Three weeks ago I returned from Colorado. I had such an amazing experience that I feel compelled to share it with anyone who will listen (or read, as the case here may be). While promoting the Summit kickstarter campaign back in June, I joined a facebook group that was specifically for women directors of horror, sci-fi, & fantasy to promote their work. A filmmaker named Katie Carman was looking for female filmmakers interested in potentially being instructors for a workshop happening in August (but ideally future ones as well) that aids soldiers recovering from PTSD. I Was There film workshops was created by Ben Patton, the grandson of General Patton. He’s a documentary filmmaker but has always had a close connection to soldiers and military life. An ongoing issue in the military is the fact that there’s very little help for soldiers that suffer from PTSD & even TBI beyond just medication. Ben came up with the idea that maybe allowing someone to visually express their story would enable them to come to terms with what he or she had experienced and get closer to recovery.
Katie & I connected through this facebook page and she explained that they were looking for female instructors because she was currently the only one and there are female soldiers in the army who sometimes find it more comfortable speaking with and confiding in women (especially because some of those women have been victimized by men, even their fellow soldiers). The cause instantly moved me and I told her I was interested. They interviewed me and felt I was a good fit. We took off for Colorado on August 26th for the 3rd I Was There workshop. I didn’t completely know what I was going to experience but I knew I was going to try my best and that I wanted to help as much as I possibly could.
Ben, Katie, Clifton Archuleta (fellow newbie instructor and amazing filmmaker who’s also a Veteran), and I all stayed in a hotel near Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. We had 4 days to work with two separate classes in trying to get the soldiers to not only open up to film as a possible form of aid, but also to make films of their own. We spent the first day showing them some short films to get them thinking about short-form storytelling and how symbols & imagery can help tell a person’s story without really having to tell that story. Ben explained who he is and why he started the program and then we heard from the soldiers and why they were suffering from PTSD. I personally had never heard such stories, tales of having to pick up the charred, bloody body parts of friends and fellow soldiers, tales of being terrified everyday at every moment for years at a time, tales of smelling death and burning flesh in the air, seeing people blown up just a few feet away, losing friends (some just 18 or 19 year olds) over and over, most hitting losses in the double digits. These tales were all truths, brutal truths that these men and women experienced; and I could see how much it affected each and every soldier we worked with as they spoke and struggled to explain, but I couldn’t even fathom how it must feel to have experienced all that. Retired Colonel Charlie Watkins (who served with Ben’s father in Vietnam) came in on the first day to offer some encouragement and comment on what the soldiers are going through. He stated, “The army does a great job of turning young men & women into warriors and killers, but does a terrible job of turning them back into human beings & regular citizens.” That statement really hit me & definitely resonated with the soldiers. I realized that we had a very difficult task ahead of us but an important one. I by no means believe that just making a film erases all the horror that soldiers (or anyone who’s experienced trauma) has witnessed and felt, but it does get them working through it and reconnecting with emotions that (in this particular case) they’ve been trained to stifle and even get rid of. I was incredibly touched by everything I had heard from the soldiers & Charlie and just hoped that I would be able to help them in some way that would make a difference for them.
By the second day we were working one on one with soldiers in each class (some soldiers paired up) and we began brainstorming. It was initially a little tough to crack their hard exteriors and get through to them, get them really interested in filmmaking and what it could do for them. But once the stories started coming out, they all found what they wanted to convey. I worked with two soldiers individually, Daniel and Beth. They both had stories to tell and I was so proud to have been able to assist them. I shot and edited for them, but they really made the films.
It was fascinating the transitions they all made in 4 days. Collaborating with someone and sharing their experiences really seemed to help them. By the end of the workshop, there was less tension in the air; they all seemed so much more at ease and less weighed down by grief or guilt or whatever they were feeling. Many said the films helped them reflect on their experiences & feelings from a safely removed position. Others said it helped them express themselves in a way they couldn’t have expected because they were having such a hard time verbalizing how they felt, especially to their significant others. Seeing the films by other soldiers helped them all realize that they were all going through similar issues and this helped them feel more connected and less alone. I was particularly touched by Beth, a woman who was not comfortable talking to anyone in the beginning but eventually talked to me & Katie. And I eventually got her to really embrace the idea of telling her story and she made a total 180. What felt so amazing was that she truly trusted me by the end (something she lacked in the beginning) and seemed genuinely thankful to the workshop & to me in particular for just listening to her and helping her tell her story. I am so thankful to her for allowing me to experience that feeling and for opening up to me and trusting me with her story. I will never forget her or any of the other soldiers I met and worked with. I am also so thankful to Katie for finding me & Ben for hiring me. They want me to continue doing workshops with them & I cannot wait to do my next one. I already loved filmmaking before this workshop, but I now have an even deeper respect for film and the power of telling one’s story.
I wish I could share the films they made with you because they were incredibly moving and surprisingly artistic. But they are made solely for the soldiers to have for themselves and show to whom they choose. There are, however, testimonial videos that Ben & Katie are in the process of putting online. I’ll be sure to share them when they’re up. But in the meantime, you can find out more info here: http://pattonveteransproject.org/. They’re still working on their online presence since they only established the workshop last year and have been working hard to get funding and get the workshop recognized by the army as a useful form of therapy. I personally believe it is; if there’s anything you can do to support this, I highly recommend you contact Ben.