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Treating the Invisible Injuries of War, on ‘Farmer/Veteran’
May 29, 2017  | By David Hinckley
 

The Memorial Day film feature on PBS Monday night started as an upbeat documentary on how some military veterans find farming can be valuable therapy for PTSD.

"Farmer/Veteran," an Independent Lens production that airs at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings), still makes that point. But along the way, its illustrative story morphs into something rather more disturbing.  

It’s a story of perseverance in the face of an unforgiving adversary, and the upbeats in this song often come only at considerable cost. 

Alex Sutton (top), a decorated veteran of three combat tours in Iraq, runs a farm in rural North Carolina with his wife, Jessica (top).

The pieces seem to be in place for him to carve out a new life with different and ideally lesser anxieties. He talks about how he wants to move past the demons and live a settled life with a family.

By the end of the film, for which directors Alix Blair and Jeremy M. Lange followed Sutton over several years, it’s impossible to predict, or even guess, whether that will happen.

Life works that way sometimes, so it’s not surprising a documentary would reflect it.

It’s just an unusually somber Memorial Day statement, reflecting again how the cost of war is tough to measure because its scars take so many forms.

The cruel irony is that if we could measure the true cost in advance, maybe we’d find some other way to settle our arguments.

Sutton speaks softly, which we gradually learn he attributes partly to the fact he’s on enough medications to tranquilize the entire state.

He sometimes feels like a zombie, he says, while seeming to acknowledge that the alternative of no pharmaceutical controls could be much worse.

He acknowledges he still has violence and anger bubbling inside. He has an arsenal of weapons, and he’s quick to dispatch an offending chicken.

Where it gets murkier is when he explains his past. Wounded in action and holder of a Purple Heart, Sutton talks about how he suffered injuries that he survived only because he was treated by a German doctor with a procedure he says is unauthorized in the U.S.

He says only nine people have had this procedure and seven are dead.

The filmmakers could find nothing in Sutton's military records about this operation. There are also discrepancies between his records and his own accounts in other areas, such as why he was taken out of the combat zone.

What seems inarguable is his description of himself as “the perfect soldier,” a teenage volunteer escaping an unhappy world and determined to do whatever was necessary to succeed in his new one.

Combat, however, doesn’t seem to be something through which one can always pass on the sheer power of the will. Sutton, as "Farmer/Veteran" notes, is hardly the only combatant to come home wounded in places that can’t be seen.

Jessica Sutton, who met Alex through an online search “to find someone who could just be a fishing buddy,” comes across as an unwaveringly supportive spouse and farming partner.

Her role in his story seems hard to underestimate, and it’s disturbing to project where he might be without her.

By the end, though, she admits she doesn’t know where it will go. You hope for the best, she says, and then you see what happens.

It’s the kind of documentary where the viewer will wonder a couple of times what’s happening in North Carolina even as the film plays on television.

 
 
 
 
 
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