A new documentary sheds light on little-known Army "combat stress control" units that are tasked with protecting soldiers from post-traumatic stress, while simultaneously keeping them primed for combat.
Haaken is still putting the finishing touches on the movie (a sneak preview screens Thursday at the Portland Art Museum) but she took a break from editing last week in L.A. to chat with Seattle Weekly about her latest project.
The film follows therapists from the Army's 113th Combat Stress Control detachment as they prepare for deployment in Afghanistan. The unit is comprised of between 40 and 45 soldiers, about eight of which are licensed mental health professionals-psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, etc.-while the others are enlisted "technicians" with a few months of training. They have a paradoxical mission: to prevent battle fatigue and keep soldiers sane, while also keeping them fighting for as long as humanly possible.
"It's a response, to some degree, to the longer deployments and repeated deployments," Haaken says. "They call them 'force multipliers' and 'efficiency multipliers.' It's a military term that has to do with getting more out of your assets, to keep them mentally fit."
Haaken explains that such units date back to the 1980s, but their role has been expanded dramatically in the past decade during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a psychologist herself, Haaken says she was left with conflicting feelings about the role of Combat Stress Control units.
"I came to see it as a particularly dangerous game," the director says. "But, on the other hand, these therapists are doing the best job they can. They really are serious committed people wanting to help soldiers, but believing the best way to help soldiers is to quickly provide them a little reassurance and put them back on the front lines."
One therapist succinctly sums up his role in the film's trailer by comparing a soldier to a rifle. "Like a weapon that jams," he says. "It's important that we maintain it. And if it does jam, we clear it."
Haaken and her crew embedded with a unit that trained at Ft. Lewis in Tacoma, and they spent two and a half weeks with them in Afghanistan. She says she was struck by the balancing act performed by clinicians within the unit as they tried to convince troops to seek help for mental issues, while reassuring commanding officers that they would not deplete the ranks by sending too many patients home.
"Psychologists have always been suspected of providing a way out for soldiers who do not want to die or kill," Haaken says. "There's always been an air of suspicion around mental health providers. They often have to sell their role by basically providing quick cures.
"I think there is a tremendous hubris on the part of the American military," she adds, "thinking you can handle the enormous mental health problems that are the product of warfare and throw professionals and technology and mental health services at it and manage it."
Here's the trailer: