In "That Which I Love Destroys Me," a newly-released documentary that deals with the current PTSD epidemic, writer and director Ric Roman Waugh ("Felon," "Snitch") does exactly what he needed to do to respect the importance and delicacy of the subject matter: He gets out of the way of the story by letting the principals tell it themselves.
"My job was to let them tell their story with unflinching candor," Waugh said at a recent screening in Los Angeles.
TWILDM follows the post-war lives of two veteran special operators. Jayson Floyd served in Afghanistan as a Sergeant in the U.S. Army's elite 75th Ranger Regiment, and Tyler Grey was a member of Delta Force and served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Floyd and Grey met at a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan in 2002, but their friendship blossomed after their complicated paths of post-active duty life joined around the methods they'd unlocked for dealing with their PTSD – mainly understanding the benefits of a supportive community of those wrestling with their own forms of post-traumatic stress.
Waugh sets the tempo of the documentary with soliloquies featuring a number of people, but mostly Floyd and Grey. Their personalities are at once different and complimentary. Floyd is Hollywood-leading-man handsome, moody and brooding, and speaks with a rapid-fire meter that forces you to listen closely to cull out the wisdom therein. Grey is more upbeat, a conversationalist who uses comedy to mute his emotional scars. He is quick with folksy metaphors that show how many times he's told some of these stories, and he matter-of-factly relates how he sustained massive wounds to his right arm as breezily as a friend talking about a football injury.
The two warriors' physical appearance changes throughout the documentary, which has the net effect of showing the passage of time and the range of their moods. Sometimes they're clean-shaven; sometimes they're bearded. Their hair length varies. The differences color the underlying chaos around the search for identity of those dealing with PTSD.
Others are featured, as well. Grey's ex-girlfriend singularly comes to represent the toll of PTSD borne by those around the afflicted. She's beautiful and articulate, and as she speaks from a couch with Grey seated next to her, a pathos emerges that is intense and heartbreaking. You can tell she loves him, but they'll never be together again. Too much has been said during the darkest days. For his part, his expression evinces resignation for the beast inside of him that he is still taming, as he'll have to for the rest of his life. The sadness in his eyes is that of a werewolf warning those who would attempt to get close to stay away lest they be torn to shreds in the dark of night.
Floyd's brother tells of the letter Floyd wrote explaining why he couldn't be physically present to be the best man at his wedding. As the brother reads the letter he begins to weep, which causes Floyd to weep as well. The image of the tough special operator breaking down is very powerful.
But perhaps the most powerful scene is the one featuring Grey participating in a special operations challenge in Las Vegas. He's back in his element, wearing the gear he wore so many missions ago, a member of a team of elite warriors bonded by a clear-cut mission.
The team cleanly makes its way through a series of obstacles, but at the last one – where they must each climb a 15-foot rope to ring a bell – Grey falters. His wounded hand won't hold him. He tries again and again, each attempt increasingly pathetic. It's hard to watch. He finally gives up.
His teammates pat him on the back and put on the good face, but Grey is obviously crushed by his failure – something that goes against every molecule of his special operations DNA.
Grey convinces his teammates (and the camera crew, as Waugh revealed at the LA screening) to get up early the following day and try again before the event organizers tear down the obstacle course. This time Grey rings the bell. The scene captures the triumph of that day and, in a broader sense, the will to triumph over PTSD.
"Dealing with PTSD is a constant process," Floyd said. "To do this right we had to rip the scab off and show the wound."
"We know we're not the worst case," Grey added. "This is our story – just about us – and we're putting ourselves out there not to compare but hopefully to coax people into sharing."