The idea germinated shortly after Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Bernardi returned from a 10-month deployment to Iraq.
A professor and chair of San Francisco State University’s cinema department, Bernardi found a distinct disconnect between the Special Forces soldiers whose operations he had spent much of his deployment documenting and the civilian community he had re-entered.
“I was honestly disturbed by the fact that people in the general population are not connected to these wars,” he said. “You can watch the news, and you wouldn’t even know that we are in Afghanistan.”
The disconnect ran particularly deep in academia, where Bernardi said he found that many of his colleagues carried deep and often negative stereotypes about service members and veterans.
Bernardi’s concern was two-fold, he explained. A public detached from the men and women in uniform can’t fully understand or appreciate who they are, what they do and how their service shapes who they are. From a national standpoint, that insulation from the realities and ultimate cost of war might make people less averse to jumping into future conflicts, he said.
So leveraging his decades of experience in the film and documentary field and his position as director of San Francisco State’s Documentary Film Institute, Bernardi launched the Veteran Documentary Corps. He called on the industry’s most accomplished filmmakers and a pool of mostly volunteer labor for an ambitious, first-of-its-kind project to capture the veteran experience on film.
The concept, he explained, was to produce an online library of professional-quality short films about veterans, their time in the military and their experience returning to civilian life.
Bernardi recognized from the start that a few personal stories wouldn’t fully capture the breadth of the veterans’ experience. So he set out to tell it through documentaries of 100 veterans of every U.S. service dating back to World War II. Ultimately, he hopes to expand it to include veterans of other countries’ militaries as well — perhaps a Chinese veteran and a Russian veteran who served in the Chechnyan conflict.
“Part of my goal was to educate people about the profound diversity of veterans … and to help them understand the whole range of veterans’ experience” – the hopes and dreams, the pride, the horrors, the disappointments, the challenges of redeployment, Bernardi said.
So far, seven documentaries have been completed and are posted on the project website at http://veterandocs.org. Several more are in production and are expected to be added soon. After that, Bernardi’s goal is to release one documentary each month, and, if the funding comes through as hoped, one every two weeks until all 100 are completed.
The stories, each averaging seven to 10 minutes, capture vastly distinctive combat experiences and how they affected the veterans.
“These are not just testimonials. They aren’t just patriotic. They are gritty. They communicate the diversity, and the impact of war and military service, both positive and negative,” Bernardi said.
“When people press the button to watch one of these, they think they are going to see a news piece of a ‘rah-rah’ piece,” he continued. “And what they see is something that is really real. It moves them.”
Jack Lyon, a Marine Corps captain who served in Vietnam, talks in his documentary about the spiritual aspect of a “hideous” wartime experience, and the unshakeable bond that forms among comrades whose lives depend on each other.
“That unconditional love is what we search for for the rest of our life,” he said, and what led him to cofound the Veterans Village of San Diego that serves wounded Marines. “I can’t not do this,” Lyon said of the new calling, which he said has brought the Marine Corps and its motto, Semper Fidelis, or “Always Faithful,” back into his life.
David Gan, an Army staff sergeant during World War II, still struggles to accept the loss of his fellow soldiers after he was medically evacuated to a hospital in France when rendered unconscious by an enemy round. A Chinese-American who enjoyed the bond among the troops that transcended their social and cultural differences, Gan recalled his desperation to return to his unit. “I feel so guilty,” to this day, he said, choking back the sobs of survivor’s guilt. Today, Gan said he lives through his seven children for what his fallen comrades will never experience. “In a way, I kind of lived for them for what they have missed,” he added.
Bobby Hollingsworth, an Army staff sergeant who served in Iraq with Army Criminal Investigation Command, shared in his documentary the numbness and emotional detachment he felt after returning home. He recalled the horror of investigating a soldier suicide, and the sleeplessness and torment that haunted him long after its conclusion.
“I kept everything inside,” he said. Today, strengthened by therapy provided through the Department of Veterans Affairs and excited by his newfound love of screenwriting, Hollingsworth said, he feels like his life is on a positive trajectory. Part of human nature, he said, “is to survive and struggle and to endure and to come out on a better side at the end of it.”
John Heroux joined the Air Force to be a fighter pilot, and was among the first to fly F-16 bombing runs over Iraq during the opening days of the Persian Gulf War. He recalled in his documentary his first combat mission, and how calm he felt within the safety of his cockpit as he applied the tactics he had trained to conduct.
More than 20 years later, Heroux said, his military experiences have “helped make me who I am.” As a commercial airline pilot, he said, he doesn’t get flustered when faced with poor weather conditions or occasional instrument failures. These situations “really [don’t] raise the stress level of the average military pilot, because they have been through so much more,” he said.
Julie Mendez, who joined the Army at 17, said her deployment to Iraq quickly transformed her from a young, naïve girl into an adult. “It was like somebody snapped their fingers and said ‘Grow up today, right now,’” she said. Returning home from the conflict, she described herself as a different person, quieter, more serious and battling intense depression about her wartime experience. Today, Mendez is healing herself as well as others by pouring herself into graphics design projects that promote dialog between veterans and the civilian community.
Casey Conklin was a platoon medic with the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, and remembers questioning when he deployed to Iraq, “Can you do the one job you are expected to do?” Today, as a student at San Francisco State University, he is studying health education with the dream of applying it during disaster relief operations. Conklin said he sees that calling as being “part of a bigger picture, an overall mission that you know you will get done” – something he experienced with the Rangers in combat but has found it difficult to recreate in the civilian world. “In disaster relief, I feel that’s the closest thing I can do to being a Ranger without a rifle,” he said.
Scott Castle served three combat tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps, and said nothing can fully prepare someone for what they encounter in war.
“Combat is hell,” he said. That hell followed Castle home in the form of t insomnia, flashbacks, anger issues and social anxiety. Just as when he was in Iraq, Castle found respite at the gym, where he took up weightlifting and now dreams of one day going pro. To help get there, he said he’s applying the discipline and determination the Marine Corps instilled in him. “The Marines have changed me,” he said. “It definitely gave me a new sense of drive in life I didn’t have before. Leadership, accountability, a sense of purpose, discipline – and that translates definitely to the civilian world.”
The initial documentaries have been received positively through the website, social media outlets at and film festivals, Bernardi reported. Hoping for a broader audience, he is in discussions with several cable TV networks that are considering running the entire series once it is completed.
“We’d like people to walk away from watching these with a greater understanding and a greater respect and appreciation for veterans, without vilifying them and without painting them as wounded,” Bernardi said.
In telling their stories, Bernardi said, he wants to help to empower veterans. “We want veterans to see that they’re not alone,” he said.