FORT CAMPBELL, KY -- Lacking only the glitz and glamour of Hollywood's red carpet, Veteran filmmakers were stars in their own rights as a four-day "I Was There" Film Workshop culminated in a packed-house screening event at Cole Park Commons Thursday.
With a unique approach to treating the psychological damages of war, the free workshop encouraged Soldiers to share their experiences through mentored filmmaking classes at Fort Campbell's Warrior Transition Battalion. In half-day sessions, participants began March 23, with an introduction to film theory and practical techniques, and collaborated all week from concept to shooting and editing, all while grouped with fellow veterans.
Founded by Ben Patton, grandson of Gen. George S. Patton, the workshops are aimed at helping veterans connect with each other, interpret traumatic experiences and substantially reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS). For many of the 25 participants at Fort Campbell, the results were quite evident as the task of filmmaking required social interaction and gave some a voice that had been silent.
"We've done about 30 of these workshops over the last couple of years, and this was one of my favorites," Workshops Director Jeanette Sears told the crowd of Soldiers and family members during the screening of short films.
The Ohio native turned New York transplant has been a cinematographer for most of her adult life and mentored her first workshop with Patton at Fort Drum a year ago. A full-timer behind the scenes on coordination and preparation, Sears said Fort Campbell marked her seventh workshop.
"We live by three principles -- listen, collaborate and empower. The first two are the key ingredients, and the third is the result," Sears explained. "Every veteran's story matters and deserves to be heard. Participants can safely engage with others who will listen. In collaboration, they each have had common experiences and now have this filmmaking experience together. They accomplished a mission together with this shared objective."
Collaboration is the most remarkable part of the process, Sears said, because many forms of therapy can be somewhat isolating. "A lot of narrative therapies like writing and painting are all solo. With this workshop, participants have to make a film together. They have to make it with someone."
The workshops are hosted exclusively on military bases, and participants range from those who want to learn about filmmaking to Soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress, brain injuries and other service-related stresses, Sears said.
All veterans are welcome to attend, which normally includes active duty and nearby retirees, but Sears noted that one participant came all the way from Northwest Indiana to attend Fort Campbell's workshop. Other organizations helped by assisting with hotel and fuel costs.
"He was just that passionate about attending this workshop," Sears said, "and he put so much into this; his group's film was extraordinary."
With intense eyes piercing from beneath the bill of camouflaged cap, the stern-faced, bearded, and impeccably fit Caleb Bishop said it was a privilege to attend. He was born and raised in Arkansas. His brother was already deployed to Iraq when Bishop joined the Army after high school, or right out of the gate, as he put it. He was assigned to 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division and deployed to Eastern Afghanistan.
"We were on a combat outpost on the border with Pakistan -- no running water or electricity. We played dice with the devil every day, sometimes getting 30 or 40 rockets a day. You could hear the rockets and mortars coming in, but you never knew where they were going to land."
That anxiety eventually became numbing, Bishop said, something he learned to just "turn off."
As a civilian now, he's a welder and electrical technician. But soon after leaving the Army, a devastating car accident served as a wakeup call to address issues he had tried to ignore. "I was going through some really hard times. In the hospital, I realized I needed a lot more help."
Bishop said he went through intensive treatment, which incorporated prolonged exposure therapy, characterized by re-experiencing traumatic events rather than avoiding triggers. "I remember being around those other vets, collaborating comfortably about our experiences. So when I heard about this workshop, I thought, 'I need this.'"
"Just being around other vets [in this workshop] gives me that feeling of stability and security. I don't feel like an outsider, and I can talk and express my emotions."
Aptly titled "Come Back," the short film made by Bishop's group is intended to portray his experiences. "I wanted to show not just what Soldiers go through, but how it affects family members. With this film, I wanted to get it out there for people to recognize what is going on."
The film shows how Bishop experienced nightmares, frequently waking abruptly, kicking and fighting. His "character" transitions from being in a close relationship to living in isolation, followed by a traumatic car wreck. But he emerges on the other side, seeking treatment for his emotional scars.
"Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day. Eight-thousand a year. I don't care who you are; if you've experienced trauma, it's going to affect you. So don't ignore it … That's why I want this film to show how it affects everyone, from all angles," Bishop said.
"He has been through so much and has an amazing story," Sears said. "I know we'll stay in touch through our alumni program. After participants do this workshop, we don't want that to be the end. We want to stay a part of these Soldiers' lives."
The workshops can help the entire spectrum of participants, depending on how much they put into it, Sears added.
"We have proven it does move the needle on some symptoms of PTS. On average, we see about a 20-percent reduction in PTS symptoms over the course of these workshops. So this does work."
For more information on I Was There film workshops, visit www.iwastherefilms.org.
Blanchfield Army Community Hospital
Blanchfield Army Community Hospital Facebook
Blanchfield Army Community Hospital Flickr
Blanchfield Army Community Hospital Twitter