Moral injury explored in Veterans Day documentary at BAMPFA

In Iowa, Tom Voss (left) and Anthony Anderson begin a new day of their trek. (Photo courtesy of Thoughtful Robot Productions)

For 10 years, U.S. Army veteran Tom Voss tried to heal from the moral injury he suffered serving in Iraq. Moral injury — “injury to the soul,” says Voss — is the profound shame many veterans feel when their war experiences violate their moral beliefs.

By summer 2013, the Wisconsin resident, also plagued by grief, insomnia, depression, anxiety and survivor’s guilt, was on the brink of suicide, an epidemic among military veterans.

So, he decided to take a walk, a very long walk, to try and reckon with himself internally, and asked co-worker and fellow veteran Anthony Anderson if he could borrow a backpack.

“I was planning on walking across the country. That’s what I thought I needed to clear my head and get a hold on my life and on how these events were affecting me and my family,” says Voss, 33. “Then Anthony said, ‘I’m in the same boat. Do you mind if I come along?’”

Their almost six-month, 2,700-mile hike from Milwaukee to Santa Monica, California, is documented in the feature-length film Almost Sunrise, which will be shown at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive on Veterans Day — this Saturday, Nov. 11 — at a special 4:30 p.m. screening co-sponsored by KQED and the Cal Veteran Services Center. Voss and Anderson, 34, will attend, taking part in a Q&A session after the film with director Michael Collins, producer Marty Syjuco and Rita Nakashima Brock, senior vice president for moral injury programs at Volunteers of America.

Voss (left) and Anderson walk across the plains in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Thoughtful Robot Productions)

The documentary will livestream to several PBS stations — including KQED (San Francisco), KLRU (Austin), Mexico PBS and Valley PBS (Fresno), and the Q&A session can be accessed via OVEE. On Monday, Nov. 13, Almost Sunrise will air on PBS’s POV television documentary series.

“This isn’t a film like others out there that perpetuate stereotypes of service members as broken with PTSD or traumatic brain injury. Their experiences returning home span a broad spectrum and are not so one-dimensional,” says Ron Williams, UC Berkeley’s director of Re-entry Student and Veteran Services, who met Collins in January and pushed to get the film to campus. “Instead, it humanizes the experience and creates opportunities to build empathy and understanding, and to bridge dialogue between veterans and the public.”

The film presentation is an example of the opportunities that the Cal Veteran Services Center regularly creates to help the public “move beyond stereotypes and better distinguish the war from the warrior,” says Williams. “Events like this one also can foster connections between attendees and veterans that can lead to transformational understanding.”

“A big theme of the documentary,” adds Collins, who is based in San Francisco, “is holistic paths to healing — the power of time in nature and reconnecting with community. It’s complicated, what these veterans have experienced. But I hope people will ask, ‘Why were these veterans in such a position that their souls were so damaged that they had to make this long journey to get healed? What role do we play?’”

Voss trekking in Monument, Colorado. He served on active duty in the U.S. Army from 2003 to 2006, and in 2004 was deployed to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Photo courtesy of Thoughtful Robot Productions)

Powers of nature, nurture

Voss and Anderson thought about bringing GoPros to document their journey, but “once we met, they felt they could trust me, and they were relieved they didn’t have to do the filming themselves,” says Collins, who had met Anderson in November 2012 while doing volunteer work for a veterans’ organization in Madison, Wisconsin.

Collins and his film crew were with the pair for about a third of their cross-country trek, which began Aug. 28, 2013, and ended Feb. 1, 2014. “The most important thing,” he says, “was for Tom and Anthony to have the space, this journey, to heal without a constant camera crew in their faces.”

Voss admits they originally wanted to walk in isolation. But along the way, through seven states and three seasons, they were rarely alone, having attracted a social media following of 4,000 individuals. “As a result,” Voss adds, “a lot of people showed their support and helped us along the way. They invited us to stay overnight in their houses, fed us, offered to do laundry for us.”

“With vets,” he continues, “there’s a big trust issue. In the military, all we know is to trust the person to the right and left of you. Coming home, we became wary of everyone. You feel you can’t trust people. But a big insight on this trek is that there are a lot of good people out there who want to help vets and welcome them home, but have no outlet for doing so.”

Anderson, photographed in Nebraska. He served six years in the infantry, including two years of duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Photo courtesy of Thoughtful Robot Productions)

“Tom and Anthony only slept outside 15 times. People took good care of them,” says Collins. He adds that the film shows how, for many veterans, healing from moral injury involves them learning to reorient their moral compasses, to forgive themselves and to reconnect with others, with their communities.

The two men were joined on the trail for short stretches by other veterans. One was a young Iraq veteran in Colorado named Mike, who was struggling with physical and emotional pain. He joined Voss and Anderson on a remarkable hike one day for 12 miles, says Collins. “This moment in Mike’s life had a big impact on him, and it was reciprocal.”

Despite the hospitality they encountered, the trip often was grueling. In the middle of the desolate Mojave Desert, for example, the two heavily bearded veterans — each carrying a 60-pound pack — encountered heat and blowing sand and slept on the side of the road. The experience “brought back sensory memories for them of being in Iraq,” says Collins.

“They were both struggling, getting closer and closer to the end of their trek,” he says. “But suddenly, Anthony felt frustrated and wondered what they were doing out there, if the trek was even helping.”

The pair hikes in Colorado with a few other veterans they met along the way. (Photo courtesy of Thoughtful Robot Productions)

Promoting healing, understanding

Voss says some people predicted that he and Anderson would be “completely changed and healed, that everything would be better,” after they reached California. “There were points along the way, on the walk, that really shifted my point of view, even though I didn’t recognize it in the moment,” he says. “But in reality, I knew there would be a long road and a process ahead of me. I would need to continue to do what I needed to do, to heal more.”

The pair is also helping to heal their peers through Veterans Trek. The outdoor, nature-based program that they founded exposes military veterans to the healing effects of nature and peer support and provides pathways to employment and career opportunities.

Voss, who after his trek took a Power Breath Meditation Workshop in Aspen with the non-profit Project Welcome Home Troops, also promotes the mind-calming techniques he learned there. “It was a breakthrough in the way I saw the world,” he says. “I knew it was something I needed to incorporate into my life.”

This breath-based meditation — specifically, Sudarshan Kriya, or SKY, yoga — is meant to release deep trauma, something antidepressants and sedatives can’t do for such deep pain, and allows veterans to self-administer the procedures in civilian or military circumstances.

Following the PFA film screening on Saturday, Voss will lead a short meditation exercise that he learned in the Aspen workshop.

The hikers contemplate life while atop Colorado’s Spruce Mountain. (Photo courtesy of Thoughtful Robot Productions)

But what Voss says he hopes all who see the film will gain most of all is a better understanding of how complex war is, and “how we really need to take a more active role in welcoming men and women home from combat. We need to take ownership and make sure we’re engaged in the process of going to war, to know what we’re fighting for and why we’re putting people in harm’s way.”

On Veterans Day, Voss recommends, “instead of saying ‘thank you for your service,’ ask veterans to educate you about their service. Ask them, ‘How was your experience?’ Some might not be proud of what they experienced in war time. Veterans are very diverse in their beliefs. They’ve all had different experiences.”

NOTE: Jet Garner, a UC Berkeley graduate and veteran, tells his story about hiking more than 1,000 miles on the Pacific Coast Trail in a just-published Berkeley News Q&A.