Liza Johnson’s Return introduces something new to the familiar story of military service members adjusting to life back home after deployment.

Following a recognizable trajectory, the film opens with Kelli (Linda Cardinelli) returning to small-town Ohio following a year-long tour of duty in the Middle East as a National Guard Reservist. After a happy homecoming with family and friends, her once-normal life begins to unravel. She grows bored of the factory warehouse job that she held for 12 years before her deployment and abruptly quits: “This is a giant waste of time. I can’t do it anymore.” She struggles to reconnect with her husband Mike (Michael Shannon). Their marriage suffers and she begins to drink. Trouble with the law ensues.

The lead character Johnson created is unique among existing returning-veteran films. Besides occupying a new gender role, Kelli has not experienced combat or injury.

Johnson’s choice of a female protagonist reminds viewers of the expanding role of women in the modern U.S. military. According to a 2011 Pew study titled Women in the U.S. Military: Growing Share, Distinctive Profile, the proportion of women in the armed forces has increased since the military became an all-volunteer force in 1973. The share of women in the enlisted ranks increased seven times to 14% during this time period. The proportion of female officers also quadrupled from 4% to 16%. Additionally, more women are taking on combat-related roles such as pilots, bomb disposal, or serving on warships.

“Women go outside the wire like everybody else and this is underpublicized,” said Col. Charles Engel, a Gulf War veteran and career Army physician. “Hollywood characters of war veterans have all been men so it is very important to provide a wider understanding.”

Previous films that portray military service members returning to civilian life feature male characters dealing with violent or inhumane battlefield experiences. The Hurt Locker’s Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) makes a white-knuckled career of defusing more than 800 enemy-improvised bombs in addition to trading gunfire with the enemy. In Brothers, Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is captured and abused by Taliban fighters after his Blackhawk helicopter is shot down. Hometown friends Michael (Robert De Nero), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage) suffer the horrors of a prisoner of war camp in the 1978 classic, The Deer Hunter.

Kelli, however, did not see combat, suffer physical injury, or endure capture. Return reveals scant detail about Kelli’s deployment experience, but her duties consisted of unloading cargo and she “saw some dead people.” Despite her insistence that “other people had it worse than I did,” Kellie’s plight upon returning home reflects the reality that even those who do not fight on the front lines or are not physically wounded can suffer from emotional trauma.

“There is no question that trauma may be caused by experiences other than combat or injury,” said Engel, who is the Director of the Deployment Health Clinical Center at the Department of Defense. “It can result from the fear of getting hurt, or having a friend who gets hurt.”  Physical and emotional trauma are major causes of difficulty for readjusting to life back on home soil. However, other challenges for service members and their families arise simply because of prolonged separation. Marriages are often strained. Children grow and change in ways that returning parents may not know or understand. Spouses or family members that stay behind often have to take on new or a greater share of responsibilities such as finances or child care. Integrating returning family members back into a changed household dynamic can be contentious. Kelli and her family struggle with each of these hardships, which steadily accumulate en route to Return’s open-ended finale.

“The basic reality is that deployment separates people from their family for long periods of time, sometimes on multiple occasions,” said Engel. “They can be away from home and the people they love more than they are with them, and that has consequences.”

Numerous other circumstances contribute to the collective reality of American soldiers readjusting to life after deployment. Some veterans have difficulty finding jobs. Those who sustain injury or trauma often must also grapple with family separation or underemployment. Many service members and families become stronger and closer as a result of overcoming these hardships. More work like that of Johnson’s Return can explore these realities, allowing a more complete and informed narrative to be told.

Matt Aldag is a former Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the National Academies.

Photo credit: Return (Fork Films)

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