Film Aims to Shine Light on PTSD

A feature documentary about a Marine returning from Afghanistan with the invisible injuries of war who meets a therapist who is confronting her own family history of  mental illness. 

The intersection of two lives, Marine Sgt. (retired) Brendan O'Toole and Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, provides compelling storytelling for a documentary designed to spark a national conversation about psychological injuries, mental illness and healing. Brendan, just back from a tour in Afghanistan, is trying to focus his life and persevere on a coast to coast run under grueling physical and mental stress.  He starts his journey across America in  California and finishes at the Freedom Tower in New York City one year later.  Barbara is organizing therapists across the country to contribute their services to help veterans when she reveals, for the first time, her own family history of mental illness: her mother suffers from schizophrenia, Barbara has not seen her in 40 years and now she sets out to find her.  

The Story

At face value, this is a documentary about healing from the consequences war. Brendan O’Toole, a Marine who did a tour in Afghanistan, runs across the country in an effort raise awareness about the issues that affect those who serve our nation. He ran in an attempt to heal from the sadness and depression that came home with him from war. He meets other veterans along the way who are struggling, some of them from wars long ago (think Vietnam). His buddy, Joey Dwyer, accompanied Brendan on the adventure and shot extraordinary footage of their trip with a Cannon 5D so there’s lots of great material. 

Brendan meets a therapist, Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, who founded the non profit organization, Give an Hour, that connects therapists across the country with veterans in need of support and treatment. Barbara has become a nationally recognized expert, the go-to person for the Pentagon and the White House on mental health issues affecting our military and veteran community. In 2012,Barbara was named one of TIME mag’s 100 most influential people in the world. Their stories start to intersect for a documentary about healing from war. Important story, good film, right?

But as we headed into production, Barbara told me her back story, about her mother who suffered from schizophrenia and how under extremely difficult circumstances her parents divorced when she was 8 years old. She hasn’t seen her mother since she was 13. And now, she wants to find her mother to provide whatever assistance might be possible to ease the end of her life.

I asked Barbara if she felt that this part of her life could be included in the film. I know that one of her main messages to veterans is that psychologicial injuries are understandable and even expected given the stress and trauma associated with combat. She frequently notes that we all experience mental health – good and bad – because it is a part of everyone’s life. She also talks about the fact that as many as 1 in 4 Americans have been touched by mental illness and those who have not suffered themselves have known mental illness in their families. I know that Barbara believes in the importance of talking…of sharing stories. I know that she wants to ensure that our veterans don't suffer in silence. And I know that Barbara recognizes that those who do suffer from mental pain and anguish must still struggle with the destructive stigma associated with mental illness in our society. Barbara believes that it’s time we all start talking about these issues. openly. And so, with great courage, she has decided to tell her own story as part of this film.  Together, she and Brendan set an example that will allow us to change the culture in this country so that those who suffer receive the care they deserve, so that we all can aspire to live mentally healthy lives. 

Brendan O’Toole served in the United States Marine Corps from 2008-20012.  During his time in the military, O’Toole completed two successful deployments.  His first tour was in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In 2011, O’Toole was deployed to Afghanistan with Marine Air Support Squadron 1. Upon arrival, he was assigned to Regimental Combat team 6. Stationed in the western part of the Helmand Province, outside the city of Delaram, O’Toole was responsible for all ground communication efforts of the Direct Air Support Center’s area of operation.

In June 2012, Brendan completed his active duty military service at the rank of Sergeant.

On November 11, 2012 USMC veteran Sergeant Brendan O’Toole, along with a small support staff, set out on a 3,600 mile run across the United States of America in honor of the selfless men and woman who have served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The Run for Veterans organization was built completely grass roots by 4 best friends and their local community with a goal to raise awareness about a national issue.  Starting in Oceanside, California, O’Toole averaged 15 miles a day taking him through hundreds of small towns and major cities across the country.  365 days later Brendan completed his run in New York City. 

The documentary

The film includes the great footage Joey shot of Brendan’s challenging run across America, the people he met, the physical and psychological stress he confronted.  We’ll intercut his story with Barbara’s, her family background as well as the story of her close relationship with her father, a Vet from WW II who suffered from combat stress. And of course, we will explore the story of her mother’s schizophrenia. 

We’ll continue to follow Brendan long after he ran up the Freedom Tower in New York City on a beautiful day in the fall of 2013. We will come to understand many of the sad facts about post traumatic stress – including that it isn’t really ever “cured”.  It can be managed but it is always a part of you. It doesnt go away because you run across the country to raise awareness or because you do things to continue to serve your country. We’ll follow Brendan as he sells cars to earn money to go to college, something he postponed when he answered the call to serve. And we’ll be with him when he hangs with his buddies who are vets. We will hear their stories about the invisible injuries of war that came home with them.  

We’ll be with Barbara as she works the halls of Congress, the White House and the Pentagon to coordinate efforts to address the issues that affect our military and veteran community. We’ll watch her passion and determination to change attitudes and reactions to the mental health issues that affect so many Americans. And we’ll be with her and her family as she sets out to try to find her mother, last suspected to be in a nursing home – or on the streets - somewhere in America. 

The bottom line is this: we will use this film to engage in a national conversation about mental health, mental illness and wellness. This compelling film encourages people to speak up – and speak out - because talking openly about these issues helps with the healing process for individuals, families and for our country as a whole.  That’s why we refer to this project, the film and the associated outreach campaign as a collective effort to do nothing less than to change the culture of this country. Through the discussions and efforts that follow, we will change the conversation and improve our way of addressing mental illness and mental helath. As a result, fewer of our veterans and fewer of our citizens will suffer. Finally, we want your personal stories as well because this is all about The Power Of Connection: 

Hear A Story, Tell A Story, Change The Story.

Your story has the power to inspire.  Share it with us!  We want to hear what you have to say.  Tell us your story!  With a $20 donation you will receive our Youtube info so you can upload your story to our archive where you will be featured in an online story montage and also have the chance to be in the documentary.      

Where the money is going?

Like many documentary filmmakers, we spend our own money to get a project going because once you are on to something important and you have a good story, you just can’t wait.  Joey shot for a year on the road during Brendan’s run.  We then continued shooting interviews with Brendan and Barbara to make our trailer. And we’re doing three more days of production April 6, 7 and 8 with Barbara and Brendan in Washington (look for short videos on this site about these shoots).  

The next step is to go to California with Barbara to be with her family as they begin the search for Barbara’s Mom.  Who knows where that will take us, but we will be prepared.  We expect to write and edit during the summer and fall of 2014. If we can raise the full $200,000, we’ll have no problem getting the film up to the post production stage, at which point we’ll raise a final $50,000 for finishing funds.  In 27 years of being a freelance documentary filmmaker, I have never started a film which I have not finished.   During the course of the filmmaking process, we will be raising money, mostly through private foundations, to fund the outreach campaign.

Thank You for helping progress the story!