Monday, June 29, 2009

Coming home to public celebrity, private hell

Audie Murphy had the kind of face you find on a baby shampoo bottle. He was every grandma's grandson.

So, after World War II, Hollywood wanted a crack at one of history's most heavily decorated American soldiers.

Among the amazing things about this man's story is that, at least on the set, he didn't crack.

It was only afterward that the war Murphy left, and which carried his fame to theaters across the country, brought him down.

Murphy's psychological makeup came to mind as I paused on a cable dial awash with war films over Memorial Day weekend. To see him in the movie version of his autobiography To Hell and Back is to be amazed at two kinds of steel — first, on the battlefield; second, that shown recreating hell on a movie set. I wondered how someone who'd experienced real war didn't collapse into a quivering heap.

That, apparently, was later.

With all that's been said, and rightfully, about Murphy's heroics, too little attention was given to the horrific mental toll that war took on him.

Isn't that the way it always is? The war ends when the director barks, "It's a wrap."

Born to sharecroppers in North Texas (Hunt County), Murphy enlisted in the Army at age 18. He was anything but a cherubic-faced innocent on the battlefield. He won 33 battle commendations, including the Medal of Honor.

In To Hell and Back his heroism flows right off the screen — manning a machine gun on a soon-to-explode tank to fend off advancing Germans; taking out an enemy pill box when his unit has been destroyed.

Seeing him re-create these moments playing himself, seeing the re-creation of his friends perishing on Europe's bloody soil, one wonders how Murphy handled it.

Not very well, it appears, at least when they dimmed the stage lights.

For more than 20 years, though his film career thrived, he suffered extreme depression and insomnia. He reportedly had violent outbursts aimed at his loved ones.

Before Murphy departed from the public scene quite prematurely, he became one of the first and most prominent military figures to build public consciousness about what was then called battle fatigue and is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Murphy, who died in a plane crash in 1971, would find some comfort in what's happening at Waco's Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

At risk of being shut down only a couple of years ago, the hospital recently received $9.8 million to help it become a Center of Excellence for veterans suffering psychological trauma.

At the hospital's newly created center for PTSD studies, one of the efforts will be tracking 1,000 veterans back from war for the rest of their lives to see how PTSD develops and how it manifests itself in different environments.

I've interviewed PTSD sufferers who, at the height of their suffering, reported diving under beds at the sound of a lawn mower or seeing approaching armored vehicles which were in fact golf carts on a next-door golf course.

Americans in the '50s and '60s who, popcorn in hand, watched Murphy on the big screen probably never imagined the scenes he re-enacted weren't a nostalgia quest. They were a trip back to someplace his mind was telling him not to go.

Reportedly as many as one-third of our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan will return with chronic psychological wounds, not including traumatic brain injuries that will necessitate medical and psychiatric care.

One-third may sound like a lot. Then again, maybe it only seems that way because too often in years past when the director said "wrap," people thought war was over. For countless soldiers like Audie Murphy, it wasn't even close.

John Young writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

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