I was reading through an article in the Military Times. As I read news, I'm always looking for bias issues. One, as a journalist, bias in reporting drives me crazy. Two, spotting that bias is able to give me better insight into the main issue. It's a filter. In order to filter out the reporter's bias, you first have to spot it. So, here's the first sentence.
"Roughly 20 veterans a day commit suicide nationwide, according to new data from the Department of Veterans Affairs - a figure that dispels the often quoted, but problematic, 22 a day estimate."
Dispels? We go from 22 to around 20 and something has been dispelled? Look, by definition, 22 is around 20. If you round 22, you get 20. How has anything been dispelled? Clarified, maybe. Adjusted, perhaps. Not dispelled.
The bigger issue is that around 20 vets a day are killing themselves. That's around 7400 a year. We lose more vets each year to suicide than we have lost in the entire War on Terror due to combat. That's a problem and it hasn't been dispelled by any stretch of the imagination.
Now, here is some good news. There are people who are working to reduce that number. They aren't a part of the government or the VA. They are ordinary citizens, like you and like me. They feel compassion for people they've never met but want to help. And, they are making a difference. They are using fiction to change reality. Let me tell you their story.
This past 4th of July I was at the HEARTS Veterans Museum in Huntsville, Texas. My marketing company, Silver Tongue Communications had been asked to run the public relations for an independent film called Stronger. The movie was filming the final scenes in a large hall. Three hundred extras were in the room; folks from around Huntsville who came out to be a part of this project. The lead actor, Ulises Larramendi was born in Cuba. He came to America around 11 years old. He's playing Vic Rafael, a Vet suffering with PTSD. Here's Ulises describing what it means to play this character in this film on the 4th of July.
"There's a few things going on for me personally. I grew up in a country that hasn't had freedom for 55 years. And, I love performing and I love God. And over the last year and a half as I learned my character of Vic, I met a lot of grat men and women who are veterans who have shared their stories with me, so you put all that together, and here I am acting for God, working for him and his film, telling a story about a man I've learned to respect, Vic Raphael, fictitious, but so many veterans that I've talked to have become Vic. And I hope he speaks to a lot of veterans that will be here today. And to do that on a day when we celebrate freedom coming from a country where we don't have freedom. To me, that's priceless."
That's so American. An immigrant playing in a movie about a veteran filming on the 4th of July. It doesn't get more American than that! But, why were they filming on Independence Day? They could have been in that room and called for extras any day. Why the Fourth of July? Because the City of Huntsville wanted to. They heard about the film and its mission and this town, deep in the heart of Texas, wanted to help. Here is executive producer Carla McDougal.
"They came to us and said, we've got an event on the Fourth of July and we would love to open it up so that you can use it in your film if you would like. We were looking at each other like, would you have ever imagined a whole town would come behind a faith based movie like this?"
So, in addition to filming this scene in the veterans museum, Stronger was given full access to a motorcycle ride through town by a veterans biker group. They were then able to shoot the city's fireworks display as part of the ending for the film. Full access. Full support. Why would a city do that? Because they believed this film really can help.
Here again is Ulises Larramendi.
"If God's in the center of it, then we know it can happen. So I know I can help not just veterans, but families who are trying to understand their family members who are dealing with it. "
Angela Sweet plays Vic Raphael's wife, Michelle. Angela had worked in Hollywood for many years. She left the glitz and glamor because she felt the success she was getting was somehow empty. She had left acting altogether, but was called to join Stronger. She believes this project won't be an empty shell, but rather an agent for change.
"The film's going to be a catalyst; a catalyst that will raise awareness, but not just leave it at that. It will raise awareness and then connect those who need it with resources across the country, so that anyone who has been struggling with post traumatic stress, whether it be a veteran, a first responder, a mom, a woman who's experienced domestic violence or a child, that there will be so many resources available that anyone in the audience who's connected with post traumatic stress can not only relate, but find resources for help."
How in the world, could a movie become a catalyst? How can a made-up story connect people with actual solutions? This is where fiction meets with reality. In the process of researching PTSD and how it affects people and the things that can be done to help drop that 22 a day down to 20 a day down to 0, Carla McDougal started to realize not only did the people with PTSD have a need, but those who minister to PTSD patients had a need as well.
"I started talking with a variety of organizations around the United States. One of them was Armed Forces Mission in Atlanta, Georgia. As I visited with Ken Koon, he said, it's lonely being out here working with those that want to take their lives. And it becomes draining. And I asked him, do you know some of these other organizations like Mighty Oaks? Are you familiar with Armor of God? He said, 'Un-uh.' I said, 'We need to connect you guys. You need one another.'"
That connection didn't exist. There were individual groups and nonprofits all over America who were working on this crisis. But, they didn't know each other. There wasn't a network of care. Carla decided to use her movie to make a difference. As a result, she started the Stronger Together Alliance. She connected these ministries together so they can share resources, contacts, best practices, and most importantly, they can share the burden that comes with this level of deep compassion. So now, Armed Forces Mission in Georgia is connected with Mighty Oaks in California. Reboot Combat Recovery in Kentucky is connected with Branches of Valor in Oregon. And Cru Military in Virginia is connected with Armor of God in Texas. Carla McDougal's vision is now something we all will be able to see with our own eyes on the silver screen and in our own neighborhoods from sea to shining sea.
"It's not about bringing awareness. It really is about bringing a call to action to every single person in the audience. There is something you can do to help this problem."
There's one other point I'd like to make about this story. I've used the term PTSD. That stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In talking with Carla and Ulises and Angela, I noticed they didn't say PTSD. They said post traumatic stress. They left off the "disorder." You often hear me say on my podcasts, "Words have meaning." The absence of a word has a meaning as well. All of us have stress in our lives. It's something we deal with and move on. Not all of us have a disorder. For those who do, maybe it's not something you just deal with and move on. What I like about describing this issue as PTS and not PTSD, is that it seems more hopeful to me. You can learn how to cope with stress and overcome stress. You may need help, but, hey, who doesn't from time to time.
Stronger will be released early in 2017. Be on the lookout for it. If you want more information about Stronger and their mission and how you can help go to www.strongermovie.com. I'll also put up a link to it on my website, americaonparr.com.
I don't just want you to be aware of this movie. I don't just want you to be aware that we are losing more vets to suicide than we are to combat. I don't just want you to be aware that firefighters, and police officers, and paramedics, and victims of crime can all feel post traumatic stress, and that can create new trauma on its own. I want you to know that you can help.
Join the Stronger Together Alliance. If you know of anyone who is struggling, put them in touch with those ministries. It really may save a life. Maybe on that day, your actions won't get the number down from 20 to 0. But, if your actions can get that number down from 20 to 19, even for a single day, that will make one person, one family, one community, one state, one nation stronger.