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Filmmaking used to reach out to veterans in need

In Hamilton, instructor and Army veteran Clifton Archuleta (right) directed Sebastian Mutchler, an Afghanistan war veteran, in a scene.Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Mark O'Donald of Salem sat with his back to the kitchen.

"The kitchen is harmless," he said. From where he was sitting he could see both entrances, though since he was in a house on the Patton homestead there were few places more welcoming for a military veteran.

A member of the Navy Reserve, his post-traumatic stress disorder manifests itself in hyper alertness, explained O'Donald, the former photographer for General Stanley McChrystal — a "front-line general" — while McChrystal was the top US commander in Afghanistan.

The condition causes him to see the world with hyper vigilance.

"It's not that much of a problem, but it's always there," O'Donald said. "It's frustration."


O'Donald was describing one variation of the many-faced anxiety disorder that he shares with an alarming number of fellow veterans. For some, it manifests itself in explosive anger, or in emotional distress. It can lead to problems in relationships, in adjusting to society, and much worse.

"We have about 400,000 veterans in Massachusetts," said Benjamin Pat
ton, filmmaker, author, and son of the late Major General George Patton IV.

Instructor Patrick Downey (left) filmed workshop participant Stefan Galazzi.Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

"We have one out of four with some level of traumatic brain injury. We have one out of five thought to have some kind of post-traumatic stress. We have, at last count nationally, 22 suicides a day among living veterans, and between one and two a day among [Iraq and Afghanistan war] veterans. We can't possibly expect the [Department of Veterans' Services and Department of Veterans Affairs] to handle and support all those veterans by themselves."

Along with nine other veterans, O'Donald had come to the Patton homestead — stateside home to an iconic US military family — for a therapeutic workshop to deal with the issue. But they didn't come to talk.

In different sections of the homestead, small groups with video cameras went through the collaborative process of shooting short films.


Run by Patton, the "I Was There" film workshops enable the veterans to use film-making exercises to help them make sense of their traumatic experiences, Patton said, thereby accelerating the healing process.

Three of the short films are entitled "Hope," "Disengage," and "Service Never Ends."

"I think film allows you to nonverbally communicate things that individuals may have been hesitant to talk about," said workshop participant Rich Barbato, 35, Gloucester's director of veterans' services. An Army captain who served in Iraq in 2003-04, he said some therapies work better for some than for others, and that veterans often don't want to relive or re-discuss traumatic experiences related to combat, but when you make a film, "It's giving you that ability to visually communicate things."

Filmmaking depends on collaboration and direction to articulate an experience in a different way, Patton said.

"It's your experience," said filmmaker Clifton Archuleta, 34, an Army veteran himself. Sharing "your experience doesn't have to be talking about what you went through. You can do a film about anything that you feel."

Viviana Cordoba of Natick, 30, a former Army sergeant who served in Iraq, collaborated with Vietnam-era veteran Stefan Galazzi, 74, of Orleans, a retired lieutenant commander in the Navy. Both said they were interested in the commonalities of their experience.

Cordoba was also impressed by the power of the medium.

"There's a power to seeing yourself on the screen and seeing all these images, and editing the whole process," she said. "It's been eye-opening."


The 27-acre homestead, given to the town of Hamilton in 2012 and rented to the nonprofit Patton Veterans Project for a nominal fee, was a fitting place for the seminar for more than one reason. First, its expansive grounds provided an array of settings for the filmmakers to use for backdrops. Second, the homestead was the permanent residence for the iconic World War II General George Patton and later for his son, the major general.

In "Growing Up Patton" Benjamin Patton recalls a notorious incident where his grandfather slapped "two shell-shocked soldiers," and another where his father physically beat a Korean War lieutenant who had deserted his post. He writes that "both men were products of their time, when PTSD wasn't even in the vocabulary."

Based on a conversation with his brother, Patton has theorized that both his father and grandfather may have suffered from PTSD as well.

"One, you look at the violent reaction they had to it," said Patton, noting that he's not an expert. "The second part is simply that I've met a number of active duty soldiers, even career military, that have said 'Don't kid yourself. We all have it to some extent; it's just a matter of how crippling it is.' "

The program was free for the veterans, and the Patton legacy and friendships helped secure private donations, much of it from friends on the North Shore. Initially, it may give him credibility with the veterans who sign up for the workshop.


"What they realize coming out of here is, 'Wow, I was amazed that these civilian filmmakers can relate to what I experienced and helped me articulate it,' " Patton said.

Patton hopes to run more workshops in Hamilton, and to build on the experience of the present workshop by keeping those soldiers engaged. Many have offered to come back and volunteer as mentors at future workshops.

This was the seventh workshop of this type, run over two years, most of them on military bases. At one point there were as many as 15 who planned to attend the Hamilton workshop, but a few people dropped out before it started.

Benjamin Patton understands why some people didn't show up.

"The hardest thing is getting here the first day," Pattonsaid. "There are many ways a struggling soldier can rationalize his way out of, but the sense of community it offers can be exactly what he needs."

For more information on the "I Was There" film workshops, go to pattonveteransproject.org.

David Rattigan may be reached at DRattigan.globe@gmail.