I want to talk about Veteran Representation in the film industry.
Scene: A Veteran struggles with PTSD; he’s drinking whiskey, staring at an old deployment photo, and then he commits suicide, or he holds a gun to his head and cuts to black with an audible “bang” in the blackness…
The portrayal of Veterans in film and television has played out like this over and over in recent years. Broken shells of once-strong men and women with no hope and no chance at redemption from the shadows of war and depression.
I understand wanting to shed light on the issue of PTSD. It’s absolutely an issue we face. There is truth in showing battles that last long after the war. But from where I am sitting, it’s been done. It has now become an easy storyline to give any Veteran when there are so many other layers to that fight and the many other challenges and victories we face after our service has ended.
I have asked a few filmmakers what the goal of their film was when deciding to choose that storyline. Their intentions are genuine. Most of the time, “I wanted to bring attention to Veteran issues.” 90% of the time, it comes from a civilian filmmaker who only tries to help. The thought of someone who was once a literal warrior feeling so worthless they would take their own life is enough to ignite a passion for combating it in almost anyone. But I’d like you to consider a few things next time you see that same scene play out…
It's been 22 years of War, and Veterans return struggling with a long list of things from physical injuries, environmental injuries, survivor's guilt, and, yes, PTS…. Early in the war, the nation latched onto the quote, “22 veterans die by suicide daily.” But that’s not the actual number and is taken entirely out of context. That’s not to say suicide isn’t on the list of issues returning Veterans face; it’s just important to note it’s not the ONLY one.
When you hear someone say, “22 veterans commit suicide daily”, the immediate assumption is that these suicides are directly connected to the Veterans. The latter served in a warzone and are a direct response to untreated PTSD. But in all actuality, the number of Veterans who return suffering from PTS and do not take their own lives is significantly under-portrayed.
When the number 22 was formulated, they considered every veteran who had served combat and non-combat and retired from several eras. This had the numbers obscured (albeit with good intention) to what the world has now come to champion behind “22”.
We should also look at the suicide epidemic in our civilian counterparts.
In 2020, 45,979 Americans died by suicide.
Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the U.S.
Every day, approximately 125 Americans die by suicide.
There is one suicide death in the US every 11.5 minutes.
Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-old Americans.
Mind you; there is a potential for Veterans to be blended into this study since this wasn’t a focused group of civilians who haven’t previously served in the military.
With these numbers pulled, it’s safe to say that if you are human and live in America, you are just as likely to be at risk for suicide as any Combat Veteran. It is a problem that needs to be addressed across the board.
The emotional response to the “22” narrative has been thousands of non-profits focusing on this issue and this issue alone. This meant all the other problems were pushed to the wayside and have since become an afterthought if acknowledged.
The idea that these gestures provide valuable attention to the issue is far from reality. By continually highlighting suicide in film, it has become counterintuitive to millions of Veterans who strive daily to find relief from their trauma. This only perpetuates a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are constantly telling Service Members that suicide is the standard way out taken by Veterans. But Suppose we are willing to acknowledge that minds and spirits are broken. In that case, we must be ready to recognize that constantly feeding those minds images and stories of people “losing their battle” does not feed them the hope and motivation that many think it does. On the contrary.
The residual effect of the world telling you that the most crucial storyline that needs to be said about the Veteran community is that of suicide is that they unconsciously start to believe it. It becomes a good thing because they see daily that many of their brothers and sisters-in-arms are taking that way out.
This is a phenomenon called The Contagion of Suicidal Behavior
The secondary effect of this storyline is that the general population who sees it starts to believe that every Veteran struggles with suicidal ideation. This generalization is harmful to the community. It paints us as unstable people who either need handholding every step of our life after service or are incapable of the career paths and family lives we choose because we can not be trusted to manage our mental health.
For example, the movie “SGT. Will Gardner.” This film was meant to bring light to Veteran issues, and I commend them for the attempt. But in the end, the Veteran fails…He loses… that is the message.
Yes, that’s an outcome for some Veterans, but it’s not for the majority.
Why is every after-war story a “Struggling” veteran?
I don’t want this to come off as upset or disgusted. It comes from a place of experience and concern for my community. I want to enlighten those who care deeply for Veterans and the issues that have endured due to combat. I want to focus on ALL of the problems we deal with after war and the successes more than, if not at least as much as, the losses.
