In 1943, an enraged Gen. George S. Patton slapped a battle-fatigued U.S. soldier at a military hospital and accused him of cowardice, an episode that nearly ended Patton’s career.
Nearly 70 years later, two filmmakers — one of them Patton’s grandson — are trying to help soldiers cope with what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder by getting them to tell their war stories through a movie.
“Their generation just didn’t understand what this meant,” said Ben Patton, who takes his grandfather’s violent reaction as a sign that he too may have been suffering PTSD. “And that’s my call to action.”
With a growing demand for ways to treat the psychological damage of war, one Army pilot project is encouraging soldiers to take control of their own stories in a filmmaking class titled I Was There Media Workshop.
The Fort Carson program began last year under the auspices of Patton, a New York documentary filmmaker, and Scott Kinnamon, a Denver educational filmmaker. Some 20 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars so far have attempted to organize their combat experiences in video as a way to fight PTSD.
“You can put everything into a video or a movie, a small movie about what you want to tell people — your story,” said 1st Sgt. Jason Gallegos of Fountain, Colo., who deployed to Iraq three times and has now produced a short film called “From Hero to Zero.”
“If they want to watch it, great. If they don’t, then don’t. But I don’t have to go through the process of the ‘angsting’ up to tell somebody something, just for them to be interested for a minute,” Gallegos said.
Some 2.3 million men and women have served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade. The Rand Corp. said as many as 300,000 veterans of those wars may have suffered PTSD or major depression. The Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department have been ramping up therapy options for several years now and the effort continues as some troops continue to go undiagnosed or untreated.
Gallegos was a tank commander in Iraq and vividly recalls what he felt after his first engagement with insurgents in 2003. He ordered a tank gunner to fire on a man who had launched a rocket propelled grenade at his tank, and he watched through night-vision goggles as the bullets cut through the man.
Another reminder of the pain of war is a picture of Army Cpl. Gary Brent Coleman, of Pikeville, Ky., that Gallegos keeps on his Facebook page. Coleman was 24 when he died in an accident that tipped a Humvee under Gallegos’ command into a canal near Balad, Iraq, in November 2003. Gallegos and another soldier in the Humvee survived and Coleman died despite desperate efforts by Gallegos and the other solider to find him in the murky water.
“I did have one nightmare, where I was holding my breath and swimming underwater,” Gallegos said of his memory from that event.
Filmmaking as a way to document or cope with the lasting emotional impact of combat is not a new concept. In Los Angeles, ex-U.S. Marine filmmaker Garrett Anderson is making a documentary film with video from pocket digitial cameras that was captured during the November 2004 battle of Fallujah. The 2010 Academy Award nominated “Restrepo,” by author Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington, tells the story of a platoon in combat in Afghanistan and its resulting emotional impact on the soldiers.
What’s different now is that the Army is looking at filmmaking as possible therapy.
Maj. Christopher Ivany, a psychiatrist and former head of Fort Carson’s behavioral health services unit, approved the trial classes to supplement more-established therapy programs for returning veterans.
The goal, he said, is to encourage soldiers to “take control of the things that happened in the past and paint that in a specific way that makes sense.”
“And hopefully do that in a way that allows them to think about that as a more productive or positive and more realistic past event, and then go forward in their life easier,” Ivany said.
In the case of Gallegos, making the film “From Hero to Zero” was a way for him to cope with what he describes as a letdown feeling sparked by his pending return to civilian life — which was brought on by a diagnosis for leukemia.
The “Hero” refers to his combat experiences in Iraq. The “Zero” depicts him learning about his leukemia and trying to deal with the end of his military career.
“My time in the Army is coming to an end, and I take a lot of pride in what I did over there,” Gallegos said.
The results of video as therapy haven’t been scientifically validated. Kinnamon and Patton are working with medical researchers and the military to develop a way to study the possible benefits of filmmaking.
Barbara Rothbaum, a psychiatry professor and PTSD expert at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said there’s little to no data on filmmaking for PTSD but that it may follow a proven treatment known as exposure therapy. The idea is that exposure to the memory, like other methods that include talking to a therapist who might record a conversation and replay it, can eventually help a soldier face the traumatic experience at the core of distressing memories.
Ivany noted that some therapy treatments, such as sports and exercise, “were relatively new and seemingly out of left field probably eight to 10 years ago.”
The term PTSD wasn’t even formally adopted until 1980, five years after the Vietnam War ended.
“It’s a real thing,” Patton said.