Delon Beckett is wasted while our cameras are rolling on him. He is tripping around his living room drunk while his three-year-old daughter, Jayla, tries to wrestle. She hits his groin so he pushes her away, then he makes for the staircase. He knocks over some books and settles down in the second floor of his suburban house as his wife, Emme, tries to calm down the kids who are looking up the stairs scared.
"I used to see, you know, a hammer and then all of the sudden I would just think about picking up that hammer and just smashing their brains in," says Beckett, an Iraq war veteran at the center of my documentary, The War Comes Home. "And I'm just like sitting there like ... this is getting ridiculous."
What our cameras captured for our documentary are the sad, damaging effects of the war on some veterans who live with Post-Traumatic Stress like Beckett. About 11-20 out of every 100 veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffers from PTS in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. There were about two-and-a-half million U.S. troops sent to those wars.
Now, in an effort to increase awareness around that topic and the many other needs of veterans, The War Comes Home, produced in association with MediaStorm, will be airing in 300 cinemas nationwide on May 24th. The screening is followed by a pre-taped panel discussion of experts and advocates who take the conversation beyond PTS to other veteran's issues. The event is presented by Fathom Events, a partnership between the three largest theater circuits in the U.S. so you can see it in a theater near you anywhere in the country.
I worked with Fathom to get The War Comes Home onto a big screen because I want everyone to see how Beckett and our other characters live with PTS and the novel approaches being taken to address their pain and, sometimes, suicidal or homicidal thoughts. I want everyone to take a look at the services being offered vets and ask how they can help. I want people to appreciate how much we owe to the men and women who went to fight our wars and lost so much doing it.
"The outer shell of him came back," his wife, Emme, told us about her husband's return from the war. "But everything on the inside was dead."
Beckett was assigned to be a vehicle specialist at Camp Anaconda in 2010. He ordered parts for trucks and Humvees. He never left the base. Yet each day, the war came to him.
"The first day we were in Iraq, we were walking to go get chow. We got hit by a mortar, it just lit up the skies, a real big one. These guys will just shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot these things at you," he remembered. "All of the sudden your heart starts to race and you start to get pretty scared, you know, start having anxiety about it and you know you're hearing this stuff like throughout the day, you know? And throughout the night. I guess these fears start taking on a mind of their own. You know? And you start to catastrophize a lot of things."
Nearly 8,000 veterans of all wars buckle from the stress and kill themselves each year. So far in the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been 6,802 veterans killed in action or in accidents, according to Costs of War, a Brown University project tracking those wars. Suicides are particularly high among Vietnam veterans.
"It's difficult, like really difficult actually. Like I would just sincerely want him to work through it and not just give up," says Emme. "But I am aware of the fact that he might just do that."
Fears like hers are what propelled the Clay-Hunt SAV Act for suicide prevention, said David Chasteen, western regional director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who joined the panel discussion I taped to accompany the screening of the documentary. Clay-Hunt will provide funding for research, additional mental health professionals and more suicide prevention programs. "They're facing a demographic crunch, because what's happening is the Vietnam Veterans are reaching that age toward the end of their life where they actually need the most amount of care," Chasteen said. "The vast majority of your healthcare costs are concentrated in the last six months of life, so the Vietnam Era Veterans are starting to all kind of pass away at the same time veterans are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan."
In my documentary, Beckett's drinking escalates until he desperately reaches out to a program called Save a Warrior. The program is a five-and-a-half day emotional bootcamp run by veteran Jake Clark that used group exercises, therapy and counseling, transcendental meditation and equine therapy in an attempt to pull participants back from the brink of suicide.
Programs like these are beneficial because many soldiers will not seek out traditional avenues of assistance like the VA. Brigadier General Laurie Sutton, who was the military's highest ranking psychiatrist before retiring, told me on our panel that healing our vets is not just about clinical care. "That's just the tip of the iceberg," she said. "When we consider that fully half of our veterans will never even go to a clinic or hospital, we have to build out a base, a foundation that relies on holistic services that are offered in non‐clinical settings, that offer peer to peer intervention."
In our documentary, our main characters have exhausted clinical settings and medication. Save a Warrior emerges as one of the non-clinical settings that lives outside the world of traditional veterans services. It is one of many examples of new approaches to this problem.
Jake Clark, who runs Save a Warrior, says his program's strength lies, in part, in staffing the five-and-a-half day experience with counselors who have faced demons in their own recovery from war trauma.
I asked Clark who he thinks will save this generation of warriors from the obstacles they face. Without hesitation, he said: "They will. They'll save each other. We can't save them all, but together they can all save themselves."
He's right, to a point. I think we each play a roll in helping these soldiers reintegrate, whether it's through our personal relationships with them, our involvement in veterans groups, by providing jobs or donating resources, or simply by being politically aware of the initiatives they are pursuing to help their community reintegrate. There is a big gap between civilians and service members right now, with the exception of caregivers struggling to care for vets in need. That is the biggest takeaway I have from working on both this documentary and participating in the panel I hosted that follows. I've included the names of the organizations that took part in our panel here.
It will make all the difference to people like Beckett, who is still making his way back from the war. He returned from Save a Warrior having embraced meditation. He went to playgroup with the same daughter he once feared he might harm, was loving with his wife and dumped bottles of alcohol into the sink in front of his family. I hope that after watching this film you will want to help other vets transform their lives in big and small ways.
"The meditation keeps me sober," Beckett said of the central technique in the program he attended. "It was only five-and-a-half days but I learned things for my whole life." One of the things he learned was that there is power in sharing your problems with others. Once you've watch this movie you have the power to spread his story further, and to step up to help.
The War Comes Home Town Hall Participants: