Assal Ravandi & Lauren Knap on “The War Within”

Hari Sreenivasan discusses that struggle servicemen and women face upon returning home with Lauren Knapp, producer behind “The War Within,” and one of three veterans featured in the docu-series, Assal Ravandi, who came to America as an Iranian refugee. Watch “The War Within” here https://www.facebook.com/WarWithinShow/
Credit: McClatchy Studios.

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Lauren Knapp, tell me what is The War Within series? What are you trying to accomplish?

LAUREN KNAPP, SENIOR PRODUCER, THE WAR WITHIN: The War Within is focusing on three — the experiences of three different veterans who have all been coping with PTSD over the past several years. And as a filmmaker, my goal is really twofold. One, I’m hoping that civilians will watch their stories and understand a little bit more about the lingering effects of war and how it can often stay with soldiers for the remainder of their lives. And the second is really to reach out to people who might be experiencing PTSD or mental illness themselves or family members of people with PTSD. So that they can benefit from hearing Assal, and Scott, and Dave on stories.

SREENIVASAN: Assal Ravandi, you are one of the people that she profiles. For our audience, tell us a little bit about your background.

ASSAL RAVANDI, U.S. ARMY VETERAN: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I’m an Iranian-American. We moved here with my mother and my brother in 1993. My father immigrated to United States prior to us moving here. However, he was killed in a plane crash about a few months before we arrived so it was just me, my mom, and my brother. We’ve kind of started over after. My father was a political activist in Iran against the Islamic regime and he was a political prisoner for a while and so we found ourselves all alone for the most part of my childhood. And my mom raised us as much as she could and took care of us with the family.

SREENIVASAN: What made you want to join the army?

RAVANDI: You sort of become — as an immigrant, I feel like you sort of become an idealist when — it just depends on how America was presented to you when you first arrived. And America was presented to me as, you know, exactly what it truly is, a land of opportunity, a land of the free. And I was so moved by the 2008 election and I sort of became obsessed with the idea of working for President Obama. I admired him. I looked at him and I wanted to be just like him. And I — whenever I looked at him on television or listen to his speeches, I felt like he represented the best of America and that is what I believed at the time and started campaigning for him. And then after the election, once the economy crashed, instead of taking a break from the entertainment industry, I felt that this would be a perfect time to serve. And in my own little bubble, idealistic bubble, I wanted to say that I worked for Barack Obama one day.

SREENIVASAN: Through the military?

RAVANDI: Through the military. He was the commander in chief so.

SREENIVASAN: Right. You were a green card holder at the time, you’re not a citizen, and you volunteered. What role did you play?

RAVANDI: I went in as a logistical specialist. And once I obtained my citizenship, they cross-trained me four months later to become an intelligence analyst and where I utilized my language skills to teach Farsi to infantry soldiers and officers. And when I was down range, I was able to use my skills as well.

SREENIVASAN: In addition to assault story, you also have the stories of two other veterans. I want to take a look at a clip from Davon Goodwin.


DAVON GOODWIN, VETERAN: August 31, 2010, my vehicle hit an IED and that led to having a fracture in my lower back and a traumatic brain injury. I was diagnosed with narcolepsy and the PTSD. The bomb goes off every single day. The Davon that it took, I will never get that person back. I didn’t do it to be a better American. I’ve done it because I didn’t want to be in debt over my head once I graduated from college. Met a recruiter and he’s like, “Well, they’re giving all this money. I mean, they got student loan forgiveness, they got Montgomery GI Bill. I’m going to put you in a non-deployable unit. You’re going to be fine.” I’m thinking, hell, it’s a win-win. What’s the worst that can happen? And boy, did I know that’s not how the Army works.


SREENIVASAN: Lauren, one of the episodes, he talks about how there’s “only so much rage you can bottle up.” How does this play out in his real life with his family, with his child?

KNAPP: Yes. So when Davon came back from Afghanistan, he was dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic brain injury and part of that manifested as — in narcolepsy which he still has today. He had headaches. And then with the PTSD, he experiences very extreme anger. One of his triggers was the sound of crying. And a few months after he came back from Afghanistan, he had a baby. And so that was —

SREENIVASAN: A little bit of crying involved.

KNAPP: A little bit of crying of baby. So that was a difficult period for him and for his girlfriend and for them as a family. He eventually was able to finish college and moved out to the farm that we just saw in the clip. And he found a lot of therapy and solace in that farm and in that space where he could feel safe, he could feel like he could control his environment which is really important. And he is, you know, still with his girlfriend. He’s now kind of becoming the father that he always wanted to be. And he says he’s making up for lost time but it’s really amazing to see them as a family unit connecting and his son is 7-years-old now.

SREENIVASAN: Assal, I want to hear a little bit about the kinds of stresses that you experience when you’ve got to Afghanistan versus what you prepared for when you actually got there and you were in the theater. What was it like?

