October 31, 2013

Documentary shines light on Maine’s PTSD victims

The realities of war become the state’s problems afterward.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty calls it “my new normal.”

“If I get up in the middle of the night and I go to the bathroom and the window’s not covered, I feel like I’ve just exposed myself to enemy contact,” Liberty said in an interview this week. “That’s how my mind works now.”

He’s not talking about the bad guys of Kennebec County, dangerous as they may be from time to time.

No, when Liberty nervously steps away from that bathroom window at 3 a.m., he’s right back in the middle of Fallujah. Seven years after he last set foot in that hottest of Iraq’s former combat zones, his instincts still scream at him to take cover, to get out of harm’s way, to save himself while he still can.

And at the same time, back home in peaceful Maine, to save his fellow soldiers.

If you do one thing in the coming weeks to support Maine veterans who still are grappling with the demons they brought back from a war zone, take the time to see “A Matter of Duty, The Continuing War Against PTSD.”

The Maine Public Broadcasting Network documentary, co-produced by MPBN host Jennifer Rooks and documentary filmmaker Charles Stuart, will debut Friday at the University of Southern Maine. The hour-long film chronicles not only the reverberating trauma of war felt to this day by Liberty and a brave band of other Mainers, but also the weaving of a remarkable safety net for central Maine veterans teetering on the edge of disaster.

Liberty, who was a command sergeant major with the Army Reserve, led newly trained Iraqi troops into the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004.

As he notes near the beginning of the film, over video he recorded with his cellphone while on patrol, “Nothing prepares you for the violence of war. Combat is a real combination of fear, deep sorrow, exhaustion, adrenaline, sleeplessness, and complacency to hyper-vigilance.”

Cut to the jarring image of a soldier bleeding from a gaping wound in his upper back.

“The violence is horrific,” Liberty continues. “The violence of a 50-cal or a mortar or a roadside bomb is just ... it’s indescribable.”

Yet it’s war’s anticlimactic aftermath – in Liberty’s case, a return to a law-enforcement career that already had spanned more than two decades – that can pose an even bigger challenge for soldiers forever changed by a world gone mad.

Liberty’s PTSD might have gone untreated had it not been for his wife, Jodi, and his brother, Ron, who contacted the VA Maine Healthcare hospital at Togus when they realized his angry outbursts and other symptoms were getting worse, not better.

Cut to Liberty, dabbing at his eyes as he reflects on the emotional pain he endures to this day. At his side, listening sympathetically, is Dr. David Meyer, his VA psychologist.

“There, it was repressed,” Liberty says. “I was a sergeant major and, as a sergeant major, you’re the man. So you really can’t express those feelings (over) there.”

Here, though, the pain inevitably finds its way to the surface – sometimes therapeutically, sometimes not.

Rooks, who first approached Liberty about doing the film after he appeared with her on MPBN’s “Maine Watch,” said the sheriff’s candor at times caught her and co-producer Stuart by surprise.

“He puts it all out there,” Rooks said Tuesday. “He doesn’t think, ‘Hmmm, should I say this? Will it make me look bad?’ He doesn’t look at things that way. He gets it. By telling his story, he’s going to touch people in a way that others can’t.”

That said, Liberty’s personal story is just the beginning.

(Continued on page 2)

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