Every day, 20 veterans die by suicide, with rates increasing among veterans under the age of 35. And while help may be available, the majority of those suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) do not seek assistance.
Benjamin Patton, Founder and Executive Director of the Patton Veterans Project
and grandson of famed U.S. Army General George S. Patton, discusses a new approach to help veterans through the power of filmmaking.
Lisnek: Half of our nation´s veterans with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, often called PTSD, avoid or otherwise drop out of seeking mental health treatment. Well, one organization is using lights, cameras, and compassion to break through the stigma that often prevents vets from seeking help. Hi. Welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Paul Lisnek. Joining me to discuss a new approach to the treatment of post-traumatic stress among veterans is Benjamin Patton. He´s the founder and executive director of the Patton Veterans Project. Ben, good to see you.
Patton: It´s a pleasure to be here.
Lisnek: Here you are doing work with vets. I´ve got to note, I mean, your last name is Patton. Now, that rings up some important names to me, and I´m not off base to think that.
Patton: Exactly. Well, my grandfather was -- Both my grandfathers were generals. The more famous one was the one you´re thinking of, the Third Army commander. I understand you even have a connection to him.
Lisnek: I do. My uncle served under him.
Patton: And his son is my father, who was a major general, and a very highly decorated and successful soldier. Fought in wars where there weren´t so many heroes, but -- that we know of. But, yes, they are -- I always feel like I have one general on one shoulder and one on the other shoulder, so...
Lisnek: And you do. But you have taken that guidance through life, along with other vets in your life, and you´ve said, "You know what? I want to make a difference in helping vets who need treatment but aren´t getting it." And you´re doing it in an incredibly unique way, through filmmaking. Talk to me about the project.
Patton: Well, I mean... you know, I´m not myself a veteran, but certainly have a bunch of them in my family, and I´m delighted that my career in filmmaking and psychology kind of circled back to this. It´s been really rewarding. So, for the last six or seven years, I have been running this nonprofit that uses filmmaking as a therapeutic intervention for those veterans, as you very beautifully described at the beginning, are either avoiding or not seeking care that need it. And so, what´s interesting about what we´re doing is, filmmaking is fun, it´s collaborative. It allows you to choose how much of yourself you want to put into a film. You can be -- There are many roles, as you know, in putting a production together. You can be behind the camera, in front of the camera, it can be your story, you can use G.I. Joes. But what we work toward is, finding a way for a veteran and a group of veterans to evoke something that they´ve experienced in a creative way. And this is the YouTube generation of veterans, so we´re using a medium that they´re very familiar with, and, frankly, we´re meeting them in a world that they know and understand, and I think they appreciate that.
Lisnek: So, Ben, if many of these folks are avoiding that kind of care, do they know that when you come to them with this idea, this project, that, really, one of the results may very well be therapy? Or do they just find it happening?
Patton: You know, we don´t hide the fact that it´s therapeutic, but some of them come because they are fascinated by people like General Patton. Some of them come because they want to learn filmmaking. Some of them come ´cause they need a new avocation or are transitioning out of the military. But what happens is, once they come, they realize that this isn´t somebody telling them what to do. We´re helping them understand how to do something, but we´re not telling them what to do or what to create, and so I think once they realize that they hold the keys, they hold the tools to the narrative that they can create, they begin to see the power of this medium and how to use it in an expressive way. I´d say about 75% of our films have no dialogue in them at all.
Lisnek: Wow. I know over the last seven years you´ve been doing this, worked with 1,000 vets, 300 films. I´m just curious, can you think of a situation where, you know, you watched a vet watch his/her movie and just had an incredible reaction to it?
Patton: I´ve got to say, I mean, I can think of a number of them. You know, a couple examples come to mind. I had two veterans at Fort Campbell. They were senior NCOs, both sergeants getting out of the military. They both had been diagnosed, I think, with post-traumatic stress and were waiting for their VA benefits and pretty disgruntled, pretty upset that the army was pushing them out. And they came into the classroom at Fort Campbell and were just like, "I don´t want to be here. I don´t care who you´re related to or what your skills are. I don´t want to be here." But four days later, they produced a film together that didn´t even have them in it. It was just G.I. Joes, and it was all about the G.I. Joes being deployed, re-deployed, re-deployed, sitting in front of an "I Want You." Next thing you know, he´s hanging on the hospital sign. The final shot is the G.I. Joe in the garbage can surrounded by pill bottles and beer bottles. And so, they wanted to -- It was sort of a cathartic thing for them to be able to get this out. And when they realized that they didn´t have to reveal any more of themselves than they wanted to, I think that´s what makes it seem so empowering for the veterans that participate.
Lisnek: It strikes me, given that, I think the statistic is 20 vets a day commit suicide, I get the sense you´re saving lives.
Patton: Look, you know, I don´t want to play God here, but I do feel that I have met people individually, and I can´t take credit for this. It´s really them taking their own fate into their hands. They´re basically saying, "I want to begin to invest in my own recovery," when they do this. So I do think that we´re helping with those who consider suicide, because, think about it, I mean, suicide happens -- It doesn´t happen when you´re hanging around with your buddies making movies. It happens at the end of a dark hallway in the middle of the night, and you´re playing Xbox or you´re watching the white fuzz on the screen or something like that. And what we do is, we immediately drop them into a group that they choose the members of, and before they know it, they´re behind a camera, they´re creating a narrative, and they´re working together in community. And we hear a lot about this in Sebastian Junger´s book "Tribe," about -- The suicide rate has as much to do with the loss of community as it does to do with the traumatic experiences, so we´re trying to rekindle that sense of community among these veterans so they can begin to say, "Wow, I´m worth something, and I have something that´s worth communicating. The question is, how do I communicate it? And I don´t have to communicate it in words. I can communicate it in pictures and music and sound effects and, you know, stills." And it´s quite something to see.
Lisnek: I know you go out and seek the vets, but I have a feelings if vets are watching this segment, they´re gonna seek you out. And I thank you for the work you´re doing and for the service of your family to this country. Incredible service it is. Thank you.
Patton: It´s a pleasure to be here. Thanks.
Lisnek: My guest, Benjamin Patton. Thank you, sir. Thank you for joining us, as well. If you want more great conversations with leaders in your community, across the nation, it´s real easy, you just go to comcastnewsmakers.com. I´m Paul Lisnek.