Manhattan Project #26 PTSD and TV

(in which Jed Berman’s TV station turns Nathan Thibodeau’s tragic post-military behavior into pretty good TV. As this section begins, Berman is acquainting his news director with the contents of the diary Thibodeau kept during his military service until the moment he killed his family)

I gave him the quick tour through Nathan Thibodeau’s world, right up to the fateful final day. As soon as I stopped, DeMarco leaned forward in his chair.

“So, if we accept the word of his parents and Thibodeau himself, it looks like we got a clear case of PTSD. What with all the recruiters coming home and committing suicide these days, maybe we should do something in that direction. Take a look at what the Army and combat do to these people, and then what they do for them after they get bent like that. You know, a could-this-tragedy-have- been-prevented kind of approach. Can you boil that stuff down into a two minute special report?”

He smiled as soon as he said it because he knew, if I liked the idea, I would already be pleading for more time, more parts, maybe a half hour special.

“I like your thinking, Fred, and I can tell by that look on your face that you expect me to ask for more than two minutes to put this together. Let me do some digging and put an outline together. I would see a series of special reports during the news, especially because we’re coming up on a ratings period. We could promote the hell out of it, and then put it all together in a half hour or maybe even an hour special report, and promote that like crazy, too. I think it could be really good. But you gotta’ give me a producer, if you want this all accomplished and ready for air a month from now.”

Fred sat back in his chair and sighed.

“Well, that wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I was ready to accuse you of being a bleeding heart liberal if you waltzed in here and pitched a sob story about this poor, misunderstood grunt who went over the edge. I’d say grab Marybeth to produce it. Now get to work and get out of my office. I’m a very busy man.”

We put together a great special series and ultimately convinced Fred who convinced the GM to give us an hour of prime time for a special program examining the questions Fred wanted us to answer. I wish I had a copy of them to show you, because Marybeth did a super job with it. As we often do, we rolled the individual reports into the special, and added live in-studio interviews. We made it a kind of town hall session, and invited families of soldiers, military brass, and medical people to be part of the audience and tell the story from their point of view.

We paired up an Army shrink with a civilian one and had them talk about how the military prepares soldiers for the job they have to do in a war like Iraq. We set it up with quotes from Nathan Thibodeau’s journal. The non-military psychologist picked up on Nathan’s discomfort with taking a life, and suggested that human beings are not naturally inclined to kill each other. She thought it seemed pretty natural that Nathan came home in really bad shape. She didn’t think the military did a very good job of preparing soldiers to kill. She predicted there were lots more ticking time bombs out there just waiting to go off.

The Army shrink really disagreed with that. He talked about the intense mental training recruits go through in basic, to get them ready for what he admitted is tough duty. He said all the weapons training and obstacle courses would be beside the point if a soldier left basic with his head in the wrong place, and he suggested that something was missing in Nathan’s training, because thousands and thousands of soldiers had been asked to do the same thing in Iraq, and the vast majority of them just did it and came home and got back to work.

When he said that, a woman stood up about halfway back the hall and glared at him. It looked like she had something to say so I walked back the aisle and talked to her. She said she was the widow of a Vietnam vet who served a long time in combat and then came home and killed himself, just like Nathan Thibodeau and lots of others were doing now. All these years later, she was still really upset and angry.

She told the shrink and our audience that her husband wasn’t really ready for what he faced in Vietnam, and she doubted that today’s soldiers were any better prepared. She mentioned some of the massacres that came out of the Vietnam War that ended with American soldiers being put on trial. When the Army psychologist interrupted her and said those incidents, and the few we’d heard reports about in Iraq and Afghanistan were just rogue elements, crazy guys who should never have been allowed to represent the U.S. in war, the widow cut him off.

She said My Lai and the other massacres from Vietnam weren’t exceptions; she said lots of guys had similar experiences, experiences they were expected to be able to handle because of the stuff the Army crammed into their heads all the way back in basic training. She pulled out a sheet of paper and read some stuff written by another Vietnam widow named Penny Coleman. She said Coleman was right on when she said that our soldiers, good people like Nathan Thibodeau, are taught to behave in seriously criminal and sadistic ways, ways that are definitely not part of their God-given human nature.