RAVANDI: Well, prior to my leaving to Afghanistan, we were told that this particular mission, this nine months of deployment is not going to involve leaving the wire. And knowing —

SREENIVASAN: Meaning being in a compound, not being out?

RAVANDI: Not being out. My boss is very open-minded. He was an excellent intelligence officer and I told him knowing fact that I am a neutral gender, I can speak to women and men and I don’t need an interpreter and I’m armed. They’re going to have me run missions so we need to just prepare for this. Physically, mentally, we were ready. But I think there was this little emotional aspect of it that I think there is a mental readiness, physical readiness, and there’s an emotional readiness. And, of course, as a soldier, you’re mentally and physically tough but when they keep telling you, “You’re not going to do something,” you start believing it. We hit the ground running immediately. I mean we started just working with the unit that was leaving. And so when I found out that we are going to be going outside the wire, especially there was that high demand for my skill.

SREENIVASAN: So what happened the first time you were under attack?

RAVANDI: We were attacked every day. And the first time was the second day that arrived in Afghanistan. And this is something that most people don’t acknowledge. Indirect fire is one of the most traumatizing events in theater. And although I ran 85 missions in [13:45:00] 275 days outside of my compound but inside the compound, you are constantly under attack.

SREENIVASAN: So what happens to your brain when you’re in a situation where you hear the sound of it coming but you don’t really know where it’s going to hit?

RAVANDI: I think the first time I was able to utilize my training, you know, hit the ground, do all the — what you need to do. But after the second or third time, you start thinking today’s the day, today’s the day that I’m going to die in Afghanistan. And after a couple of weeks, when you start learning that somebody’s throat got cut by shrapnel on flight line or a pilot had a rocket land on his chest the day before he was taking his first flight and the day after he had arrived from United States, after that he was indirect fires or no longer indirect in your mind. I think they have a tendency to inject a sense of trauma and it’s daily and it’s more than once a day. Sometimes, we were rocketed 5 to 12 times.

SREENIVASAN: Lauren, are you seeing any commonalities in how these three different people, they had very different experiences but how are their brains different? I mean if you lived through something like this or an IED blast or some of the other things that they describe in your documentaries or — is there some sort of change that’s happened to them that would be visible to civilians?

KNAPP: We talk a lot about invisible wounds with this series. And that’s actually the challenge for me as a filmmaker, to film something that we can’t see and that’s one of the contributions to the stigma surrounding mental illness is that you can’t see it. And so it manifests in different ways and that depends on the complex personalities of each of the individuals. With Davon, it manifested in anger and extreme irritability. I’ll let Assal speak for herself. With Scott, it’s depression.

SREENIVASAN: So I want to ask, I mean what did you expect when you were coming back home? And compare that to what actually happened.

RAVANDI: I think our experience kind of splits in three sections. First, you don’t want to be there and you start getting comfortable. And then by the time it’s time to come home, you don’t want to. And so when I was coming back, I was already nostalgic about my environment. And I remember my boss telling me no matter what you do for the rest of your life will never compare to what you did here, the contributions you made. So when I was coming back, I was already sad. When we were in Romania, we — I was happy that I was coming home but I was starting to feel depressed. However, that sense of vigilance that you maintained throughout deployment is still with you so it doesn’t manifest the depression and anxiety, doesn’t manifest itself until you get back stateside. And once I got here, I don’t even think it took more than a week because my mom and my brother came to visit me about 11 days after I arrived. And their two weeks’ visit turned into three days.


RAVANDI: They just couldn’t be around me. I couldn’t function like a normal person.

SREENIVASAN: What do you mean?

RAVANDI: We went to a restaurant and I wanted to eat and leave. And we couldn’t even stay and have a good time because I just wanted to eat the food and leave. There was no — I had no sense of purpose and I wanted to just rush through the day so that became an issue. I was bothered by every sound, every — I remember my brother was playing something that was so beautiful Rumi which — he is a poet and a philosopher, a Persian philosopher but the language bothered me so much. I immediately thought it was Arabic and immediately it just kind of — I came downstairs and started screaming that I just came back from Afghanistan and I don’t need to hear this in my house and three days later they were gone.

SREENIVASAN: This seems not just anti-social but almost in a way, she’s putting herself in a place where people can’t reach her, people who love her can’t reach her. And you kind of see this in the other characters that you’re following too.

KNAPP: Yes, absolutely. Isolation is a big side effect of PTSD. There’s a real tendency to shut people out. And unfortunately, that is — that kind of creates a negative feedback loop and that can exacerbate the other symptoms. And one of the things that is definitely common between Assal, Davon, and Scott is that they’ve all gone through these periods of isolation and you’ve all come out and reengaged with communities in different ways.

RAVANDI: Absolutely.

SREENIVASAN: Tell me what was the point — the turning point? What was rock bottom for you?

