The Story Behind New Film ‘In the Valley of Elah’

By: Greg Mitchell

The tale, as told in the movie, is disturbing enough. The true story, related most recently in a Copley News report last week, is even more troubling.

The movie is ?In the Valley Of Elah,? written and directed by Paul Haggis, who did the same with the Academy Award-winning ?Crash.? Tommy Lee Jones has been drawing raves for his performance as the Army dad of an Iraq vet murdered by his friends, and I concur with those views. Susan Sarandon has a much smaller role as the mother.

Haggis, in the movie?s opening credits, suggests that his film is based on true events but he changes all the names, locations, and many small and crucial details. Perhaps he felt some elements might have caused confusion or taken the focus off of Jones? memorably lined and heartbroken face. While it draws attention to how the war may brutalize soldiers who survive it, some Iraq veterans have voiced concerns about certain aspects of the treatment.

Then there?s the matter of the key plot twist omitted: One of the murderers, perhaps the ringleader, was supposed to be confined for psychiatric care just before the killing, and was not.

You may vaguely recall the news that drew brief national attention four years ago: A soldier just back from Iraq was found in a field near Fort Benning, his body in pieces, burned to a crisp and largely devoured by animals. Eventually several of his comrades were arrested, with the savagery attributed to a fight after a wild night at a strip club. Then they set his body on fire. Two of the men got life in prison, another 20 years in the slammer.

End of story? Not exactly.

The movie traces the real-life search for the truth conducted by the victim?s father, called Hank Deerfield in the film but actually named Lanny Davis. He?s a conservative, retired military policeman who comes to question what stresses and horrors his son, and others, were subjected to in Iraq. As in real life, Tommy Lee Jones in the movie is haunted by a phone call from Iraq from his son, begging him to help get him out of there. A short while later, the boy is dead.

The father in the film finds video on his son?s cell phone ? a cinema creation — which suggests that he witnessed, or even took part, in torture of Iraqis; he may have also run over a child in a Humvee, ordered by a superior to not stop in case it was an IED trap.

Norma Meyer, in that Copley News Service story last week, related that Davis ?believes the assailants plotted to kill his son because, according to a 2004 article in Playboy magazine, Richard had witnessed atrocities in Iraq, including the alleged rape of an Iraqi girl by two of the men. Davis, she reported, ?commends the film for bringing attention to the rising number of vets who, like he does, suffer from PTSD [from his service in Vietnam.?

Haggis in interviews has cited government reports revealing that not enough is being done to identify and treat vets with PTSD and suicidal tendencies. A Pentagon task force, Meyer relates, ?recently reported that 49 percent of National Guard members, 38 percent of soldiers and 31 percent of Marines who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have experienced mental health problems, including PTSD.?

But there?s another twist that goes unmentioned in the movie (except in a roundabout way) — and has been totally absent in newspaper reviews.

A week before Richard Davis?s killing, one of the key perpetrators, Jacob Burgoyne, overdosed on anti-depressants in Kuwait. ?He was diagnosed with PTSD at a military hospital and described as having ?homicidal/suicidal? thoughts,? Meyer writes. ?Then he was allowed to ship off with his unit to Fort Benning.?

This was first reported years ago by Mark Benjamin when he was still doing groundbreaking work on veterans issues for UPI (he now writes for He wrote with a colleague: ?Medical records reviewed by UPI show that the Army knew Pvt. Jacob Burgoyne was having ?homicidal/suicidal? thoughts in the days before the killing at Fort Benning?.?

When shipped out of Iraq, Burgoyne (who claimed to have killed 200 Iraqi fighters) had stated that he might hurt one of his comrades, then overdosed on pills in Kuwait. Burgoyne, according to a CBS News probe, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, ?and it was directed that he be monitored at all times, that he not carry weapons and that he report to the psychiatric unit when he returned to Fort Benning.?

His mother, who met him there, reported that he had been ordered to report to a psychiatric unit at the hospital, but he received no treatment and was released. Davis was killed four days later.

At a hearing surrounding the murder trial, Dr. John Stuart Currie testified that Burgoyne “suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, along with panic attacks, clinical depression and flashbacks from combat.”

In the Haggis movie a character who seems to based on Burgoyne does attempt suicide: But it comes after the murder, with the police on his trail — not before.

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