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Recovery Through Acting

Acting helps a combat vet recognize his own PTSD.

You might say that Matthew Pennington found his own life while playing another.

A severely wounded combat vet, Pennington was deeply into post-traumatic stress disorder—but didn’t know it. Life seemed pretty normal to him, just as it does to someone suffering from hypothermia. You don’t know you’re in trouble until you’re really in trouble.

Then Nicholas Brennan, a film major at New York University, invited him to play the main character in a film he’d written called “A Marine’s Guide to Fishing.” It starred a young Marine who came home to Maine after the war in Iraq with one leg missing and a severe case of PTSD.

It was a neat fit. Pennington is a former Army sergeant who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. A roadside bomb removed his left leg, shattered his right leg and scorched his lungs. After a year of inpatient and outpatient treatment at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he also came home to Maine.

"When I went back to Maine, I thought I’d be helping others. Instead, I was the one who needed help,” Pennington told me last week. “I never re-acclimated. I just came home and started shutting down.”

Pennington’s relationships, particularly with his wife, were deteriorating rapidly. Drinking heavily, he seldom left the house except for late-night runs for food and beer. “I didn’t like civilians, and I didn’t like to deal with them,” he explained. “I saw a lot of ungrateful people who had every privilege and amenity, but they’re always complaining and bickering. So to avoid dealing with them, it kept me pretty well housebound.”

Working with a group of New York City vets, Brennan had created a script that Pennington could identify with, so he decided to try his hand at acting. “I thought acting would be so out of the normal that it would force me to deal with things,” Pennington told the New York Times, which profiled his story six months ago. “I wanted my life back.”

Pennington and Brennan were in Charleston, W.Va., last week to screen their film before an audience at the Covenant House, an inner-city institution that provides help to the homeless and indigent.

“As I acted this part, I was able to identify with PTSD for the first time,” Pennington told the group. “I realized what it was, and I recognized that I had it. I went to the VA for treatment, but I always came out with a big bag of drugs. So I began to go to the Vet Center. They can’t prescribe drugs, but they taught me coping skills.”

Now drug-free, Pennington relies on what he calls the “three-step trick” to help him focus on the present instead of sliding back into traumatic memories. When he begins to feel antsy, he closes his eyes and conjures up a strong memory of home. Then he opens his eyes and checks his wristwatch for the time and date. Finally, he checks to see where he is at that particular moment and how he is going to get home.

“That puts me in the present instead of the past,” he explained.

But it took some time for Pennington to learn it. “There’s one scene (in the movie) in which the main character tries to go fishing and wind down, but he can’t wind down,” he said. “Instead, he’s always thinking about over there. That really hit home with me.”

The 15-minute film, which Brennan said finally came together after 14 drafts and two years of research and writing, sparked a lot of comments and questions from the audience. Two Vietnam vets talked about how much they identified with the main character, although PTSD did not become a medically recognized disorder until 1980 and they didn’t realize the extent of their emotional wounds.

But even having the diagnosis is a double-edged sword, Pennington said.

“There’s a stigma to PTSD,” he said. “People read about vets with PTSD shooting themselves or shooting someone else or running amok, and they treat you like you’re some kind of psycho. It’s not a label you want to be associated with. Any vet who can tough through it and not admit he has PTSD is going to go that route.”

The film screening was sponsored by Patriots for Peace, an anti-war group that has been active in opposing the Iraqi war. “For years, we’ve been protesting the war and demanding that we bring our kids home,” said Jim Lewis, a retired priest who was one of the organizers. “Now we felt it was important to change our focus and work on how to help the vets once they get home.”

To learn more about the film or to buy a DVD, visit this Web site: