Crash Landing: PTSD, Alternative Treatment, and Secondary Traumas

Crash Landing

Last night I attended a film screening on campus for Crash Landing, a film produced back in 2005 about Canadian combat veterans, their PTSD experiences, and the lack of support they face in their civilian environments. Despite serving two tours in Iraq, this is the first time I’ve heard about the film. Visually, it layers on news footage, personal interviews, and dialogue that all work together to showcase that PTSD differs from person to person. Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, and Afghanistan were among some of the combat zones described by the interviewees.

There were many moments that evoke empathetic responses and also reminded me of some of my own experiences. It is a rare experience to hear veterans who suffer from high levels of PTSD share their stories in a public format. I applaud them for their courage; mental health issues seem to be a difficult chapter for the Canadian forces on the same level as it is for American veterans and not surprisingly, their VA system hasn’t quite effectively managed these needs as well.

For all the points where I agree with the film in showing daily struggles, revealing tipping point experiences, and coping mechanisms, I was frustrated and irate with how the after action panel disintegrated into an argument over the proposed use of cannabis as an alternative treatment for PTSD. There was a medical representative who stated there are only 2 FDA approved drugs to treat PTSD and one of them was described as commonly being employed to suppress sexual urges in incarcerated pedophiles. I understand her frustration that this drug with its side effects harms the reintegration of service members/veterans. However, there was a panelist who made such an improper display of himself that he hurts the viability of cannabis as one such alternative treatment, others being things like art therapy. Although I am not usually a vocal audience member I flat out interrupted him at one point to comment that the language he uses will cause people to view him as a pot smoking teenager and it’s important to consider his approach when discussing cannabis as an available treatment.

I am very open in the fact I’ve never tried cannabis. My dad regretted drinking and smoking pot so much during his high school years that it never interested me to try this recreational drug. As well, I’ve found the smell of pot smoke makes me nauseous. It is so highly irritating that should I later in life require cannabis as pain medicine over morphine, I would ask for it in some edible form. I cannot tolerate that smell. However, I am not above depriving others of their preferred form of medicinals; for two surgeries I’ve had I was prescribed Perocet and Vicodine and the drugs make me too tired or nauseous to eat that I cannot take them. I’d lose too much weight to be healthy.

There is a secondary get together tomorrow regarding alternative treatment (i.e. the potential of cannabis to treat PTSD) but I am not interested in attending. I do not wish to be in the company of the panelist who is likely to once again exhibit poor behavior because he lacks a full understanding of his position as representing other veterans and certainly veterans with PTSD. However, there are many insights I would like to share regarding my feelings as a combat veteran, the film, and cannabis as a form of medicinal treatment:

1. Employment Opportunities

One of the older audience members brought up the fact not all jobs will allow you to use cannabis. My husband and I also discussed this point further in depth today. Many veterans are attracted to government jobs and local law enforcement jobs where you cannot use drugs, to include cannabis. I interned for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service back in 2011. If I had pursued this career option further, one of the biggest selling points to this agency as a potential employee in my background is my lack of criminal involvement or experimentation with drugs. It’s important to also point out NCIS only picks roughly 150 interns a year and I was fortunate through hard work and good behavior to prove myself worthy of one such slot. If I sat around and talked casually about smoking pot to cope with PTSD, the door to that employment opportunity would have closed up quickly.

2. Secondary Trauma

The film should affect everyone a little differently. Some audience members might have a harder time watching the movie because they or one of their loved ones suffers from PTSD. Some veterans might be angry to see other veterans complain about their plight in life, especially veterans who have been directly shot at, have seen their friends killed, or who have had to kill an enemy combatant. Seeing the film might bring up bad memories and cause anxiety, which manifests itself in many forms. One of the things I wish I had seen in the film was individuals with different levels of anxiety and PTSD. The film focused on persons who suffered from severe forms of PTSD and I feel it once again perpetuates this myth that PTSD is always debilitating. Members of the audience went back and forth about their concerns about, “Is PTSD a death sentence?” and really, there is no right or wrong answer. Someone people might take their lives, some may not. There are so many factors that influence reintegration and also secondary traumas people face that make their lives feel meaningful or stressful.

For me, I struggled to fall asleep and stay asleep last night not so much by watching the trauma evident in the film but by adding another activity into my already packed schedule. I know a big part of managing my stress responses involves getting a regular amount of sleep and extra activities can make it difficult for me to relax and fall asleep or stay asleep. My preferred routine is to go to bed at 9pm and wake up at 6am. I haven’t held this routine for quite some time now but I know when I can, I feel like I’m at my peak performance.

3. The Fraudulent Claims Factor

I am not the only veteran to acknowledge that not all veterans act with honor and fraudulent claims bother me. I have much research ahead of me to unveil what information is available regarding veterans who claim disability for the sole purpose of upscaling his or her standard of living. Check out the VA disability compensation information is and you’ll see why I get bothered by people who fake disabilities for the purposes of cashing in on their military service. There are veterans who deserve treatment and every time someone abuses the system, he or she is taking away from their deserving peers.

The veterans portrayed in the film are but a small number of Canada’s armed forces but I was shocked to see they were involved with a $150 million lawsuit against the Canadian government. I do not deny them their suffering but I am curious at the extent of the lawsuit. Were others involved in the lawsuit who wished not to be filmed? I also wonder if these individuals were ever to receive a settlement would they consider how their benefit might harm the funding available to serve other veterans. There is so much to know and explore, but I would have enjoyed further information. In spite of my persistent chest pains, I could never imagine suing my government for my suffering. Once again, they are pretty well managed by diet and exercise but my curiosity was peaked at the end of the film.

4. “Broken” is Not At All How You Should Talk About Our Veterans

I am not broken. I do not like anyone calling our combat veterans “broken.” We are not pieces of china that fell on the floor. Some of us may suffer from traumatic brain injuries, others have PTSD, some may have dealt with military sexual trauma, etc. These events in our lives do not make us broken. Stop using this inappropriate term. You don’t call someone battling cancer ‘broken’; you have the wherewithal to say “He or she is dealing with cancer” and as such, should show the same respect for our veterans. It’s a big deal for them to share the issues they struggle with; General Mattis gave a speech about not giving in to this broken label and some of the flak I had with the film screening was the use of calling veterans ‘broken.’

I will always have a sense of awe when it comes to General Mattis. I had the privilege of working as part of a team creating briefs for him when he served as the Commanding General of 1st Marine Division and he is as blunt as everyone points out. Marines adore him and for good reason. He cares about mission accomplishment and he cares about Marines. He is not out winning the hearts and minds of politicians who don’t fight in the wars. He did an exceptionally good thing as a leader of Marines to remind all of us that we are not broken despite outsiders who might call us such. As such, it is important when a documentary focuses on veterans and/or their families that a certain amount of consideration comes into play to not describe them as ‘broken.’

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