By Heather Clark, Courier staffJune 16, 2014
Sergeant Michael Rodgers, Charlie Company, Warrior Transition Battalion, lies unconscious in his bed at the Fort Campbell WTB barracks. His hand loosely grips a near-empty bottle of whiskey, and the bed is littered with empty prescription bottles. On his nightstand sits a solitary item -- a photograph of his Family. As he struggles for life, he unknowingly sweeps the empty pill bottles off of the bed and sends them rolling across the floor …
"Cut!" shouts Sgt. Cory Followill, a medic with the 563rd Aviation Support Battalion, from his station behind the video camera. As he checks the footage for continuity with Sgt. Christopher Bober, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, Rodgers jumps up, empties the apple juice from the prop bottle and prepares to change into his ACUs for the next shoot.
The three Soldiers have been spending the week learning the art of filmmaking in order to bring their story -- the tale of a Wounded Warrior attempting suicide -- to life. They are part of a group of Soldiers participating in the I Was There Film Workshop, a four-day creative therapeutic program for Soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress, developed by Benjamin Patton, grandson of famed World War II General George S. Patton Jr.
"My connection to the military has been for my whole life," said Patton. "By profession, I'm a filmmaker -- and also a developmental psychologist. I have an interest on many levels in working with Veterans."
For the past three years, Patton and his team of instructors have brought his workshop to military installations across the country to offer affected Soldiers the opportunity to collaborate with peers and make sense of their experiences through storytelling.
"This is essentially leveraging the value of narrative and therapy and combining it with the power of digital media," he explained. "If it helps to write or tell your story, why wouldn't it help to use a camera? It's a multi-modal, multi-sensory device -- perhaps the most powerful storytelling tool ever designed."
Emphasis within the program is rooted in process rather than product; hence the three key words under which the program functions: Listen. Collaborate. Empower.
"It's not therapy the same way as going into a session with a therapist," said Patton. "It comes from collaborating with other Veterans to channel and express things they might not be able to talk about any other way."
Using video as a tool, Patton explained, the creators have the ability to control how they engage with their own personal histories.
"You can make a film where you don't have to be in it," he said. "You can be the cameraman or the director. You can fictionalize or use animation. There's a transformation that comes from just being able to get comfortable with something that happened to you and have a number of people affirm that."
Patton said that there is almost always a change in the Soldiers within the four-day workshop period. In an environment of peers and hands-on instructors, participants often tap into a reserve of strength that allows them to open up and share their experiences.
Rodgers was one of these Soldiers. Signing up for the workshop at the recommendation of his social worker, he admitted to being very nervous on his first day.
"I'm not really an outgoing person, so even doing anything like this is not common for me," he said.
In the positive environment of the program, Rodgers overcame the hurdles of introversion and trepidation in a big way -- not only choosing to appear in front of the camera, but to do so to in an autobiographical capacity.
"It took me a long time to be able to share my story," he said. "Once I was able to, it was very good for me. Hopefully it will be for others as well. That's why we chose this topic of suicide prevention -- to tell this story and help other people."
Helping Soldiers was the driving force behind Bober's participation in the program.
"As a leader in the Army, I do have a very strong interest in adding another tool to my shed -- in better helping Soldiers with any problems they might have," he said. "I feel like since this video might reach other people, it might have a positive impact."
As for Followill, an upstart filmmaker who's worked in music videos and horror films, the initial lure of the workshop was the craft itself. Once the workshop commenced, he said he was surprised to discover the rewards and challenges that came from working out of his element.
"As a medic, I hear a lot of these stories," he said. "But when I'm doing something like this, instead of just listening, I can help them to tell their story creatively. And by doing that, it has let me be able to see it through their eyes. It's completely changed my aspect on it."
Through these collaborative efforts, Patton says he can often see a reduction in PTSD symptoms just over the course of the four-day experience.
"If you make a story by yourself, it doesn't have the same power as it does when you work with other people and that story becomes bigger than all of you," he said. "Then it becomes relevant to other people. As a result, we find that it's empowering. It reduces the stigma and the feelings of isolation."
Patton encourages those interested in the project to find out more about the process and results at www.iwastherefilms.org. Through spreading knowledge of the program and its therapeutic benefits, he hopes to see a generation of community support that will allow the workshops to flourish.
"What we need to continue to prove is that there's no doubt we're opening a door for people," he said. "We need to keep that door open and that hand outstretched."
"When they're shooting these movies, they're talking about all these issues, but they're having fun doing it," said Followill. "They're facing everything they've been through in a different way, and they're loving it. In just a few days, I've seen a lot of attitudes just completely change."
Bober feels that the camaraderie generated through learning about a new creative outlet is what gives the workshop its therapeutic edge.
"I think the most important people to help them through are their peers -- they have the most impact and they're around them the most," he said. "If those people can get involved, that really wins the fight."