December 7, 2018. Who doesn’t love a well-done psychological thriller? Or quite nearly anything with Julia Roberts in it? Put those two things together and you have surefire success. In fact, the widely acclaimed Homecoming— the television version of the equally successful podcast by the same name—is just that: a psychological thriller starring Julia Roberts. It is nominated for multiple awards and has garnered significant praise, for good reason.
The show follows Julia Roberts’ character who is a former caseworker at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, a special purpose live-in facility run by a private corporation. The purpose of the facility is seemingly to help soldiers transition to civilian life. Years after leaving the facility, a Department of Defense auditor begins to investigate why she left Homecoming and it becomes apparent that the true purpose of the facility was hidden from her.
As someone who has built her burgeoning career on the notion that the transition from service member to citizen is just as, if not more, important than the focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I was initially thrilled when I heard a vague description of the show. A show built around a dedicated center that focuses on providing assistance to service members to foster a successful transition after they’ve served? Yes, please.
The excitement did not last long. Again, not because the show isn’t excellent. It is. Yet I worry about its impact on the population it portrays. In numerous ways, it is a reinforcement of many veterans’ feelings, beliefs, and fantasy about psychological treatment and the overarching system of veteran care.
While it is a television program, proposing that the purpose of this show is to solely entertain and thrill, underestimates both the power of entertainment and the thoughtfulness of those involved. While not an overt exposition on the state of our military, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ineffectual treatments for PTSD, institutional betrayal, and privatized veteran healthcare, there is more than enough material to extrapolate.
The show highlights greed, ambition, and the sometimes ruthless nature of both people and the military-industrial complex. It portrays veterans as victims of a system and cogs in the wheel—necessary but of small significance in the larger operation. Within the show, the soldiers and their memories of war are a detriment to their ability to deploy again. The solution is a medication, hidden in the facilities’ food, which eradicates PTSD by "deleting the harmful responses to the traumatic memories.” It’s a simple equation. No memories = no PTSD.
Interestingly, there has been a push by some to classify PTSD as a disorder of memory function versus an anxiety disorder, so this is yet another interesting, though perhaps unknowing, commentary. However, for those experiencing PTSD, the classification matters little and effective treatment matters a lot. And we do have effective therapy treatments for PTSD.
Yet, there seems to be little belief in this truth in the post 9/11 generation of veterans. Moreover, while paranoia and hypervigilance, a symptom of PTSD, are distinguishable, this group of veterans seems to, at times, blur the line between the two. Potentially a result of the current climate and culture throughout the country, a result of bad personal experiences gone social media viral, and the continued VA PR crisis (both deserved and undeserved) some veterans believe that the ‘system’ is not to be trusted. Veterans are turning to unregulated and understudied means like marijuana, cannabinol oil, yoga, and other means to find relief, all the while seeking care outside of the VA.
Having seen the long list of medications some veterans have been prescribed with no systematic, mandated associated therapy, it is arguable that our system is, in fact, failing our veterans. Maybe not in the blatant, nefarious ways of Homecoming, but in potentially more insidious, negligent manners. There is a need for mental healthcare reform, new and unique research, the scaling of existing efficacious treatments, and more culturally competent providers.
Moreover, post-traumatic stress disorder, a devastating psychological condition, chronically afflicts about 7 percent of all veterans, we are failing to engage a different enemy on a much bigger front: “transition stresses.” The stress of returning to the dramatically different circumstance of civilian life affects between 44 percent and 72 percent of all veterans. Just like Homecoming , coming home is causing more problems than war itself.
Meaghan Mobbs is a West Point graduate, OEF Veteran, and former Army Captain.