Understanding Combat PTS is highly complex. The Veteran experience goes deeper than suicide ideation. There are intricate nuances that a combat Veteran experiences. How can we help you tell that story? The fact of the matter is that most Veterans might struggle with the transition from the military to the civilian lifestyle, but a majority find success.
I want to offer up a challenge to Hollywood screenwriters and producers.
Try to give our heroes eternal life by highlighting their lives and the men and women standing next to them. Tell stories of people who overcame the stigma. Try giving Veterans the preverbal “Happy Ending” prevalent in non-Veteran-centered roles.
I would do it myself if I were given the opportunity and funding. But I am not yet in a position in Hollywood where I can manifest this idea.
If your set on telling stories of struggle, many other issues currently NEED that attention. For example, veterans from OEF and OIF have been struggling with certain cancers that are believed to be derived from a long list of exposure or inhalation to day-to-day workplace hazards in the country.
On January 28, 2018, a friend from Basic training died from stage IV stomach cancer, diagnosed seven months before his death. He spent his time at A/1/75 with three deployments and was highly healthy before his deployments.
Between 2001 to 2021, during the Global War on Terror, approximately 3.7 million service members deployed overseas, of those individuals on active duty:
7,057 have been killed in action.
Over 5,500 have committed confirmed suicides,
At least 520,966 have been diagnosed with cancer, and at least 241,000 have died from "Ill-defined, unknown causes of medical illness."
That is approximately 1 in 7 diagnosed with cancer (many of which have passed away).
The concern is that this young, otherwise healthy population does not meet the demographic standard for normal CDC-cancer screening guidelines.
The average age range for these individuals is between 35-40 years.
Unfortunately, given the tendency of healthcare providers to assume post-9/11 veterans suffer from increased rates of mental health disorders, many of the physical symptoms they present with are deemed 'psychosomatic.'
Furthermore, studies show providers are more likely to dismiss a physical symptom as mental health-related in a 19:1 ratio. Only 4% of civilian providers are deemed "competent" to provide veteran-specific and complete care.
More than 70% of post-9/11 veterans utilize civilian providers following service, which is a significant concern.
The concern with this lack and lapse of an accurate, timely diagnosis is that the window of care and treatment possibilities begins to lessen, leading to preventable deaths. This is an urgent concern in our community.
That concern goes way beyond burn pits. It’s chemicals; its sandstorms; it’s asbestos; it’s combat; it’s aviation fumes; it’s depleted uranium in munitions; and so much more!
It's not just in combat zones; it's in Japan, Korea, Fort Carson, Niger…All over the world.
And also, if you served on active duty during post-9/11 in the USAF, you are at least 3.79-times more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than your civilian counterpart.
Cancer in SOF isn't uncommon; just a few of the Ranger Regiment guys were diagnosed with some form of GI cancer:
SGM Charlie Salinero, 52 years old, 1/75
SSG Chris Inboden, 38 years old, 3/75
CSM Keith Filipp, 54 years old, 3/75
SSG Vincent Castellanos, 36 years old, 1/75
SPC Victor Cortez III, 36 years old, 1/75
1SG Kevin Lowery, 42 years old, 2/75
All these numbers and information have been collected by:
Hunter Seven Foundation. https://hunterseven.org
The deadliest cancers we see are Leukemia, Brain, and colon. This is a genuine, frightening reality affecting current Veterans and their families. If you want to bring light to Veteran causes, why not include these stories in a way that demands action?
I’m not saying Hollywood should start making films and shows about this one issue and nothing else. Nor am I saying that wanting to help veterans is not an honorable mantle to take up. I am simply asking you to see and represent as a whole and not just the most broken. I want to see us represented across the board rather than just our losses.
All of this being said, I want to make clear that if you are reading this and you are feeling the kind of pain that is depicted so often… I am here, as well as many others if you need us. My goal is to be an example of the success you can have after all the battles that come after your service is done. That’s not to say I have never had failures or that I have never struggled. But there is more happiness and hope than you have been led to believe on the other side of those hard times.
Make your own story.
Hunter Seven Foundation. https://hunterseven.org
Learn more: The Contagion of Suicidal Behavior