“In my 30-plus years of working with Veterans, I’ve never seen anything as powerful as this at getting people to seek the help they need,” said Dr. Chuck Drebing, a psychologist with Cheyenne VA in Wyoming.
Drebing was referring to his involvement with Patton Veterans Project, a program that hosts free film workshops to give Veterans a voice and an outlet for expressing their military experiences in a supportive setting.
The project’s originator
PVP is the brainchild of filmmaker Ben Patton, grandson of World War II General George S. Patton.
“I’ve been around the military my whole life,” said Patton. “I sought a way to serve out of uniform.”
Patton earned a master’s degree in developmental psychology and combined that training with his interest in filmmaking.
Birth of the workshop
While running film camps for teens, Patton noticed how kids broached tough issues, including adolescence and harassment.
He believed film might also help Veterans searching for their identities. In 2011, Patton launched the first ‘I Was There’ workshop with 15 Veterans and five professional film instructors.
Patton found the outcome so impactful, nearly 1500 Veterans have participated in subsequent workshops at military installations and colleges across the U.S. and abroad. This project has now produced more than 400 films.
Targeting workshop participants
Drebing has worked with PVP for seven years and said the program targets Veterans considered high-risk who often aren’t seeking or receiving needed mental health support.
“Participants can be reluctant initially, but the process is safe for them,” said Patton. “They have control. They decide what it’s about, who’s in it, if they let others see it or even if they’re listed in the credits.”
Working in teams, participants learn the elements of filmmaking and collaborate on a fictionalized concept for their short films. Topics are broadened beyond an individual experience, offering protection since it is not one person’s specific story.
Veterans are involved at every step and the films, typically 5-12 minutes in length, are finished by the end of the 3-day workshop.
Weeks later, PVP holds a screening with friends, family and members of the community. Patton said participants feel validated through the process.
“Video is a universal way in which we communicate,” said Patton. “It’s a powerful tool in reducing the civilian-military divide.”
Impact of the workshop
Drebing led an in-depth evaluation of PVP participants after the initial screening. The study, published last year in Psychological Services, showed that nearly 80% of Veterans who completed an ‘I Was There’ workshop had entered needed mental healthcare within four months. The results also showed improvements in PTSD symptoms and social reintegration.
“Getting them in the door is key,” said Drebing. “The Patton Veterans Project is ideal for Veterans who are well defended against asking for help. They don’t want help, but they may be willing to spend a weekend making a film. It’s creative and collaborative.”
“My main metric is to see Veterans seek mental health support,” said Patton. “At film screenings, we have resource information available. It’s a warm handoff.”
Patton’s website features comments about the workshops. One Veteran said, “I felt safe. I felt empowered. I felt I had a voice … a voice I didn’t have for so long.”
Upcoming workshop information
Patton hopes to expand the project to other states and other VA regions.
The first of eight ‘I Was There’ workshops near Cheyenne VA will be held at the University of Wyoming Union in Laramie starting Dec. 1-3.
For more information or to register, call peer specialist Mike Leeman at 970-657-5500 or email email@example.com.
To view ‘I Was There’ films, visit https://pattonveteransproject.org/.
April Love is a Writer-Editor on the VISN 19 Creative Task Force. She began working for VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System in 2016 and lives in Aurora, Colorado.