Patricia Foulkrod for “The Ground Truth”

As we continue to live in dangerous times, filmmaker Patricia Foulkrod’s powerful and controversial documentary The Ground Truth is unlikely to win her friends in Washington. The film follows six American heroes–ordinary men and women who heeded the call for military service in Iraq–while charting recruitment, training, combat, homecoming, and the struggle to reintegrate with families and communities.

The terrible conflict in Iraq, depicted with ferocious honesty in the film, is a prelude for the even more challenging battles fought by the soldiers returning home–with personal demons, an uncomprehending public, and an indifferent government. As these battles take shape, each soldier becomes a new kind of hero, bearing witness and giving support to other veterans, and learning to fearlessly wield the most powerful weapon of all–the truth.

The documentarian has crafted an all too powerful and unflinching look at the politics and social upheavals of the military, and in a rare move, will be released theatrically for a limited period on September 15, before releasing on DVD on September 26. The director talked to Paul Fischer.

Question: Now did you set off by making this as an immediate reaction to what you had known about what was going on in the Iraq war? What was the initial impetus for you to set about doing this film?

Foulkrod: The initial impetus was that we invaded Iraq in March of 2003 and by November, December I was reading through – just very little research on my part of scratching the surface – that there were already 18 to 22 thousand medically evacuated soldiers and I thought that was a stunning statistic. What struck me was that even if the number was off it was dramatically different than the couple of hundred people we were listing as the official wounded, and so I thought that the thing about America is when we do have the right information and when we do tend to see the facts either in photos or in journalism we tend to respond – for how long or how deep I can’t judge, but we do tend to respond. And so I felt very strongly that if I could make a film that showed that there were a lot more wounded people and a lot more invisible suffering going on among our soldiers as a result of this deployment people that would be interesting. I also felt that it was really important that we take care of these men and women, particularly since they volunteered, so that’s what I started out to do.

Question: Did you approach anyone in the Pentagon or any official capacity, because I think the story is so powerfully told but I did wonder whether you were refused or chose not to go to them.

Foulkrod: Well I tried really hard to get an active duty high-ranking person who would talk to me from the point of view of being concerned about the welfare of our soldiers, not from the point of view of the war, and I couldn’t get anywhere. But I don’t have a lot of connections either, and I just kept shooting while we were trying. I went down to Virginia and I interviewed a general, who was not in the Iraq war – because obviously I was trying to find somebody who would have experience with this conflict – so I went to Virginia. He is a West Point general, was very polite, was in Vietnam, and he basically had the attitude that, yes, we did need to pay attention to this and that there were probably some people who were being recruited who didn’t quite understand what they were getting themselves into….

Question: What about all that footage of the training and of the material in Iraq, what lengths did you have to go to in order to acquire that footage, how much of it did you shoot yourself, what access did you get?

Foulkrod: Well all of the footage from Iraq is either from the BBC archives or from un-embedded camera from people who were there in the first year. These were people who I met through other people who knew that I was making the movie. You know, I had that thing happen to me a few times where someone would call me up and say I want to show you this and they would show me some footage and then I went about acquiring it, through working with people in Europe. The boot camp footage was something I acquired from someone who spent four months in a boot camp in San Diego just two months prior to the invasion.

Question: I think it’s an interesting point though about getting material that was available to news services in other parts of the world, because I think for instance the sequence where there are the Iraqis on the ground and there’s a…

Foulkrod: He was from Portugal.

Question: Yeah, and the fact that they saw that and we didn’t. Do you think that there’s a certain shock value or shock factor in people seeing this and realizing that certain things were kept from us?

Foulkrod: There may be but that’s not the reason I included the footage. I included the footage because I feel it’s really important to show that one of the reasons that many soldiers come back with P.T.S.D – one in four, one in three, we keep changing the ratio – but how can you care and understand the kind of care that soldiers need when they come home if you never get to see what they go through, and some of what they go through the trauma is doing things that they would never do in a normal situation. It’s what Chad says in the movie you’re in the bubble, you’re in the bubble of war. And it’s what Aidan says that at some point we are all capable of a kind of behavior that happens in a combat zone. So I felt we needed to see that so when someone comes home and is having a difficult time it’s not just from what they saw it’s also at times from what they did.

Question: How many of those soldiers who returned, were reticent to talk to you and how did you decide which of these guys would be the focus of your movie?

Foulkrod: I think most soldiers want to talk. If you go through a trauma in your life you want to talk about it. I think there are some who don’t want to talk, not because they’re hiding anything but because they’re just not ready to process it – and talking about it for some soldiers triggers a lot of emotions and it’s very hard for them, particularly when they don’t have any support to help them walk through that reaction. Many of the veterans who have seen my movie have a hard time. It brings up a lot of feelings and so one of the things we’re looking at is, how to be responsible. What all of the veterans say to me, including all of the men and women in my film, is we’re really glad you made it and we want every American to see it but it’s difficult for us because it brings up a lot of feelings.

