By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
I started making Soldier On: Life After Deployment, my second documentary, because I had some questions: Who are the women who volunteer for U.S. military service today? What happens to them during their military service, especially if they deploy? And, how do they readjust to life at home?
Through the filmmaking process, I ended up knowing quite a bit about the three women featured in my film, understanding something more about all veterans, and eventually coming to believe that the United States should reinstate the draft. That's not at all where I expected to end up when I began this project.
It is conventional wisdom that every documentary director winds up a making a different film than she expected to make when she began shooting. In fact, I thought I was going to explore my questions about women in the military through an in-depth look at how equine therapy helps women veterans reassimilate into the civilian world. Over the course of quite a few exploratory shoots at barns and stables in Georgia, Connecticut and New York, I reached the conclusion that examining the issues surrounding women in the post-9/11 military through the lens of one therapeutic method was too narrow a focus for me.
Instead, I opted for a wide-angle lens when I realized that I wanted to follow the lives of three young female veterans for some indefinite period of time. I did not want to focus on a single topic, such as military sexual trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder. I wanted to understand the women's past, document their present and open a window into their futures.
Because Soldier On is an "observational" documentary, I did not dictate, nor could I predict, what would happen to the three women, each of whom I filmed for about 18 months. There was no guarantee where my film would go and what it would wind up conveying about the three individuals, their families and friends, the military and other institutions that impacted their lives, including schools, the Department of Veterans Affairs, churches and nonprofit veterans organizations. Since I did not know the women well when shooting commenced, it was impossible for me to be able to foretell if their lives would evolve over time in a positive or negative direction or simply stagnate.
Soldier On gradually reveals that Natasha, Lyndsey and Amanda (born in 1980, 1986 and 1987, respectively) share many characteristics with all veterans. Post-9/11 female veterans join the military for the same reasons their male counterparts do: to serve the country, see more of the world, learn skills for civilian jobs and because employment was hard to find. Men and women are equally likely to report that they had a rough transition back into civilian life, feel they suffer from post-traumatic stress, say they don't care about anything since they left the military and experience familial and relationship strains after their return home.
Natasha, Lyndsey and Amanda also resemble the majority of women veterans. Female veterans are less likely than male veterans to be married, more likely to be divorced and more likely to be a single parent. Women veterans are also more likely than male veterans to be unemployed. One out of four women in the military have experienced military sexual trauma, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs, compared to one out 100 men. Depression, homelessness and suicide are additional particular risks for women veterans, and these topics also arise during Soldier On.
The other issue that the film exposes is the tough childhoods the three main characters had before they joined the military. They coped with household mental illness, parental separation or divorce, household substance abuse, and, for at least one individual in the film, childhood sexual abuse. Their background is not uncommon for volunteers.
Overall, the mental health of the today's volunteer military is not equivalent to the general mental health of the non-military population; individuals who volunteer are more likely to have suffered significant adverse childhood experiences than the civilian population. Research has shown that adverse childhood experiences contribute to poor adult health outcomes such as post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, shortened life expectancy and attempted suicide. Prior to 1973 when the U.S. military drafted its recruits, the mental health imbalance between the military and non-military populations did not exist.
Exhibiting their innate inner drive, Natasha, Lyndsey and Amanda seized the opportunity that the armed forces offered them when they were young adults to move toward a better and more secure future. They continue to recognize and appreciate the meaningful role the military has played in their lives. They value what they learned and what they contributed. Over the year and one-half of filming the documentary, their lives also gradually and wonderfully, moved in a better direction. Each woman found a way to come to terms with the past, integrate it into her present and move forward.
But getting to know them and more about veterans in general while making Soldier On made me increasingly aware that the burden of protecting the United States today falls heavily on a demographic that is certain, definable segment of the country's population – individuals who grow up in troubled, unstable families and who face limited employment prospects when entering adulthood.
Since less than one percent of the country has had military experience today, in contrast to about 12 percent after World War II, the commitment and sacrifices of veterans, including Natasha, Lyndsey and Amanda, is not generally well understood or recognized beyond a perfunctory "Thank you for your service."
The number of veterans in government has also declined for decades since World War II. Currently, in Congress, less than 20 percent of the members have military backgrounds compared to 64 percent in the early 1980s and 73 percent in the early 1970s. The governing and socioeconomic class that makes the decisions about wars, ongoing conflicts and military budgets, including spending on veterans, is increasingly distanced from the direct experience of military service.
In Tribe, Sebastian Junger's most recent book, he writes that when he turned 18, immediately after the end of the Vietnam War, he decided that he would not register for the selective service. He thought his father would approve, because his father had become strongly antiwar during the Vietnam years. Junger's half-Jewish father, though, had a different perspective. In the 1940s, he had fled from the Germans in Europe and immigrated to the United States. He had tried to enlist during World War II, but was rejected by the U.S. military due to asthma.
"You don't owe your country nothing," Junger's father told his son when he heard about his intention not to register. "You owe it something, and depending on what happens, you might owe it your life."
Sebastian's father turned around his mindset, and making Soldier On has changed mine: Military service should be compulsory for all Americans, both male and female.
Citizenship in the United States should require more commitment than voting and paying taxes, which are certainly respectable and sufficient civic responsibilities when the stakes are low, but they are not guaranteed to remain so in a complicated and uncertain world. The risks and responsibility for maintaining our freedom and values should be shared more equitably across the entire American population. Our participation in off-balance sheet and under-the-radar conflicts and wars that directly impact less than one percent of our citizenry means that we do not openly discuss or genuinely weigh and consider the costs and risks of our using our military might across the globe. The United States and the world have changed since the draft was eliminated in 1973. It's time to bring it back.
Note: Recommending the reinstitution of the draft is not light decision for me – I have five children. Based on their ages, two of them would be called to serve immediately if military service became mandatory in the United States today.