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A Film Review of Hell and Back Again
By Robert DeLauro, MSW, ACSW

“Don’t forget, you are experts in the application of violence.”

This statement is a small segment of a pep talk—almost a postscript—given to the Marines from Echo Company as they begin their 2009 offensive in southern Afghanistan. They are also told that their primary directive is to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. Attempting to win hearts and minds when your proficiency is first and foremost in the application of violence is just one of the challenges explored in the excellent, Oscar-nominated documentary Hell and Back Again by Danfung Dennis.

The primary focus of the documentary is on Sgt. Nathan Harris, one of the Marines whom Dennis accompanies on Echo Company’s mission behind enemy lines. Near the end of his tour in Afghanistan, an enemy bullet severely wounds Harris. Dennis follows Harris back home to North Carolina and documents his efforts to recover from a shattered hip and leg.

The film alternates between incredibly intense Afghan battle footage and Harris’ painful and slow rehabilitation at home. The battle footage is harrowing. Dennis captures on film the sheer terror of being a target of the enemy. The Taliban is never seen, but the danger they instigate is clearly demonstrated. Dennis was embedded with the Marines, and much of the footage has an astonishing immediacy. I frequently had to remind myself that I was watching an actual firefight and not a Hollywood production.

Coming home presents a different trauma for Harris. In addition to the rehabilitation from his serious physical injuries, he faces a very difficult emotional adjustment to forced inactivity and the realities of his marriage. Despite a supportive wife and good medical care, he comments several times that he would rather be back in Afghanistan. He is experiencing a stress at home that is worse than what he faced in Afghanistan. By cutting back and forth between Afghanistan and North Carolina, the film makes it easier to understand how challenging it is for a soldier to go from the intensity and fervor of war to the maddening moderation at home.

No one can go to war without being changed. Many war veterans report the experience of coming home as being more stressful than going to war. They return home believing the worst is over. In the 1980s, I had the opportunity to provide individual and group psychotherapy with Vietnam veterans who were diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder. Nearly every one of the vets I worked with described coming home as a nightmare that made emotional healing almost impossible.

The Vietnam War was very unpopular, and the returning veterans were an easy target for the country’s anger. Vietnam veterans were (and are) rightfully angry about doing their job halfway around the world only to be cursed at and spit on arriving at home. In Hell and Back Again, there is a scene that exemplifies how differently we view today’s veterans compared with the Vietnam era. Soon after returning home, Harris visits a Wal-Mart with his wife. He strikes up a conversation with an older female shopper. He is proud of his military service in Afghanistan, and he tells her about his wounds and explains to her why he is in a battery-powered cart. All she says is, “Can I give you a hug?”

I highly recommend this documentary. Without politicizing his subjects, Dennis provides a candid view of the horrors and complexities of military service in Afghanistan and a straightforward, sensitive, and insightful depiction of coming home.

— Robert DeLauro, MSW, ACSW, is a freelance writer and consultant with the Labor Management Project in New York City.