Question: But in this kind of ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ mentality that we’ve been fed from the top lately, is there a sense that you’re being perceived as making an anti-war statement just because – as your title says, The Ground Truth – by presenting the truth from the ground it’s not pretty and so it could be perceived or at least labeled as an anti-war film?

Foulkrod: The movie is not out, I don’t know how it’s going to be perceived, but most people say to me that they feel that this is a pro-soldier film, that it is a film in the middle, that it is a film about the soldiers, and when you see a film you’re seeing the end result. When I met these soldiers they were not activists, they were newly home, and these are people that I have followed for two years. I’m very aware of the fact that it may look like I went out to find certain thinking about the war. The fact is I found a lot of these people two-and-a-half years ago when they were just coming home and trying to figure out what to do and some of them have evolved into being activists, and some of them are not and some of them are still having a hard time with the war. I’ve lived through their divorces, the fact that they’ve had to wait for money. I feel very often like there’s another film, and the other film is to watch what these men and women have gone through just in the process of my making the movie. Every single one of them has things going on in their lives that are exactly what we keep hearing are the symptoms of PTSD or are the affects of being in combat. They’re living it.

Question: They must have evolved since you first met them. I mean what has been the greatest evolution in your mind about what these guys how these are guys are now?

Foulkrod: W I changed the move after Sundance and ended it with them walking 140 miles to support the Katrina victims because what I found was that several of the people in my movie had found a way to use their training and to use their military experience, which was to go and try and support and help people in New Orleans. Kelly and a couple of the veterans are in and out of New Orleans on a regular basis helping to rebuild houses, and they just helped gut a house of a Navy veteran who has, I believe, a grandchild in Iraq. So there’s this tremendous feeling now, two years later, that they’ve worked through some of their issues and they’ve worked their adjustment in coming home and they’re finding ways to use their military experience in a positive way.

Question: Despite your efforts with this film to make people understand what the soldiers go through, you’re an American, you know Americans, they have short memories, when this is all over it’ll move on, but as you said there’s going to be thousands of men and women who survive this war who never survived wars previously who will sit here for 60 years or more with disabilities that we’re going to have to take care of. I mean that’s just something that the American mind can’t wrap itself around to understand that this is going to cost us trillions of dollars down the road.

Foulkrod: Right. Well I’ve managed to make this film while the war is still going on and not five years from now or ten years from now in a sort of safe position of looking back. I think in this war we have separated the war from the warrior. I think that it’s not just a question of not wanting to repeat the way we treated soldiers after Vietnam, I think that people really are becoming more respectful and concerned about what we do to the people that we send. And not very often but a few times people have said to me, oh, well they volunteered and that’s their responsibility. So I say but if you think that through, the fact that they volunteered you would think we would take even better care because they’re not in a draft, they’re not being forced to go – though as of this morning those who are with the Marines being called up. But people don’t understand what stop-loss is. I mean can you imagine serving four or six years in the military and you’ve done your time for this country and your leg gets blown off in overtime? I mean people don’t understand what a stop-loss does to someone who’s had a marriage and two kids. In Vietnam you went over when you were 18 or 19 years old, you did a year and you came home. These guys are on their third and fourth deployment. The divorce rate is up to 70%. You know, the people in the National Guard who have jobs have lost them, even though by law you have to give someone their job back when they come back. Well if you come back and you have PTSD and you can’t concentrate and you can’t do that job anymore what does your employer do?

Question: Oh, okay. The fact is you point out in here too that they’re already rewriting the veterans’ benefits to exclude people because they know that this bill is going to be huge when it comes due so they’re going to try and ferret out people who are due benefits to try and keep this cost down.

Foulkrod: Well I think I’m also an average American. I glaze over when people start talking about billions of dollars and issues and 30% mental suffering. You know, those things are just numbers. What I focus on is you get off the plane and there’s nobody at the tarmac to meet you and take care of you, what I focus on is that there are people in our community who are back from Iraq and Afghanistan who we need to reach out to. You know, I’m a child of the 50s, there used to be welcome wagons. You used to know who your neighbors were. And I think that we have to go back to worrying about each other and taking care of each other, and I do think that it starts with taking care of the people who are in a war right now. We are in a war. We are a country at war, which means we have men and women who are fighting a war and we have to stop talking about how disconnected we are, because that’s the problem, and start talking about how we can be connected. One of the things we’re doing with the movie is we are showing the movie in a lot of churches across the country. We are inviting people to have potluck dinners to find out who in your community is a veteran, what do they need. Are they able to pay their bills, do they have the housing and the things that they need in trying to adjust and being home? Do they know other veterans in the community that they can talk to so that they are not alone, because most veterans only want to talk to each other in terms of what they’ve been through? So I think we have to stop saying, oh, my God, we’re so disconnected and really say how can I be more connected, and if The Ground Truth helps to make that connection even a little bit then think that it’s a tool that I hope can get out there.

Question: Will your next film be very different to this one do you think?

Foulkrod: My next film? It’s going to be about gardening.