Documentary Film Premiere and Panel Focus Attention on Veteran Wellness
On a recent Wednesday evening at the U.S. Capitol, key legislators, veteran organization leaders and academics gathered for a powerful policy discussion and documentary film premiere that focused on veterans struggles in the criminal justice system. Congressman Jim Costa, CA-21, (co-sponsor of the Honoring our PACT Act) delivered opening remarks, stating that soldiers returning from combat must be cared for as they battle PTSD and other mental health troubles.
“Our veterans have sacrificed all to protect our nation here at home and abroad. Veteran suicide prevention and mental health accessibility remain top priorities of mine in Congress. While we’ve made progress, our work is not done,” said Costa. “It’s critical that America’s veterans get the help and support they deserve. For a grateful nation can never say thank you enough.”
The panel discussion was hosted by Jeff Werner, Director and Producer of Those Who Serve, and the conversation covered topics ranging from policy to social impact entertainment. The premiere of Those who Serve shared heartbreaking stories of three veterans that were mired in the criminal justice system after years of service to their country.
“We come home and we try to chase the same adrenaline high that we received while deployed... Consequently, many veterans such as myself, turn to criminal activity, substance abuse, isolation, and extremely risky behaviors. Still, others find themselves in the grips of a difficult battle against the memories and symptoms left by combat trauma,” said Mark Stillion, a U.S. Marines Veteran who appeared in the film Those Who Serve.
Stillion described his experience in a Veterans Treatment Court after he was caught selling crystal meth. This court in particular knew the context of his position as a veteran and he received treatment for his debilitating mental health troubles. He and Col. Jim Seward of the Veterans Justice Commission argued that solutions such as these must be implemented nationwide in order to truly honor veterans.
“We see the salute to service at the NFL, we see they’re building another memorial, meanwhile my buddies that I served with are killing themselves, and they’re homeless, and they’re in prison, and they’re in jail,” said Col. Seward.
Col. Seward outlined his organization’s lobbying efforts at the city, state and federal levels to ease transitions for veterans after the military, establish a model policy framework for veteran court cases, and include those with bad discharges. The Commission has been walking the halls of the Capitol and working one on one with governors across the country to advocate for these changes.
Another panelist, Caroline Jacoby, the head of the Center for Communication Programs at Johns Hopkins University, discussed the power of films for social impact purposes. Jacoby compared her experience creating short films that teach hygiene in impoverished regions to Those Who Serve. She argued that education through film and longform storytelling can supplement teaching methods and engage viewers in new ways.
The audience was captivated during the viewing of Those Who Serve, and surprised by the drama and strong connection to the veterans and their families. One viewer called the film “brilliant and brutal.” The documentary quickly bred empathy and understanding for veteran experiences.
Jennifer Fischer of Journeys in Film said, “When you watch Those Who Serve, it’s not a statistic; it’s not a news piece. It’s (Mark Stillion) telling his story; it’s family members telling stories that will break your heart.”
Werner and his co-producer Frank Connelly are partnering with Journeys in Film to receive an educational distribution for the film, and are raising funds to create lesson plans and discussion guides to accompany the documentary. They hope that with greater awareness of PTSD, the general population can become more informed jurors who operate in the courtroom with compassion. The work is just beginning, but events such as this foster a better understanding of the life of a veteran.