Soldier On: Life after Deployment. Directed by Susan M. Sipprelle. Englewood, NJ: Tree of Life Productions, 2017. 80 minutes.
Terra Firma. Directed by Christine Anthony and Owen Masterson. Atlanta, GA: Anthony-Masterson Photography and Films, 2014. 62 minutes.
Both Soldier On and Terra Firma look at the lives of female veterans deployed post-9/11 after their military discharges. The films tell complex stories of struggle and adaptation in personally and politically fraught situations. Both have significant classroom utility—each puts a compelling human face on the female veterans who tell their stories and presents those stories without reducing female veterans to stereotypes or oversimplifying the military or country they have served.
Soldier On follows three women, Natasha Young, Amanda Tejada, and Lyndsey Lyons, as they reintegrate after arriving home from overseas deployment. Although the women are proud of their service, they are also traumatized by their experiences and are struggling. Among their issues are difficulty (re-)adapting to doing everyday tasks for themselves, finding and keeping employment, and forging and maintaining relationships; they also experience depression, abuse of alcohol and drugs, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Through Lyons, Soldier On specifically confronts the ugliness of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—the U.S. policy that prohibited gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members from disclosing their sexuality. Through Tejada, it explores severe depression and personal and professional listlessness. Through Young, it highlights the challenges one might face while navigating veterans’ services.
Terra Firma also features three female veterans, but from a different angle. Sonia Kendrick, Anna Mann, and Althea Raiford became farmers after returning from overseas deployment Raiford is reviving her old family farm in Georgia, Mann’s farm sells eggs and pork in North Carolina, and Kendrick grows produce for the homeless in Iowa. The film explores these women’s efforts to find purpose and peace post-deployment. They talk about the struggles and triumphs of their military service along with the joys and challenges of returning home. Terra Firma thus shows a spectrum of emotions and features the range of resources that helped the female soldiers—relationships, churches, community organizations, legal aid, and their connection with land and food.
Each documentary has strengths and weaknesses for classroom use. Both use first-hand conversations to capture audience attention quite effectively, and both successfully characterize the soldiers and the wars that they fought in as complex rather than simply good or evil. Soldier On has the benefit of paying close attention to what happens when women are deployed and how they adjust when they come home, with a focus both on the immediate aftermath of their return and on how their lives developed over a number of years. Students get to see long-term progressions of the soldiers coming to terms with themselves, with war, and with how their lives will continue. Terra Firma has the advantage of focusing on veterans within a specific context, namely farming. In addition to seeing the soldiers’ experiences with, of, and after war, students will learn about the Farmer Veteran Coalition and issues related to food sustainability.
Both films are of appropriate length and level for different types of classes, and both are informative and attention holding. Each has limitations, however. Although each does debunk the myth that women either do not fight or have no agency in combat, they offer very little analysis of what it means to be a female soldier. None of the six women speaks at length about experiencing either combat or retirement as women, so it is not clear why either film features women. Terra Firma could pay more attention to how the women moved from their immediate post-deployment struggles to the fairly stable places they occupy when the film meets them and to some of the uglier undersides of PTSD like drug and alcohol abuse or violence. Soldier On develops the characters’ stories a bit unevenly, and the result is that Lyons comes off as somewhat one-dimensional, especially as the film’s only LGBTQ+ veteran. Both also include only American soldiers, so educators might consider other films with a more global focus.1
These critiques are not meant to deter educators from adopting the films in their classrooms but indicate potential food for discussion. Depending on the context, either film could be supplemented by Cynthia Enloe’s Nimo’s War, Emma’s War (the various ways women can be in wars and wars in women’s lives), Megan MacKenzie’s Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone (the reintegration of female soldiers in post-conflict development), Annica Kronsell’s Gender, Sex, and the Postnational Defense (gendered roles in militaries), Aaron Belkin’s Bring Me Men (masculinities and masculinism in the US military), or Swati Parashar’s piece on war bodies.2 Either film (or both) will spark significant discussion and facilitate learning.
1 Films for the Feminist Classroom has published reviews about several films that may be of interest: see Amina Mama’s review of Duhozanye: A Rwandan Village of Widows and Grace, Milly, Lucy. . . Child Soldiers and Rama Lohani-Chase’s review of The Sari Soldiers and Woman Rebel.
2 Cynthia Enloe, Nimo’s War, Emma’s War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Megan H. MacKenzie, Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone: Sex, Security, and Post-conflict Development (New York: New York University Press, 2015); Annica Kronsell, Gender, Sex, and the Postnational Defense: Militarism and Peacekeeping (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Aaron Belkin, Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire, 1898-2001 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); Swati Parashar, “What Wars and ‘War Bodies’ Know about International Relations,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 26, no. 4 (2013): 615-30.