The Sun Will Come Up: A Review of "Almost Sunrise"

Almost Sunrise, a documentary on veterans and mental health, is roughly an hour and a half long. I cried for about 60 of those 90 minutes.

Almost Sunrise follows two Iraq veterans, Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson, as they walk across the country to raise awareness for the mental health issues faced by veterans, and to ultimately save themselves. Depression and PTSD had tormented both men since returning from combat, and had pushed them to the verge of suicide. Sadly, these issues are not unique to these two men. Veterans account for nearly 20% of all suicides in the United States, and every 65 minutes a veteran takes his or her own life. The people fighting for our country are the ones dying in it.

When most people think of veterans and mental health, they think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The movie takes a unique approach to the trauma veterans face once leaving combat, specifically one not often reflected in the mainstream media: moral injury. This refers to an injury to an individual's moral conscience resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression, such as war, which produces profound emotional shame. The concept of moral injury emphasizes the psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of trauma. Moral injury is not yet a recognized psychiatric term, but the impact it has on veterans is immeasurable. Moral injury dramatically changes how veterans view and interact with the world – and it changed how I view veteran trauma.

Over the course of the film, the men themselves change, as do their relationships with their partners, friends, and family. As someone with several veterans in my family, this part of the movie was hard to watch. Wounds below the surface are incredibly hard to understand, especially for young children. As I kid, I placed all of the blame on myself. I thought that when my Dad yelled for no apparent reason that it was because of me. I thought that he must have hated me. Now I realize just how little control we have over our emotions and how combat changes people. It broke my heart to see this play out on screen, but in a way, it healed me. It showed me that veterans and their families are united by common experiences, but we can only learn this if we speak about those experiences. I am so grateful that Tom and Anthony had the courage to serve and to show their wounds to the American public.

One thing that I found particularly interesting in the film was the preparation for combat. There is intense physical training, but there is minimal, if any, mental training. Soldiers are told that they will  face difficult situations and that they will have to react physically – run, hide, fight. This is in part due to machismo, obedient military culture where you act to defend your unit and do not question your actions.  Bringing emotions into battle may distract from the mission at hand. This is why so many soldiers are left with immense emotional baggage they are not equipped or prepared to handle once they leave the service.

Soldiers are leaving battle both physically and emotionally wounded, and the Veterans Affairs (VA) is not doing a sufficient job. The VA is a federal agency that provides healthcare services to eligible military veterans at VA medical centers across the country. Yet, suicide rates are higher among veterans than the civilian populations. The VA needs to do a better  job of researching and implementing innovative and targeted solutions for veteran mental health. Veteran problems are unique, and so should be their solutions. Yet, this issue does not rest on the VA alone. Commanders must do a better job of normalizing emotional distress during combat. This lack of conversation causes people to build up walls, walls that only get higher and higher when they return to civilian life – walls that don’t have to exist.

What I ultimately learned from this movie is that war subjects normal people to abnormal situations, and that level of stress, shock, and horror, has very serious consequences. Although veteran responses to combat differ from other mental illnesses, these responses are no stranger than the situations veterans  faced in combat.

I would like to extend a hearty thank you to all of the vets that have served and all of the personnel that are currently serving: thank you for your service. I could not sit here at the amazing public institution that is the University of Michigan voicing my opinions and speaking freely without your tireless effort. As my grandfather had printed on a dozen t-shirts and towels: land of the free, because of the brave.