After viewing Patricia Foulkrod’s profoundly moving “The Ground Truth,” I kept wrestling with the question, “Is this a documentary or a fantastically put-together PSA urging veterans’ rights?” Foulkrod approaches her subject matter with the even-tempered poise of a documentary maker, but make no mistake: This is an angry film. “The Ground Truth” profiles the wartime experiences of several veterans as they struggle to re-adjust to civilian life and with the VA bureaucracy, which persists in making their lives hell as they seek help for their mental and physical wounds.
As such, “The Ground Truth” is not a deliberately laid out, documentary-like inquiry into that vast, messy, internally contradictory quagmire called “the truth.” You won’t find comparisons between, say, incidences of psychological trauma among veterans of the current war and those returned from WWII or Vietnam, complete with a gamut of old-school veterans, military historians and analysts. Foulkrod does proffer the token psychologist and neuro-specialist to back up the soldiers’ stories with empirical reasoning. But, for the most part, she keeps the spotlight on a cross-section of Iraq veterans, and the stories they need to tell. The Ground Truth, in my opinion, skates the boundary between documentary and polemic, but not in the hammer-to-the-head manner of Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight. Without the intrusion of graphics or charts, she foregrounds the words and personalities of her haunted, impassioned subjects. The result is perhaps the most important protest statement yet committed to film since the outbreak of war three-and-a-half years ago.
“The Ground Truth” takes us step-by-step through the veterans’ entire tour-of-duty experiences. There are passages here that feel repetitive and others in which a flurry of provocative ideas are only glanced over. But, at 75 minutes, this material is brilliantly, compactly structured. And it doesn’t matter where you stand on the war (though it’s almost impossible to be anything but vigilantly pessimistic about the Bush Administration’s motives behind it, and the prospects of any peace in the region for generations yet). Indeed, it’s irrelevant, because Foulkrod’s concern is the psychological and spiritual toll that this war has taken many of its veterans.
Unlike other wars, the enemy in Iraq doesn’t announce itself, dressed in fatigues, arrayed across some battle line. The enemy, instead, is all around you, camouflaged among the innocent men, women and children who inevitably fall prey to the crossfire in the streets. The intense guilt and paranoia, as much as the veterans’ physical scars, inform a great deal of “The Ground Truth’s” first-person accounts. It’s heartbreaking to learn what these veterans and their families must cope with each day, but Foulkrod makes sure to alchemize our pain into focused rage as, one by one, her interviewees speak out against the military establishment’s indifference or unwillingness to address their situation.
These soldiers aren’t passive victims, either; many have sought to communicate “the ground truth” of this war to the American people. Veterans Kelly Dougherty and Paul Rieckhoff, for instance, have founded groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Soldier-artist Sean Huze writes plays on the subject. Others like Aidan Delgado, Demond Mullins, and Camilo E. Mejia are among today’s most vocal anti-war critics. Mejia perhaps most poignantly captures the activists’ creed when he says, in effect, that there’s no greater freedom than the freedom found in following one’s conscience. Foulkrod astutely ends her film on that note, conveying a message about the liberating power of protest, and the socially crucial need for each of us to follow our inner voice, in wartime and beyond.
Written/Directed by: Patricia Foulkrod
Cast: Herold Noel, Robert Acosta, Sean Huze, Kelly Dougherty, Nickie Huze, Denver Jones, Joyce Lucey