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'Disgraced Soldier' Fights Trauma With Documentary
LONDON - A new documentary ‘Diary of a Disgraced Soldier' follows the dismissal from the British army of an Iraq war veteran and his battle with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) linked to his videographing the brutalizing of Iraqi youth by fellow servicemen.
For five days in 2004, Corporal Martin Webster and about 100 other British soldiers from the 1st Battalion, Light Infantry, were under siege by thousands of rioting Iraqis in the streets of Al Amara, Iraq. While some Iraqis threw stones, others fired rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) or hurled grenades.
On a rooftop during the riots, Webster was shooting video - not bullets.
What he captured on film sparked an international scandal. A group of his fellow British soldiers chased down four young Iraqis. The youths were then beaten, punched and kicked. A soldier kicked one of the prisoners between the legs. While filming the incident, Webster can be overheard laughing and saying, "Oh, yes. Oh, yes. You're going to get it. Yes. Naughty little boys."
In 2006, the video was leaked to the British tabloid press and broadcast around the world. Webster was arrested by military police, but all charges against him were dropped. He left the army soon after the event.
In ‘Diary of a Disgraced Soldier,' that premiered in November, Webster talks about how that two-minute video "destroyed" his life. But he told IPS he does not regret filming his Iraq tour.
"I thought at times it was ruining my life," Webster, a Cornwall native, said. "But actually it was making me wake up and realize who I was, what I was and basically made me realize the horrors of war and what people turn into in war, including myself. ... I'm a better person for the process that I've gone through."
Further, Webster said the video woke people up to the reality of war, which he describes as "madness."
"I'm a soldier and I was designed to kill," Webster, who also served two tours in Northern Ireland and another in Sierra Leone, told IPS. "The British government spent 12 years turning me into an angry killer and when I acted like an angry killer and when it was portrayed on TV, nobody liked it or could handle it. That's what a soldier is designed to do."
Webster said the mainstream media today hide the reality of war on another front.
"I believe that with the media blackout that we‘ve got now in Afghanistan, it means the general public can't see what's actually going on. Anything that does get out is scripted and vetted," he explained.
Webster wanted to share his side of what happened in Iraq. In 2007, he approached filmmakers Richard Atkinson and Chris Rowe to make ‘Diary of a Disgraced Soldier.' Neil Cole later joined the filmmaking team.
The documentary started off as an explanation and exploration of the beating incident and its aftermath, Atkinson told IPS, but they soon realized that "the most compelling story" was how Webster coped with his PTSD.
The filmmakers wanted to present a soldier's perspective and, after following Webster for 18 months, Atkinson said the film gets "to the essence of what going through PTSD does to a person." The documentary includes video diaries filmed by Webster himself.
"The emotional and mental impact of war seems to be something that is seldom discussed," said Atkinson. "In addition to this, there seems to be an awful lot of opinion from media commentators but not so much from the soldiers themselves who are after all the ones in the firing line."
A 2008 RAND Corporation study found that about one in five U.S. military members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffers from PTSD or major depression.
In one scene in the documentary, Webster says he feels like he has two personalities. "It's like I'm constantly controlling a demon," he says. Later, he wonders aloud, "Perhaps I am an evil person."
In an interview with IPS, Webster says he is not an evil person. "Nobody's truly evil," he clarified.
Part of Webster's recovery process has involved art. In the documentary, Webster and fellow veteran Lee Kamara are shown holding a music concert ‘Voices of War' to raise money for homeless veterans, the Royal British Legion and the charitable organization Combat Stress.
But Webster realized that few people were interested. "They don't want to hear about war and depression," he said in the documentary. "Nobody wants to know." In the film, Webster also contemplates suicide and is himself homeless for a period.
Webster has since formed an organization with Kamara by the same name, ‘Voices of War'. Webster paints, writes poetry and makes music about his time in Iraq. His website states that they want "the whole world to hear [their] music and be inspired by the songs."
Kamara, who served in Basrah, Iraq, said he dealt with PTSD through music.
"Music takes me to a different place and helps me relieve stress," Kamara told IPS. "I find that being with the piano on my own helps me have happiness and peace."
A new father, Kamara recommends that other soldiers use art to channel their military experiences. "Anything that relaxes [soldiers]," Kamara said, "is a great way of forgetting."
Lovella Calica, an American multimedia artist, also encourages veterans with post traumatic stress to use art as part of their healing process. She is the founder and director of the Warrior Writers Project, a creative community for veterans articulating their experiences.
"Whether or not a veteran identifies as an artist or a writer, I think it's worth a try," said Calica. "It's not going to hurt anything. There are points in the process where it might be hard and it might be difficult. But I think you have to really push through that stuff to get further."
Bob Paxman agrees that art can be helpful. The founder and chief executive of the non-profit charity Talking 2 Minds, Paxman has helped about 200 active-duty soldiers and veterans who suffer from PTSD.
"For somebody that's very visual, painting would be fantastic," said Paxman, a master practitioner synergy trainer who also had PTSD. He served in the British military's Special Air Services in "many hostile environments around the world" for 10 years.
Like Webster, Paxman looked outside of the traditional treatment services for soldiers with PTSD. Paxman eventually found a unique process that uses therapeutic neural linguistic programming, hypnosis and timeline therapy.
Paxman said his organization "desperately needs financial support" but has been ignored by the British government. He said the British government is not providing adequate care to active-duty soldiers and veterans returning from war. "It's a systematic problem," he told IPS.
Webster also criticized Britain's medical treatment of soldiers with PTSD. "It's just neglect, pure neglect," Webster told IPS. "It's pure criminal negligence the way [the government] treats soldiers suffering from PTSD. We're almost treated like second-class citizens."
While Webster says he feels in control of his own life and has now "totally left Iraq behind," he will "always have memories."
"For the rest of my life, I'll never forget it," Webster said.
Zack Baddorf is a U.S. military veteran who served in Iraq.