Sergeant Nathan Harris has a tendency to pull down his pants to show strangers the Frankenstein-like scar that runs across one buttock and all the way down his right leg. He shows it to an elderly greeter at Walmart, and to the guy who escorts Harris and his wife around a house they hope to rent. It’s as if he needs to prove something--to show that there’s a reason he’s driving a motorized wheelchair; to excuse the fact that a stranger catches Harris doubled over his walker, in a drugged-out stupor.
Harris is the subject of Hell and Back Again, an Oscar-nominated documentary that premieres nationwide Monday night on PBS’s Independent Lens (it airs in the New York City area on Sunday). The film, made by photojournalist Danfung Dennis, tells parallel stories: Harris the soldier, on the battlefield in Afghanistan; and Harris the husband, the wounded warrior, back home in North Carolina. It’s a small movie, a deeply intimate look at one man’s struggle with the war and its aftermath. Yet it does more to convey the toll such fighting takes on its veterans, and the scale of the issues facing America’s returning soldiers, than perhaps any other film in recent memory.
We all know the numbers: 1,966 U.S. forces slain in Afghanistan, according to The Washington Post's latest figures. But civilians rarely get a glimpse of what life is like, either on the battlefield or after deployment, for the so-called lucky ones--men like Harris, a 26-year-old Marine whose unit was dropped behind enemy lines in southern Afghanistan in the summer of 2009. Harris and his fellow Marines were promptly attacked from all sides. Harris survived. Others in his unit did not.
Years later, Harris is hardly feeling lucky. The anxiety of something simple, like trying to find a parking spot, can cause him such frustration that he claims he’d rather be back in Afghanistan, where things are “easier.”
The film moves fluidly, almost imperceptibly, between the front lines of Afghanistan, where the soldiers are young and the stress is relentless, to another, no less difficult battleground on the homefront. Wounded in war, Harris comes home with a shattered hip and a metal rod holding his leg together. The pain is as constant as it is debilitating. And Harris relies on a bag of prescription painkillers—Oxycontin, morphine, "everything," he says. “It helps a lot but it keeps me loopy." Still, the pain is so severe that several times, it causes him to vomit. In other moments, we see him doubled over on his walker, looking less like a war hero than a doped-up junkie.
As Harris drifts in and out of his opiate-induced haze, we first hear, then see, scenes from Afghanistan. It’s an effective, and affecting, device that mimics the flashbacks so many veterans experience. In Afghanistan, Harris was in charge. He was a warrior, a hero and a cowboy. At home in North Carolina, Harris is none of those things. He’s dependent—on drugs to help ease his pain, on his wife to get him dressed in the morning and to help him get into and out of the car every day. At home, he plays videogames that simulate warfare—the only time in the film he looks almost ecstatic. It makes sense, in a twisted logic, that Harris would miss the war.
“When I was 18 years old all I wanted to do was kill people,” Harris says at one point, explaining his reasons for enrolling in the military. “My first two deployments, I was one of those guys that didn't have any fear whatsoever. I was ready to go do it. I wanted to go fight. I wanted to kill the enemy and be a roughneck and cuss and spit tobacco, come home and do it again. And I did that.”
Harris was injured during his third deployment, just a day before his unit was to go on its final mission. He came devastatingly close to coming home without physical injuries. Still, that wouldn’t necessarily have meant coming home undamaged. Like many veterans, Harris seems to struggle with complex psychological strains. During the film, we watch as his marriage turns from tender to tense. At the beginning of the film, Harris spends car rides leaning his head against his wife’s shoulder, or nuzzling her neck affectionately. Later on, those same trips are dominated by arguments and accusations. At home, Harris plays a version of Russian roulette—one that doesn’t involve actually pulling the trigger—and when it’s his wife’s turn, he finds the chamber is loaded. “Gotcha, bitch,” he laughs. Harris confesses that he sleeps with a loaded gun tucked under his mattress, where he can easily grab it. One night, he falls asleep with it sitting on his nightstand.
Harris’s wife Ashley—a reticent woman with long hair that’s bleached platinum blond on top and jet black underneath--only talks about the changes in her husband once, during a trip to Walgreens to pick up his prescriptions. “He gets so mad. Like, he turns into a different person almost,” she says, her eyes refusing to meet the camera. “I don't even see my husband. It was almost like someone had taken over him. I could look in his eyes and it wouldn’t even be him. It was like soulless almost. I don’t know that that makes any sense but he doesn’t really become anybody but rage. It’s just rage.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is never directly addressed, but it hangs like a specter over Harris’s life at home. The demons he is fighting are powerful ones, ones that he is hardly alone in battling. Eighteen veterans commit suicide every day in this country, and the number of U.S. soldiers who have taken their own lives is now greater than the number who have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, a recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that the Veterans Administration now takes an average of 394 days to process disability cases—including PTSD—for active-duty troops.
Hell and Back Again tells just one of these stories. With thousands of troops returning home from overseas bearing the physical, emotional, and psychological wounds of war, it’s one we all have an obligation to see.