As I write this, I have just left my eldest son at Naval Station Great Lakes, where he will resume training after graduating from boot camp. A reservist for now, he intends to go to college and then transition to active Navy as an officer. Of course I’m proud of him and of the reasons he’s chosen this career path; but that doesn’t mean I’m about to offer up a generic sermon on service and patriotism. Most importantly, I’m not about to wear my son’s or his shipmates’ service on my sleeves. There are many reasons people join the military, some fully conscious, others naive and bordering on desperation, and the biography of the recruit who enters is part of the story of the veteran who comes out the other side no matter what kind of service experience he or she has.
In the short film gone ELVIS, the expression “Thank you for your service” is turned on its head and revealed to be a phrase that can counter-intuitively act as a wedge between the civilian world and the military. Many veterans who have seen the film have commented that this device in the story resonates with them. Even over this past weekend, as I watched strangers approach my son and thank him, I could tell that it was both appreciated and awkward. I’m sure he was thinking that he hasn’t done anything yet, but from the veterans I have met, I understand that this common, well-meaning encounter can still be awkwardly generic, sometimes even more so after a tour of duty. Alienation from the very country these people have signed up to defend is an unfortunate bi-product of having an all-volunteer, professional military, and this detachment is often exacerbated by deployment into the spiritual betrayals of war that over 90% of Americans will never experience.
Politics aside, I remain unequivocal in asserting that the invasion of Iraq was the wrong war badly managed; and the disconnect between that reality and the relative ambivalence among us, the majority population of civilians, is our generation’s burden, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. What we owe is so much more than a casual thank you and a yellow ribbon magnet. What I believe we owe is to become smarter civilians about who the members of the military are and what exactly the military can and cannot do and, therefore, what it should and should not do in the future. Between the positions of those who naively would mothball the US Armed Forces and those in the other extreme who think it is an all-purpose, unbreakable tool that can solve every problem, is a complex set of truths in a world whose security landscape looks nothing like the one for which the military was designed just ten years ago. Yet, even during our last presidential campaign, there was talk, rhetorical though it might have been, of invading Iran. It was as though millions of Americans were unaware that we’re still paying the price for Iraq, which was a cakewalk compared to what would be required to invade Iran. Somehow, in the fog of politics, we completely fail to grapple with facts like an average 21 veterans a day are still committing suicide since returning from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. This still-open wound cannot possibly be a Republican/Democrat issue or a liberal/conservative issue. If these and other stories are not simply American issues, then I have to ask what it is these men and women are defending?
Soon after finishing the gone Elvis short, two things happened by which I can summarize my relative silence on these issues and about this project. The first is that the film was turned down by five out of five of the highly-competitive festivals to which it was submitted; and the second is that I proceeded to have one of the worst financial periods of my life. The combination of rejection and personal panic was, to say the least, not ideal for confidently pursuing any previously stated ambition to take the seeds of the short and do something more ambitious like produce a feature or a series. At the same time, though, I have continued to pay attention to veterans’ issues and to much of the media and related film work. To an extent, it seems we are saturated with the illusion of awareness that social media fosters on so many subjects; but with the exception of a few key documentaries, I don’t feel we have yet seen the film project that is the Coming Home of our generation. Perhaps it’s arrogant to assume that I might possess the skills to produce such a work, but to aim for anything less begs the question of a purpose in the enterprise.
While I was on the road to visit my son, one of the supporting cast members, in anticipation of July 4th, rekindled some interest in gone Elvis through social media, and I noticed a handful of views, and complimentary comments. I’m not exactly a believer in “signs,” but the coincidence of this online activity and seeing the confident determination in my 19-year-old kid made me think that it might be time to get up off the mat on this project. I know what’s good about the short, and I know what’s not good about it. I know the subject still matters and that there is still something to be done that hasn’t been done. I know one of the mistakes I made was to take on too much too fast and to do way too much on my own. As such, I am rebooting the project as a more collaborative endeavor, beginning with an old college friend and fellow filmmaker, David Avallone. The son of a WWII veteran, David is a history buff who shares many of my sensibilities about the military and a desire to produce something that goes beyond fleeting awareness raising.
Also, while in Great Lakes, I had the chance to meet face-to-face with a retired veteran, writer, and professor Lonnie Hodge and his wonderful Service Dog, Gander. Previously acquainted only through Facebook and Lonnie’s blog Veteran Traveler, it’s always better to make real contact; and we had a great conversation about military life, the digital-age, narcissism, PTSD, martial arts, and of course, dogs. The discussion bolstered my sense that there is still room for a post-war story that has yet to be told, and after our meeting, Lonnie also shared gone Elvis on his Facebook wall, and I was further encouraged by the comments that followed.
What we have in mind is a series, and details will follow. In the meantime, I would like to open up this long-dormant blog space to invite anyone with a point of view on veterans’ issues to share comments.