- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 7, 2010

VENICE, ITALY (AP) - A new documentary being shown out of competition at the Venice Film Festival explores the trauma of three U.S. war veterans who served in Iraq and how the military handled their cases.

“Ward 54,” so named for the psychiatric wing of the U.S. military’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, also deals with the rise in military suicides following Iraq duty.

The film opens with the case of Army Sgt. Kristofer Goldsmith, whose job was to photograph Iraqi war victims to identify them. Goldsmith recounts how serving his country had always been his life’s dream, but it turned into a nightmare when told he would be deployed again to Iraq.

“For over a year I knew something inside me wasn’t right. I was drinking close to a gallon of vodka every weekend and starting fights,” Goldsmith recalled Tuesday in Venice, where “Ward 54” had been screened the previous night.

When told he had to go back to Iraq for duty, Goldsmith recalled: “I said I can’t go back to Iraq. I wasn’t afraid of Iraq, but knew I couldn’t return.”

He said his colonel gave him three choices: “‘One, you can suck it up and go back. Two, you can go AWOL and live your life as a felon and three, you can kill yourself.’”

He attempted suicide on Memorial Day 2007.

“I was absolutely disgusted with the treatment from the military when I was trying to get help,” he said from Venice’s Excelsior Hotel, where he was doing media interviews alongside Italian director Monica Maggioni.

Last month, a Congressionally-ordered report found historically high rates of suicides in the U.S. military, saying more than 1,100 members of the armed forces had killed themselves from 2005 to 2009 and that suicides are rising again this year.

The sharpest increases were in the Army and Marine Corps, the services most stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Goldsmith credits therapy but also his work as an activist for helping him deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder he has suffered following his Iraq service. He speaks at U.S. colleges to raise awareness of PTSD and says he often hears from vets struggling with the same issues.

“The experience I went through and my story, it is me and it defines me,” he said. “It used to be a horrific negative thing, and I managed to turn it into a positive thing.”

Director Maggioni, a foreign correspondent for Italy’s state-run RAI television, said her own combat coverage during the Iraq invasion informed her sympathies for soldiers suffering from PTSD.

“I understand perfectly what they go through,” she said, noting that she was the only Italian reporter embedded with the U.S. military during the 2003 invasion. “From that moment on I had a particular interest in all issues related to the war.”

While filming the documentary has helped Goldsmith recover, he still has some unfinished business with the U.S. military: He has been denied an honorable discharge because of his suicide attempt.

“I appealed for an honorable discharge, and on the anniversary of my suicide attempt that got turned down. I need to start an entirely new case,” he said.