I recently saw "The Present Trauma," an intense short film that depicts the struggles of a young combat veteran coping with the loss of a battle buddy in combat overseas and trying to reconnect with his wife and son back home. The film is a finalist in the Matt Damon and Ben Affleck-produced HBO series Project Greenlight (where the winning filmmaker gets to direct a Hollywood-vetted feature script) and can be viewed on Facebook.
Director Mark Manalo serves up a rich, gripping narrative in only three minutes that illuminates some of the challenges that all too many veterans experience when they return home. It clearly illustrates the profound impact of the stress of deployment on military families, and the sense of helplessness that spouses and children often endure when unable to connect to their returning veteran.
The film has impressively racked up over 2 million views, almost 75,000 shares and nearly 2,000 mostly positive comments on Facebook since being posted in September. It's wonderful to see such an overwhelming response to a film like this, which so powerfully humanizes the experiences of today's returning veterans. We know a great deal more today than we did a generation ago about the myriad challenges these veterans face, and Americans finally seem to understand that one does not have to support a war to support the men and women asked to fight it.
The veteran in "The Present Trauma" reaches the brink of suicide and then at last chooses life. Tragically, many don't make the same choice. The suicide rate among American veterans recently peaked at nearly 1 per hour - and suicide among veterans under 30 has spiked 44% in the past three years.
Watching a film such as this one can help inform the 99% of Americans who, like me, as my late father Major General Patton often reminded me, "have not missed a meal or heard a shot fired in anger." Indeed, good films can do great service in educating the public and raising awareness of veteran's problems, but this is only part of what's possible through this powerful medium. In fact, the very act of filmmaking has the potential to be amazingly therapeutic for veterans themselves, as a powerful tool to help them tell their own stories.
My organization has been conducting therapeutic I WAS THERE film workshops at Army bases around the country for the past three years. Veterans coping with PTS and the aftermath of deployment come and collaborate with other veterans to produce short films about experiences many of them aren't able to express in a conventional way. After all, digital video technology is something with which most veterans are already familiar and comfortable. The average age of the 2.6 million servicemen and women deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan is 27. This is the YouTube Generation of warriors.
On average, veterans emerge from our workshop with an immediate 20% drop in their reported PTS symptoms. This reduction is often even higher in symptoms relating to avoidance and stigma, major factors in veteran suicide. They are finding it empowering to work in collaboration with other veterans to reclaim their own narratives, on their terms. The hundreds of veterans who have participated in our workshops emerge with a better sense of themselves and their history, and a greater comfort with their "new norm," as it were. They are also often able to begin to relate better to others. As one young combat vet told us after showing his film to his wife, "She simply said, 'I finally get it.' She could finally come to terms with and understand what I was going through that I couldn't put into words."
In the end, while families, friends, mental health providers and battle buddies must work together to provide a safe support system for a veteran in need, in most cases (as is shown so powerfully in "The Present Trauma") that veteran must also choose to invest in his or her own recovery. Working collaboratively with others who have had similar experiences to produce a short film has often proved to be the perfect icebreaker to get that process started.
Although neither the film's director nor I are veterans, I hope that together we can explore ways to further leverage the awesome power of digital media by helping veterans (and their families) craft and share their own stories and enable them to take the lead in rebuilding their lives.
Benjamin Patton is the creator of the I Was There Film Workshops for veterans and military families (iwastherefilms.org). He is the author of the memoir, Growing Up Patton, about his grandfather, General George S. Patton, Jr. and father, Major General George S. Patton, IV. Ben is also a program host for We Are the Mighty, a new media network on the military (wearethemighty.com). He holds a Masters in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University-Teachers College.