RAVANDI: One day I noticed that I was just drinking every day from 11:00. That’s when I think my mom noticed there was something seriously wrong with me. So she came to Washington D.C. from San Antonio and I made our differences of opinion and excuse to separate our accommodations so I got her an apartment so like it shut — like put her out.

SREENIVASAN: Just physically put her at a distance?

RAVANDI: Exactly. So — and I said I’ll support you, I’ll take care of you but I wanted to be home alone so I can drink and be depressed. And I didn’t want anyone to tell me, “What’s wrong with you?” I didn’t want anyone to get in my way of falling into this rabbit hole. And I remember the day before I hit rock bottom, she came by to see me and she knocked on the door. She said, “I’ve been calling you. You’re not answering your phone.” And I said mom, can you just leave? Sorry. I’m sorry.

SREENIVASAN: It’s OK. What made you realize that this was not the right path, that there was something better?

RAVANDI: So the next day was one of the worst days. I remember I had a bottle of Honey Jack Daniels. It was a whole bottle. And I started drinking around 10:00 a.m. and by, I think sometime around two or three in the afternoon, I had already blacked out.

SREENIVASAN: Have you ever thought of taking your own life?


SREENIVASAN: Were you ashamed of feeling this way?



RAVANDI: Because I couldn’t build new relationships. And you couldn’t — you can’t go walk up to someone and say, “By the way, I just want you to know that I have post-traumatic stress and I could lash out any second. And I just want you to know that it’s OK. I will be fine in two minutes.” And — but you can tell someone that you know I have cancer and I’m going to do chemo next week for the entirety of the week and I’ll be weak and I’ll throw up at the end of the day.

SREENIVASAN: And they’ll accept you for that.

RAVANDI: And they’ll accept you for that but they won’t accept you for this person who is — something triggers with every inconsistency. Like inconsistency is one of my triggers. So if you are late to a date, I’m already sick. So I figured there’s something seriously wrong with me. And that day that everything just kind of went black, I felt most ashamed. And when my mom came to the hospital, I promised myself that that day was never going to define me. And I’ve been hiding that story for so long until Lauren came to me and wanted to tell the story. And through the trust we’ve built, I was able to share my story.

SREENIVASAN: Lauren, do you find this with the other characters that there’s a significant reluctance even to get into this because maybe we wouldn’t understand or we wouldn’t accept them?

KNAPP: They each told me in different ways that in sharing their story now through this series, it’s giving the pain that they’ve experienced meaning. It’s hopefully reaching another veteran, another individual who might be in a very dark place who might need to see that there is hope. It’s giving them that sense of hope and that is their — everyone’s motivation as they’ve told me to participate and I think that that’s incredibly admirable because they are sharing some very intimate and difficult things.

SREENIVASAN: You know you built an organization kind of out of the ashes of this. Tell us a little bit about that and why you did this.

RAVANDI: So AUSV was — Academy of United States Veterans was created to one — it was an excuse for me to bring all the vets together. I just kind of wanted to be around all of them. That’s how it started. Their mission was let’s do some — let’s throw a party for me and get everybody to come to see me. But then, when they arrived, they were all happy to see each other and that we all felt the same. It was about 600 of us the first time veteran supporters, family members at the George Washington University.

SREENIVASAN: You have an annual awards ceremony every year?

RAVANDI: Yes, yes.

SREENIVASAN: And what do you honor?

RAVANDI: We honor organizations and programs for profit and nonprofit that work towards the wellbeing of the veterans’ community on the ground in different categories.

SREENIVASAN: Lauren, as you look into this, as you research this material, what kind of infrastructure is capable of making sure that we can intercept these trips to these places of rock bottom, that we can stop that from happening in the first place?

KNAPP: I think a big key is awareness. What Assal is doing, and Scott and Davon is sharing their stories and hopefully normalizing mental illness and PTSD, building community, and incorporating civilians into that space.

SREENIVASAN: What should a civilian know? How should we act? What can we do?

RAVANDI: There is not one or two things that I want the civilian community to know. But I can tell you this, over the past four years that I have been able to co-exist with others who have not served, I have found it easier to be able to interact with the veterans’ community, our dark sense of humor, and some of our ways of just kind of conducting ourselves just makes it easier. But there is another way to be able to reach one another, whether it’s us reaching our civilian loved ones or the other way around. And I honestly think the only solution for any mental health problem is love. And I know it’s cliche but it’s really true because that’s what healed me.

SREENIVASAN: Senior producer Lauren Knapp, Veteran Assal Ravandi, thank you both for joining us. The series is called The War Within. It’s available on Facebook now.

KNAPP: Thanks so much for having us.

RAVANDI: Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis about the rising tide of nationalism; and fashion designer Stella McCartney about sustainable fashion. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with U.S. Army Veteran Assal Ravandi & Lauren Knapp, subject and senior producer of the documentary series “The War Within.”