The jaw dropping scenery of the Himalayas may seem like an unlikely place to understand the hardships returning veterans face here at home, but the documentary High Ground (in theaters today) manages to pull it off, along with so much more. High Ground follows 11 combat-wounded veterans, as well as a Gold Star Mother, as they begin the healing process during a climb of the 20,000-foot Mt. Lobuche in Nepal. The vast range of injuries, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), blindness, and amputation, show the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the often-painful adjustment to life back home. High Ground puts a human face on these injuries, and shines a spotlight on what many veterans suffer through in silence.
High Ground was borne out of a “Soldiers to the Summit” expedition in 2010, which was designed to show how climbing was similar to life in the military. The veterans saw the similarities early on in the planning, training, teamwork, and improvisation needed to execute a successful climb. When one veteran, Katherine “Rizzo” Ragazzino, is unable to reach the summit due to altitude sickness, another veteran, Cody Miranda, gives up his attempt to reach the summit and stays behind with Ragazzino. Miranda’s act is symbolic of the “never leave a man or woman behind” ethos that exists in the military, but is often hard to find in the civilian world.
Director Michael Brown’s experience as an adventure filmmaker clearly shows as he follows the veterans from mountain training in the Rockies, to Kathmandu, to the summit of Mt. Lobuche. It is easy to get lost in the spectacular scenery of High Ground, but as you quickly start to realize, the real focus of the film is in how the stories of the veterans are presented and what messages they contain for viewers. As the film progresses, more and more of the veterans’ stories are revealed. The filmmakers let the veterans tell their stories at their own pace. Steve Baskis, who was blinded and severely injured in an IED attack in Iraq, has one of the most compelling stories. During the course of the film, Baskis opens up about his wounds and also his wife, whom he has never seen because of his blindness. When Baskis reaches the summit, it is one of the most touching parts of the film.
Not all the veterans’ wounds are visible to the naked eye and instead require a careful watching of the film. Dan Sidles, for example, has an incredibly tough time readjusting to life at home. Suffering with PTSD and TBI, he craves the adrenaline that his time in the Marine Corps provided, and seems bored with a quiet life at home. His restlessness during the scenes filmed at his house are palpable. It may seem like a challenge to fit 11 stories into a 1 hour and 31 minute film, but the filmmakers manage to do it successfully and in an emotionally gripping way.
For anyone who wants to understand on a human level what many veterans face, High Ground is a must see.