Documentary Helps Open Conversation About Veteran Suicide

Sep 8, 2017

In July, a northeast Ohio man killed himself inside the Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Warren, while he was there for an appointment. His wife says he was a 23-year veteran of the Air Force Reserves who suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder. There are concerns for the 850,000 veterans in Ohio, some of whom may be struggling with PTSD as well. A new documentary hopes to bring attention to the issue, and help to those who need it.

The documentary “Almost Sunrise” opens with home video of Tom Voss as a toddler carrying tiny American flags for Memorial Day. The voice of Voss, now an adult, comes in over the home video explaining why he joined the U.S. Army and why he took on a new mission to walk 2,700 miles, cross country.

“It really came to me that I need to do something now quickly to help myself,” said Voss.

Emmet Cullen served with Voss in Iraq. As he explains, Voss started the trek as a way to deal with his personal trauma.

“It’s pretty clear when someone says ‘I’m gonna drop what I’m doing and walk from Wisconsin to California,’ he’s dealing with something,” Cullen said.

The film follows the journey of Voss and fellow Iraq War Veteran Anthony Anderson as they both struggle with PTSD, thoughts of suicide, and a newer term known as “moral injury,” which in the context of war can mean dealing with harming or killing someone else during combat.

Voss and Anderson’s walk from Wisconsin to California, which was dubbed Veterans Trek, gained national attention in 2013 and was aimed at raising awareness of soldier suicide. The documentary is their next step in that effort.

Danny Eakins, policy administrator for Ohio’s department of veteran services, was at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus for a special screening of the film.

Eakins served in the U.S. Army as a platoon leader serving in Iraq and was promoted to the rank of Major.

He says it’s always helpful to have new books, TV shows and films like “Almost Sunrise” to come out and help connect civilians to issues veterans face.

“Media can be very powerful in that way and I think if it’s properly leveraged in a way that, rather than enforcing stereotypes helps ameliorate the mountain of emotion let’s say between one individual and another and the ability to talk about how they feel,” Eakins said.

A study from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that about 20 veterans die by suicide every day. Service members make up 18% of all suicides nationwide.

Ryan Sargent works with veterans who struggle with trauma on a daily basis. He’s a licensed counselor with the Military Veteran Resource Center who also served in the Ohio Army National Guard. Sargent agrees that these pieces of pop culture can bridge a challenging divide.

“I think it is helpful to raise awareness and I think it provides a third party way for veterans to communicate their story to a broader audience where it may be more awkward to have a face to face conversation to talk about things that they’ve seen or experienced,” said Sargent.

There’s a turning point in the documentary where Anderson, one of the Iraq War vets, realizes that he’s been closed off.

“And so meeting a lot of these new people has helped me restore maybe some level of faith in people.”

Sargent says family and friends need to become advocates for their loved one in the military, to broach those conversations and help connect veterans with the resources they need to get help.

Eakins has advice for people who learn more about veteran issues such as PTSD through pop culture.

“The important part is to keep everything in context, that this is the experience of these two veterans and their loved ones and what’s worked for them. But to understand that every veteran is going to have their own individual story,” said Eakins.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Eakins says the department of veteran services has been working on outreach programs that help facilitate more conversations between civilians and veterans in hopes of encouraging military members to open up about their trauma.