel the texture of the man’s brains through his glove, and saw the ring on his finger as he draped an American flag over him. He wondered whether the man had talked to his loved ones recently. He thought about his own wife, he said.
The realities aren’t pretty – long sleepless nights, the things he won’t tell her, Islamophobia, alcohol, alienation. Burst of crying fits alternating with bursts of rage. And for Prouty — and maybe others — a willingness to drive into an embankment. The men describe these feelings in detail.
“Was it worth it?” Walker asks himself about his time as a medic, toward the end of the film. He says he is going to Japan to ask his family to come home.
“Yeah. You have 1,200 people who are going back to their families and that’s just the people I treated,” he answers. “But I am starting to realize the price is too high.”
“Trauma” is available on Amazon, Vimeo, iTunes and Tugg. Links can be found on the film’s website: trauma.film.