WARTORN: Family’s fight for awareness of military PTSD makes HBO doc

By ALEXA MILAN

SANFORD – What Sanford resident Chris Scheuerman wants most is a letter from the president, extending his condolences for the loss of Scheuerman’s son Jason. But as long as an unwritten policy remains in place, Chris Scheuerman will never receive that letter.

Jason Scheuerman did not die from injuries sustained in combat, at least not directly.

While serving with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, Jason Scheuerman suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. His commanders recommended he receive a psychological evaluation. After filling out a questionnaire and talking with a mental health professional for about 10 minutes, the therapist said Jason was exaggerating, that he was a malingerer.

Roughly three weeks later on July 30, 2005, Jason shot himself. He was 20 years old.

“He’d given up all hope, and he wasn’t getting help anywhere,” Chris Scheuerman said. “He was alone.”

‘Wartorn’

Jason Scheuerman’s story and his family’s fight to raise awareness about PTSD are featured in “Wartorn 1861-2010,” an HBO documentary about the effects of PTSD on soldiers from the Civil War through the Iraq War. The documentary demonstrates how PTSD is a long-standing issue, but its harsh effects have been particularly felt in recent years.

In 2009, more soldiers committed suicide than died in combat in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I firmly believe that PTSD is an inescapable part of going to war,” said Jon Alpert, one of the film’s directors. “We as a country that sends our men and women into battle have to know that’s a cost. For generations, it was a cost that was ignored.”

The documentary, executive produced by “The Sopranos” star James Gandolfini, follows soldiers, families, veterans and military officials from across the country who have dealt with PTSD in some way. Co-producer Lori Shinseki initially contacted the Sheuerman family, and upon meeting them, Alpert was immediately touched by their story.

“We were moved by the hurt, the passion and the commitment of the family, because although they were grief-stricken, they were determined to make sure what happened to their son wouldn’t happen to somebody else,” Alpert said.

A young man at war

The military was always a part of Jason Scheuerman’s life. His father was in the Army and instilled patriotic values in him. Chris Scheuerman said Jason was a fun-loving person who believed in defending his country, in fighting for the rights of others. Jason graduated from Western Harnett High School, where he volunteered for the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity. He was a “kid magnet” who would perform puppet shows for the children at his church.

In 2004, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Iraq with the Third Infantry Division a short time later. At first he seemed to be adjusting fine. He had Internet access, and he could call home once a week. As far as Chris Scheuerman could tell, his son was a dedicated soldier.

“He never missed a patrol,” Chris Scheuerman said. “He even took patrols to give his buddies time off.”

Chris Scheuerman said an explosion from a roadside bomb, or improvised explosive device, was likely what triggered Jason Scheuerman’s depression and PTSD.

“It is my opinion that Jason had a traumatic brain injury,” Chris Scheuerman said. “The concussive effects of the IEDs, I don’t think people really understand what happens to those soldiers. If a football player gets a concussion, they can’t practice until they’ve healed. Soldiers with concussions have to report back.”

A silent struggle

Jason Scheuerman’s injuries may not have been visible, but they ran deep.

Around June 2005, Chris Scheuerman said he noticed his son had taken a turn for the worse. On a mental health questionnaire, Jason Scheuerman indicated he had feelings of despair, depression and guilt. A few weeks before his death, he sent his mother an e-mail saying goodbye. The Army put him on suicide watch and took his weapon away, which Chris Scheuerman said humiliated Jason.

His commanders recommended he undergo a psychological evaluation, but Chris Scheuerman said his son never received a proper one. From documents he obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, Chris Scheuerman learned the mental health professional that evaluated his son was not yet a fully licensed psychologist. The therapist had Jason Scheuerman take a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.

“Based on the results and talking to Jason for 10 minutes, they determined he was exaggerating,” Chris Scheuerman said. “They called him a malingerer, which hurt him. I told him there is no way they can make that diagnosis in that amount of time.”

That was the last time Chris and Jason Scheuerman ever spoke.

After his evaluation, the therapist recommended his commanders cut off his phone and Internet privileges, isolating him from his support system back home. Three weeks later, he was dead.

When he requested through FOIA documents related to his son’s Army experience and subsequent death, Chris Scheuerman learned more discouraging details. He said the reports revealed Jason Scheuerman’s bunk mates had seen him with the muzzle of his gun in his mouth. His answers on the initial mental health questionnaire about his increasing depression went largely ignored. He was often reprimanded and punished by his commanding officers to a harsh degree.

“It became clear to any reasonable person that what happened to my son was not only wrong, but most probably criminal,” Chris Scheuerman said.

Documenting PTSD

When Alpert and the “Wartorn” team approached them, the Scheuerman family decided participating in the documentary would be a good way to raise awareness about the effects of PTSD. After years of war, Chris Scheuerman said he felt the nation has grown numb, and he hopes “Wartorn” will open people’s eyes to the struggles soldiers are often silently enduring.

The Scheuermans’ segment deals with how the effects of PTSD can ripple through a community. Alpert said when he started talking with the Scheuermans, he was affected by their story not as much as a director, but as a father and an American.

“It’s really important when we talk about PTSD to understand that this isn’t something that affects wimpy people,” Alpert said. “For a long time, there was a categorization of people who have PTSD as not being tough. If you look at this family, they’re chiseled out of stone. To see what PTSD has done to this patriotic family is something people in America should pay attention to.”

Chris Scheuerman wants “Wartorn” to break through that stigma, and thanks to a recent screening at the Pentagon, it may do just that. After the screening, Alpert said Pentagon officials told him it was the most powerful hour of television they had ever seen.

Hope for better understanding

Chris Scheuerman said he hoped after the screening, the government will pay more attention to PTSD and provide more funding for research and treatment. But the road to better understanding of the disorder might be a long one, he said.

“The Army still holds no one accountable in Jason’s death except for Jason,” Chris Scheuerman said. “Until the military holds leaders accountable, they will never have an effective program to deal with mental health issues of soldiers.”

In addition to its HBO run and Pentagon screening, portions of “Wartorn” will also be available on Youtube, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, the Pentagon Web site and the White House Web site. Alpert said he hoped the film’s visibility will bring more awareness to PTSD so that one day, Chris Scheuerman may finally receive his letter from the president.

“If it’s your mind that is blown up as a result of the war, you don’t get that type of acknowledgment,” Alpert said. “It’s a wound that never heals. Every single day of (Chris Scheuerman’s) life, he will be doing something to try to change things.”