VENICE (Reuters) - A documentary premiering at the Venice film festival explores the trauma of U.S. soldiers returning from war in Iraq and struggling to readjust to normal life, with little if any help from the military.
"Ward 54," by Italian journalist Monica Maggioni, is named after the psychiatric wing of Walter Reed Hospital that treats army veterans in Washington DC.
Through the vivid recount of soldier Kristofer Goldsmith's experience, and that of the family of a marine who killed himself upon his return from Iraq, it sheds light on an increasingly alarming phenomenon that is still a taboo subject.
Since 2001, the number of suicides among the U.S. military has risen exponentially, and in 2009 it surpassed the number of war casualties, according to specialist weekly Army Times. An average of 18 veterans commit suicide every day.
"Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is something that, at least while I was in, no one ever wanted to admit that they had," Goldsmith, who burst into tears as the documentary was warmly applauded in Venice, told Reuters in an interview.
"The military is a culture of toughness ... To be viewed as broken in any way, whether it be physically or mentally, is something that seems dishonorable."
Sent to Iraq in 2005 when he as 20, Goldsmith's task was to photograph and classify Iraqi corpses.
After being ordered to take close-up pictures of bodies in a Baghdad mass grave, something snapped inside him and he began having nightmares and flashbacks.
Back in his home country, he reached out for help but no one seemed to understand his growing desperation.
Diagnosed with severe depression, he asked to be discharged from the military, but was instead ordered to return to Iraq.
Stigmatized for attempting to take his own life, he is now fighting a legal battle to have an honorable discharge from the army -- without which he will not be able to receive the grant that would allow him to go to university.
"If you are wounded in combat physically, you lose a leg, if you lose a hand, you take shrapnel, America seems to view you as a hero, whereas if you come back with invisible wounds, with emotional or mental scars, it's something that American culture doesn't seem to have the same reaction to," he said.
Maggioni said that after spending years telling the stories of U.S. soldiers on the frontline, she wanted to look at what happens when they return home.
"The problem is trying to be more and more attentive to the guys coming back, even if they pretend to have no problem at all because they are scared of the consequences," she said.
"There are so many soldiers coming back from the frontline with psychological problems that dealing with all of these soldiers, dealing with those huge numbers is a problem, it's difficult."
Additional reporting by Bob Mezan, editing by Paul Casciato