Monday, August 11, 2008

Military Issue

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Although the United Negro College Fund used that motto for many years as a successful fundraising tool, too many young minds get confused, fried, and destroyed these days, resulting in a terrible loss of human potential.

Back when I registered with the Selective Service as a conscientious objector, I was subjected to an interview to see if I was sincere in my beliefs. "What would you do if we put a gun in your hand and told you to shoot?" asked a member of my draft board.

"I'd turn around and shoot you," I replied.

The look of shock on his face was memorable. "But I'm on your side," he sputtered. "We're the good guys."

"Once you're dead, you're as useless as any other dead body," was my response. On the day I failed my draft physical, I walked out of Fort Hamilton a free man. While I may not have been physically fit (the army medic was most impressed with my raging high blood pressure), I remember being acutely grateful that the military had failed to get their filthy hands on my brain. That was a long time ago. At the recent revival of Hair in Central Park's Delacorte Theater, they made an announcement explaining that the actors were burning their draft cards at the end of Act I (no doubt for those theatergoers who had only known about a volunteer military).

Shortly after moving to San Francisco in July of 1972, I was visited by a young man I had known while living in Providence, Rhode Island. Steve used to hang out at Prospect Terrace with a group of gay men and, although a talented art student from the Rhode Island School of Design, was not always comfortable with his sexual orientation. He knew he was gay and didn't have any doubts about his attraction to men. But, having been raised in an extremely religious and homophobic Baptist family, he had completely bought into the concept that being gay made him the devil's spawn.

When I first met Steve he had such a sweet personality and showed great potential. But when he enlisted in the Navy -- hoping they could make a real man out of him -- things went horriby wrong. By the time he visited me in San Francisco Steve was a paranoid ghost of his previous self.

In the past two years the media has grown wise to the fact that veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not only suffering from shattered limbs and faces, some of their minds have been destroyed as well (in ways that clinicians dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder have yet to understand). The Marsh recently played host to Liza Raynal's one-woman show, American Joe, in which she probes her conflicting emotions of loving her younger brother Joe (who is currently serving in Afghanistan) and hating the macho jerk he has become since entering boot camp.

During the course of her monologue, Raynal impersonates her mother, her brother, a variety of army personnel and some of the military families who have seen their sons and brothers descend into mental illness after numerous deployments to the Middle East. The Youtube video used to advertise American Joe is posted below so that you can experience the intensity of Raynal's performance. While there are plenty of laughs in her show, but they are drenched with the tears and sadness of many a proud military family.

If Raynal is focused on the deterioration of her brother's mental capacity on his way into the army, Yoav Shamir's documentary, Flipping Out, examines what happens to Israeli soldiers who have completed their three years of military duty. Many take their exit bonus and travel to the Himalayan foothills of northern India where staying stoned and partying loudly has become an acceptable post-military lifestyle.

The problem, of course, is that not everyone can handle their drugs equally well. Many ex-soldiers become psychotic, suffer delusions of grandeur, and need to be rescued from a lifestyle that may prove even more dangerous than being in the army. A small group of social workers, rabbis, and guidance counselors funded by the state of Israel's drug rehabilitation services try to help these people decompress and get medical help when necessary. Aided by a former Mossad agent (Hilik Magnus) who is often hired to track down and return these lost souls to their families, they try to look after the nearly 2,000 new soldiers who flip out each year.

Shamir's documentary, which was recently screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, could hardly be called an uplifting experience. Sometimes reality bites. Witnessing its sadder side effects in film format doesn't make it feel any better.

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