The issue of caring for war veterans is often used as a political football, but those who conduct these skirmishes may be blissfully distant from veterans themselves. Farmer/Veteran, the poignant documentary by local filmmakers Alix Blair, Jeremy Lange, and D.L. Anderson (disclosure: Lange and Anderson are former INDY staff photographers), should be mandatory viewing for politicians as well as anyone with an interest in the realities and aftermath of armed conflict.
Witnessing the struggles of the film's subject, Alex Sutton, as he tries to readjust to life in rural North Carolina after three combat tours in Iraq brings home just how devastating the experience of war is and how it leaves no one unchanged. The film begins with Sutton and his fiancée, Jessica, on the farm where they are trying to start a new life. Her declaration that things are never what they seem sets the viewer up to reconsider what he or she believes about war and the people who fight it.
When we first see Sutton, a husky, genial man with big brown eyes, he's caring for his farm animals with a gentle patience. As the film progresses, we learn how his war experience devastated his first marriage and left him with sometimes-debilitating PTSD: nightmares, paranoia, anxiety, delusions, and other symptoms that he treats with an astounding collection of prescription medications. We see him discussing pain meds with another solider, and when he's asked about their effects, he says he feels tranquilized a lot of the time.
Throughout the film, Sutton is often wearing a sidearm, but toward the end, he makes an effort to minimize the presence of guns in his house because of his children. Still, it's clear that the transition from war to domestic life is one that Sutton may never fully complete. He may now be a farmer, but the veteran in him, and all it entails, is ever-present.
The years of personal commitment that the filmmakers invested in the project are apparent onscreen—and in the healthy collection of festival awards the film has already gathered. The long arc of time it captures follows Sutton through crucial events such as his marriage to Jessica and the birth of their two children.
And a final, unsettling sequence ends the film on an appropriate note of caution, one that tempers the upbeat tempo with a vital reality check and sends an unambiguous message: those who have experienced wartime trauma can never truly be said to have left the battlefield behind.Farmer/Veteran is streaming for free on the PBS website until the end of June.
This article appeared in print with the headline "War in Peacetime"