'Thank You for Your Service': Film Review

If this documentary doesn't spur politicians to act, nothing will.

Tom Donahue's documentary exposes the appalling lack of mental health care for veterans.

Of all the fact-filled graphics Tom Donahue delivers in his documentary about the appalling lack of mental health treatment afforded veterans, it's this one, shown at the very end, that will send you out of the theater reeling: "While you have watched this documentary, a veteran has committed suicide."

The statement may seem hyperbolic, but it reflects the statistic that 22 veterans kill themselves each day, nearly one an hour.  

The filmmaker has amassed a considerable array of talking heads to provide commentary. They include such notable military figures as Robert Gates, Michael Mullen, David Petraeus and Loree Sutton. Also represented are politicians like Rudy Giuliani and Senator Patty Murray; writers Sebastian Junger, Nicholas Kristof and Dexter Filkins; and actor Gary Sinise, who has long been active in veterans' causes.

The interview subjects all agree that the Defense Department and the Veterans Administration have not sufficiently attended to veterans' mental health needs, and the problems they cite are numerous. Among them are bureaucratic inefficiencies, lack of funding, the overprescribing of psychotropic medications, a lack of qualified therapists, and extended tours of duty that result in soldiers serving far longer than they bargained for.

But it's not the expert commentary, as illuminating as it is, that gives the film its power. Rather, it's the handful of veterans who discuss their emotional struggles, both while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and after their discharge. One describes watching his best friend being burned alive, while another relates how he felt so guilty over civilians killed as a result of his actions that he attempted to find their family members to apologize. They talk about suffering from nightmares and PTSD; resorting to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain; and, in one case, playing Russian roulette.

The Defense Department has diagnosed 55 percent of veterans as suffering from mental health disorder. But that and other statistics, horrific as they are, aren't as viscerally shocking as the recording of a 911 call, heard at the beginning of the film, in which a distraught woman reports the suicide of a loved one.

Thank You for Your Service (an expression which, one of the veterans admits, makes him angry every time he hears it) profiles a number of admirable, independent, nonprofit organizations that have sprung up to address the problem via such programs as "Warrior Meditation." But the film mainly advocates for the creation of the Behavioral Health Corps (BHC) as a division of the Defense Department that would consolidate mental health services throughout all military branches. The case it makes for its necessity feels impossible to refute.

Production companies: Creative Chaos Ventures, Sprayregen Family Foundation, in association with Artemis Rising
Director: Tom Donahue
Producers: Ilan Arboleda, Tom Donahue, Matt Tyson
Executive producer: Gerald Sprayregen

Co-Executive producer: Regina K. Scully
Directors of photography: Peter Bolte, Justin Garcia
Editor: Jill Schweitzer
Composer: Leigh Roberts

Not rated, 87 minutes