The Ground Truth: Iraq War Veterans Speak Out

By Susan Van Haitsma 

On Friday, September 15, the film, “The Ground Truth,” opened in selected cities around the country, including Austin. The riveting documentary directed by Patricia Foulkrod is scheduled to run for one week at the Dobie Theatre. The film gives voice to young veterans of the Iraq war, who speak candidly about the successive phases of their military experience: recruitment, basic training, combat, re-entry into civilian society, physical and psychological war injuries and the consequent realization that their country is unprepared for the levels of support they really need. Yellow car magnets and heroes’ welcomes don’t cut it.

“The Ground Truth” is rated “R for disturbing violent content, and language,” according to its listing in the Austin American-Statesman. Most of the disturbing violent content and language is contained in footage from basic training and from the Iraq war. Drill instructors are shown dehumanizing recruits as part of the process of training them to dehumanize the adversary. Rare video footage from Iraq, accompanied by first-hand accounts from soldiers featured in the film, reveal the ways their training to “Kill, kill” leads them to target Iraqi civilians.

A film review of “The Ground Truth” in the Austin Chronicle includes the reviewer’s suggestion, “It would be a good idea to show Foulkrod’s movie nationwide on high school career days.” As it happened, I attended a local high school career fair the evening before the film opened. Counseling staff at the school had invited Nonmilitary Options for Youth to participate with a literature table along with the many college and occupational trade representatives who were present. My colleague and I set up our table near the Army and Marine recruiters who came with their chin-up bar and give-away items.

One of the points made by the veterans interviewed in “The Ground Truth” (including a former Marine recruiter) is that recruiters do not tend to use the word “kill” when they talk to young people about enlistment. The military recruiters I observed at the career fair encouraged students under age 18 to display their physical strength on the chin-up bar and to fill out cards with their contact information. The students weren’t told that the primary purpose of the military is to harness their youthful energy for killing.

Materials at our Nonmilitary Options table did address killing and the human costs of war. We invited students to consider signing cards that read in bold letters, “I Will Not Kill.” The postcards are part of a youth-organized campaign sponsored by the international organization, Fellowship of Reconciliation. The ‘I Will Not Kill’ campaign ( gives young people a way to document their beliefs about killing in war, not only in case of a draft, but to encourage them to explore their own moral values as they enter adulthood.

If “The Ground Truth” could have been shown as part of that high school career night, the truths offered by the young veterans in the film would have done much more than we could at our table to inform and enlighten both students and recruiters about the realities of enlistment. Unfortunately, the film is not likely to be shown in the school, partly because of its ‘R’ rating, which is due precisely to the film’s candid revelation of the disturbing violence and language that is required to make students into soldiers.

Included in AISD school regulations is the following statement: “Students shall be informed that physical violence and threats of physical violence as a means of addressing interpersonal conflict and discipline or control are inappropriate and destructive.” At the same time, military recruitment in schools means that students are sought to join an institution that relies on physical violence and threats of violence as a means of addressing conflict, discipline and control. If military training and combat is described accurately, those descriptions may be considered too violent for minors to access, yet access to minors is what military recruitment is all about. Such layers of cognitive dissonance become part of the soldier’s psychological burden described so honestly by the young veterans in the film.

Students are deceived if ground truths about military training, war and inadequate veteran care are withheld from them. And if images of real war are inappropriate to display to young people, then it is inappropriate to recruit young people to fight. The veterans who speak in “The Ground Truth,” several of whom are only a few years out of high school themselves, have undertaken a truth-telling mission. Supporting the troops means listening to what they have to say.

Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth and can be reached at