Staff Sgt. Toby Hensley doesn’t tell his family much about his experiences in Iraq.
“There are things I haven’t said that I probably won’t tell anyone,” Hensley said.
He’d like to figure out how.
His desire to share his story with his loved ones was one of the reasons he joined a special project at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He and other soldiers this week are learning new ways of communicating behind handheld cameras.
They’re taking part in a program developed by the youngest grandson of famed World War II Gen. George Patton. It aims to help veterans work through traumatic experiences by teaching them how to make their own movies.
The idea behind the program, called I Was There Films, is that soldiers who’ve been in the middle of the nation’s long wars might feel uncomfortable opening up about their time in combat. But working on a film project can focus them and let them express emotions they might otherwise hide.
“It’s a wonderful way to break down barriers and at the same time you’re actually creating a piece of narrative that may allow you to communicate something you haven’t before,” said founder Ben Patton, whose father also led soldiers as an Army officer in Korea and Vietnam.
He developed the program about three years ago, weaving knowledge from his career in public television with experiences from his youth growing up in a military family. He’d been looking for a way to give back to veterans, carrying on his family’s storied tradition of service.
Since then, the program has hosted more than 30 workshops at major military bases around the country. The one at JBLM this week is its second in the South Sound.
Over the course of the project, participants will make their own short movies. A gallery at its website, iwastherefilms.org, shows that troops at past sessions have tackled difficult subjects, such as mourning friends who died in combat.
Patton and his teammates don’t call the program therapy, but they point out that the projects often lead soldiers to confront issues just below the surface.
Patton thinks the work really happens when participants break up in small groups.
“There’s something about the qualities of filmmaking that relate to a veteran’s experiences, and the No. 1 is collaboration. You’re with other people processing whatever you want,” Patton said.
Each workshop begins with a health survey in which soldiers describe levels of stress in their lives. By the week’s end, most of them see a decline in tensions and symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
“It’s therapeutic filmmaking,” workshop director Jeanette Sears said. “If nothing else, this can be a fun break from everyday life to be able to express yourself in this way.”
She was one of several instructors at JBLM this week coaching soldiers on storytelling methods and teaching them the basics of film-editing software.
Soldiers picked up small details of scenes from famous movies such as “Up” and “Raiders of the Last Ark” to talk through techniques they might use for themselves.
On Monday, instructors gave students what was meant to be a simple assignment: Make a two-minute, silent film to convey an emotion. It would warm them up for more complicated tasks later in the week.
Hensley’s team pulled “greed.” The catch was that they could not use money in their film.
Instead, they turned to a pile of cookies left out for the class that morning.
Hensley acted out a scene as if he was a father giving treats to his two sons. One, Sgt. Jesse Questad, greedily grabbed a cookie from the hands of Spc. Charles Stevenson.
Stevenson, 23, showed a crestfallen face while Questad, 25, beamed a satisfied grin with a hoard of cookies before him.
They laughingly made some movie star jokes among themselves — “The lighting’s not good; I don’t like it,” Questad joked.
But they also seemed inspired by the break from their daily work in JBLM’s Stryker infantry brigades.
Stevenson noted that he’d always wanted to study filmmaking in college.
“Now you have people to talk to,” Hensley said.
Questad, like Hensley, said he’s not one to talk much about his two deployments to Afghanistan.
“My father and grandfather are the only ones who can relate to what I went through,” said Questad, who grew up in a military family.
Hensley seemed ready to open up, though. He was wounded by an explosion in Baghdad nine years ago that destroyed the Humvee that carried him. He woke up in an Army hospital in Germany not knowing how he got there.
“I have four kids,” he said. “Maybe this will help me talk with them.”