When one hears the phrase “wounded soldier,” there’s a certain image that comes to mind: camouflage- or khaki-clad men and women with bandages, crutches, wheelchairs, or bruises. In reality, war wounds, particularly those sustained during the incredibly long and difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, know no bounds: lost limbs, diminished brain or nerve function, empty spaces left by the loss of loved ones, and heartbreaking psychological conditions.
Battle scars run deep; no two look exactly the same, and some look like nothing at all. One constant for all wounds received in war is that they represent some kind of loss. Coming to terms with that loss is like . . . well, like climbing one of the highest and most treacherous mountains in the world.
Therein lies the metaphor upon which the gripping documentary “High Ground” is centered. The film follows 11 combat veterans, each with their own particular crosses to bear, as they train for and then attempt to summit Mount Lobuche in the Himalayas.
Each climber’s story is equally tragic, perhaps summed up best by the words of one young soldier, Steve, who lost his eyesight in an explosion:
“It’s like this deep dark black abyss that I stare into. It’s never ending. I wish I could see everything that’s around us. I wish I could see the sunset and sunrise, but I can’t.”
As the climbers make their way higher and higher, they’re surrounded by breathtaking vistas that, in and of themselves, are mind-altering, spirit-soaring experiences. The idea that Steve risks his life, pushes himself physically and psychologically to reach the summit of the mountain, where he knows he will see nothing but more dark black abyss, suggests just how deep the wounds of war are. For the wounded, life becomes a search for light, in whatever way they can possibly find it. The light might only ever be found in the abstract. The words “soldiering on” are never so meaningful as when they apply to soldiers trying to find their way back to everyday life.
Climbing with the soldiers is a mother who has lost her son. “To be here with these soldiers,” she says, “and to watch them overcome what’s happened to them and push up this mountain, that’s life. That’s grief. That’s pain. But you still take that step and you keep going.”
The movie truly finds light inside its subjects, and also captures amazing scenery as the climbers make their way through Nepal and up into the sky. The film was directed by Emmy Award nominee Michael Brown, who also made the movie “Farther than the Eye Can See,” a documentary about Erik Weihenmayer, a blind climber who scaled Mount Everest. Weihenmayer also appears in “High Ground” as one of the climbers who aid the soldiers on their journey. Brown has himself climbed Mount Everest 5 times. His love affair with climbing and filming mountains makes this a seamless viewing experience, completely connected with the soldiers and their sojourns; one easily forgets that a crew of people are standing by filming the entire thing. The film was produced by the masterful, Academy Award®-nominated Don Hahn.
The individual stories of the soldiers do not leave you when the credits are over. Even more, the film leaves you with some understanding of the challenges these soldiers face every day. There’s a definite sense that the mountain becomes a metaphor for their lives going forward. There are long stretches of climbing, of losing sight of the goal, of simply having to put one foot in front of the other. Then there are fleeting moments of grace and majesty on the summit, where they remember how wondrous it is to simply stand on the planet and be alive.
And then, they have to put one foot in front of the other yet again, and climb back down, then struggle all over again as they look for the next mountain, the next summit, the next brief moment of beauty.