Iraq War Veterans are Using Pro Wrestling to Cope With PTSD
In the short documentary 'Valhalla Club,' three vets talk about how pro wrestling did for them what the VA and federal government couldn't: helped them cope with PTSD.
Courtesy Jan Ohrstrom
Valhalla Club is a short documentary about three Iraq War combat veterans who use pro wrestling as a means of coping with their PTSD. This is a very contemporary setup for a movie. But it opens with a century quote from the Austrian writer Karl Kraus:
“War: first, one hopes to win; then one expects the enemy to lose; then, one is satisfied that the enemy too is suffering; in the end, one is surprised that everyone has lost.”
Kraus was highly skeptical of the benefits of psychoananalysis and deeply distrusted his contemporary Sigmund Freud. What comes after the war? That’s a fair question. But considering the fact that combat veterans commit suicide at double or more the rate of civilians, it’s also fair to ask what comes after the therapy, counseling, and drugs?
This question gnaws at the heart of Valhalla Club because the three primary subjects found no relief in the solutions provided by the department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrists and a government which seems hellbent on ignoring what is, by any metric, a crisis. These veterans are open about it. The psychoanalysis failed. The drugs didn’t work. What do we do? What pinprick of light do we have?
One of the documentary’s subjects, Eddie Witter, says he feels that the man he was before the war is gone, that he has to make a new man out of what’s left because there’s no going back. That is what each of them uses pro wrestling for. Jan Ohrstrom, the oldest of the three, began wrestling as Dynamite, a kind-hearted, patriotic babyface, around the turn of the century. Witter wears clown makeup as a violent and hypercompetent (he’s a legit jiu jitsu champion and “the only buff clown” in wrestling) heel. And Brysin Scott, the youngest and most recent returnee from action, portrays a self-absorbed, slightly skeevy lothario.
These are all reinventions via amplification of some part of each man. Ohrstrom is Dynamite to some extent, or wants to be. Witter uses the clown makeup to say things he can never say in polite society, a Dudley Boys approach to heeling via disguise. Scott, for his part, is the polar opposite of his womanizing persona—he relates the role of his family in his success and happiness with vivid emotion, and his wife also wrestles—but there’s a yearning for being something he is not and perhaps could not be.
Watching the documentary and speaking to the three subjects in a phone interview, it’s a little tough to suss out where desire ends and need begins when it comes to their personae. It may be that there is no meaningful distinction between the two, given their forms of PTSD—Ohrstrom’s from repeated convoy attacks, Witter’s from watching the outcome of extreme violence in his role as a combat medic, and Scott’s from a series of near misses—were seemingly shrugged at by the VA. Again, nothing worked.
“I went through more than one session with the VA, both individual and group counseling,” recalls Ohrstrom. “I didn’t respond well to either, because the individual one, all the VA wanted to do was put me on pills. They didn’t look at any other option. And then the group one, I would get frustrated because not only were pills pushed on us, but it felt like a contest of who went through it worst. It prevented healing, like it downgraded what someone had been through.”
Witter and Scott told similar stories, with Witter adding that he had to do “something with all my anxiety.” Cue pro wrestling's music, and the three created new selves. And, importantly, the violence they partake in is controlled. Wildly different from war, not remotely as severe, but there’s control in wrestling, over what happens to your body and those of others.
This last bit can’t be underestimated. PTSD is often related to a sense of loss of control, with the victim “held in a state of captivity, physically or emotionally." To be in control of your surroundings is key to healing, and drugs shouldn’t be sniffed at, but neither do they seem to really get at the heart of the lack of control, at least with Ohrstrom, Witter, and Scott. And yeah, pro wrestling has all those weird edges and codes, but picture in your mind’s eye those matches that find you, as a spectator, fully absorbed in the artistry, the physicality of the controlled movements, the simulation of pain and hurt. Then imagine what it’s like to do it, especially if you’ve already been ripped to the bone by war, where you control nothing—not your body, not your surroundings, not your loved ones’ safety. Channeling that want of control and the extra energy into pro wrestling starts to make enough sense that you might wonder why more people don’t go into it as a means of coping with trauma.
The documentary is not perfect in a technical sense: it’s made by a small studio and it shows in some of the sound mixing and a sometimes oddly unsteady hand on the camera. And the links between the three men—they met through wrestling several years ago and are planning on forming a proper stable, which begs the questions of who turns and how—could be emphasized more.
What makes it worth watching is the personal, unvarnished insight into how PTSD arrives and how lonely the battle against it seems. There are moments of true heartbreak in Valhalla Club which take your breath away: Ohrstrom stating “the death never stops” with a coolness which his deeply hurt eyes betray, or Scott saying how terrified he was that nobody would ever be proud of him if he died. And I keep repeating this but it cannot be repeated enough: the VA was not there for them in any meaningful capacity. The data is there, but speaking with them and watching the documentary, it comes more sharply into focus than the more sanitized version on news reports, the subjective becomes dominant as you blow these snapshots into thousands and then tens of thousands of people. They all wanted help, they got a third or a half of what they need, and then they were on their own.
Until they weren’t, of course. They found each other, through this screwed up carnival called pro wrestling. And they found some peace, through that friendship and because of this thing they do. That’s not the happiest ending imaginable in a world which is falling apart in slow motion, but it’s approaching one.