The civilian shrink jumped in at that point and agreed with the widow. She said what the Army tries to do in basic, and obviously fails at when you see all the sick soldiers coming home and offing themselves or somebody else, what they’re trying to do is called operant conditioning. They’re taught to reject the values of decency and kindness most of them grew up with and even punished if they don’t toughen up. She said the goal is to get American soldiers ready to kill more often and to kill whoever they’re told to kill—men, women, children, soldiers or civilians.

Things were really starting to pop when the producer got on our IFBs and told us to move on. The studio audience was still buzzing as we moved on to how the military handled soldiers who came home with post traumatic stress disorder. We talked to several family members in the audience who accused the VA of discouraging psychologists from diagnosing PTSD so they wouldn’t have to pay for the treatment. We had the head of the local VA hospital up front and he got pretty hot about that, flatly denying any such conspiracy. But he admitted that even government numbers showed that as many as thirty percent of vets might come home with PTSD. The studio audience literally gasped when they heard that.

We talked about what kind of treatment soldiers get if they are officially diagnosed with PTSD or some mental disorder directly related to what they did on the battlefield. Our medical experts talked about drugs that seemed to help, and counseling, not only for the soldier but for their whole family. But no one in the room tried to convince the audience that a soldier—once broken by war in body and mind—wasn’t hard to put back together again. At the very end, we invited Nathan Thibodeau’s parents to come up and have the last word. They didn’t want to go up front, so they stood at their seats. I handed them a wireless mic and stepped back.

For a long moment they just stood there, tears running down their faces. Just when I thought I might have to step back in and close the show, Nathan’s mom began to speak.

“My son,” she said in a voice hoarse from hours of crying, “my son was a very good person. And he did something I did not believe for my whole life that a good person could do.” She paused, drew a deep breath, and sighed. “I’ve thought about this a lot. I mean, what else would a mother think about after her son kills five people?”

She cleared her throat and braced for what she would say next. In my IFB I heard the producer tell me we had one minute to the end of the show. I told Mrs. Thibodeau we were running out of time. She looked at me, her face contorted by the anguish that gripped her heart.

“Mr. Berman, I just want people to know that the person who killed my grandchildren and my daughter-in-law and my son was not Nathan Thibodeau. The Army took my son away, and gave us back a monster, a monster it created.” She looked straight into the camera. “Please don’t hate my son, he was a good, good person, and we’re good people, too. If you want to hate anything, hate the Army and its terrible, terrible wars. But please don’t hate my son.”

She collapsed into her seat, sobbing; her husband beside her. The floor director cued me to wrap things up, which I did very quickly. When we were off the air, I knelt down by Mrs. Thibodeau’s chair and reached for her hand. She looked up at me and drew her hand away. Her face glistened with tears and she was shaking, even though her husband was holding her tight against his shoulder.

“We didn’t accomplish much, did we, Mr. Berman?”

“I’m not sure that’s true,” I told her.

I really wasn’t sure. I was waiting to hear what DeMarco had to say before drawing any conclusions. I mean I was pretty sure we’d done well from a TV perspective. Good guests, logical topics, balanced treatment. I didn’t think anyone could accuse us of having some sort of axe to grind.

I thanked the Thibodeaus for letting me read Nathan’s diary and for being willing to be on the program, but neither of them looked at me again. I patted Mrs. Thibodeau on the shoulder and started up the aisle. I stopped and looked back just before I left the studio. They just sat there, miserable, their entire lifetime supply of joy and happiness wrung out of them, holding each other in the middle of a quickly emptying room. The way everyone else was hustling away from them it almost looked as if they were being repelled by the presence of these parents of a mass murderer.

When I got back to the station, Fred stepped into the newsroom and congratulated everyone on the show. He pulled on his trench coat, cleared his throat, and headed out the door. That’s about as high as the praise ever gets from Fred, so I figured we must have done okay.

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