Veterans Day has always been important to longtime journalist Steffan Tubbs. Although he is not a military veteran, he has been fighting hard for nearly a decade to tell the stories of former soldiers.
This Wednesday, Nov. 11, Tubbs will present his new documentary about post-traumatic stress disorder called “ACRONYM: The Cross-generational Battle with PTSD” at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Littleton, Colorado. Using interviews with veterans of all ages, as well as mental health professionals, “ACRONYM” aims to better define the still unfamiliar (and often stigmatized) issue of PTSD.
Tubbs began focusing on veterans’ issues after being embedded in Iraq for two weeks during March 2006, where he became friends with Army Captain Ian Weikel. As an anchor for KOA NewsRadio since 1994, Tubbs had reported on many horrifying situations, including the Oklahoma City bombing and World Trade Center attacks, but he had never been in a warzone. Weikel quickly became an “older brother” figure to Tubbs by helping him stay safe.
“We planned on keeping in touch because we both had hit it off,” Tubbs recalls. “I came back two weeks later and got an email from an extended family member that Ian had been killed by an IED. That really put a face to the war and I saw what that death did to his family. About that time, I decided to dedicate my free time to veterans, which translated into films.”
After creating “Life, Liberty and Resilience,” an award-winning documentary about African-American WWII soldier Joseph LaNier, Tubbs decided to turn his lens on the hot-button issue of PTSD.
“In working with veterans for the better part of the last decade, I noticed they really had a common theme when it came to dealing with the mental aspect of war,” Tubbs explains. “Whether it was an Iwo Jima survivor who was 88 years old or somebody who was 24 that just came back from Afghanistan, they were are all saying the same thing: PTSD is real.”
And it’s killing veterans, Tubbs emphasizes. Many are committing suicide or simply shutting down because their symptoms aren’t being recognized.
The American Psychiatric Association reports that PTSD is the result of a traumatic event, one that involves actual or threatened death, serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others. Both public and military stereotypes have always surrounded the disorder, according to The Nation’s Health magazine. Either depression caused by it is seen as a sign of weakness or it isn’t properly diagnosed .
To better understand PTSD, Tubbs began talking to doctors, like neurologists at a Littleton-based brain imaging company.
“We spent the afternoon with CereScan, which found actual evidence PTSD can turn into a physical ailment,” Tubbs says. CereScan believes that the trauma of war can lead to physical changes in the brain and, therefore, the human body.
One way veterans have been combating the life-changing disorder is through alternative therapies. Instead of using typical treatments, which involve prescription medications or talking to a therapist, they are using surfing, horseback riding and even legalized marijuana to cope, Tubbs says. Curtis Bean turned to art.
Bean served two tours in Iraq, first as a 10th Mountain Division scout and later as a sniper. He experienced fierce combat in highly contested areas of Mosul and Baghdad, where he was “seeing awful things everyday.” Upon coming home, he moved to Colorado to become a firefighter, but PTSD symptoms began to cripple him.
“The biggest things about PTSD is that it turns small problems into large problems,” Bean says. “All these small things add up to huge things so you can’t even get out of bed in the morning.”
When his disorder reached a breaking point, Bean checked himself into an in-patient Veterans Administration clinic and, afterward, decided to give back to veterans by creating the Art of War project. With support from Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1 in Denver, Art of War offers alternative therapy through art.
“I didn’t really have success with meds; I know a guy whose kidneys failed because he was on so many medications,” Bean recalls. “And talk therapy can be abrasive because you’re talking about your worst experiences.”
“Art allows you to get small problems out of your head and work through them in a healthy way, instead of letting them overwhelm you,” Bean continues. “I never thought I would become a huge hippy painting, but I’m alive and successful because of it.”
Bean’s willingness to try new things is something that not all veterans can grasp due to stigma. Many cannot even bring themselves to seek help.
“We got into the stigma part of this and everyone talked about not wanting to ‘check the block,’” Tubbs mentions, referencing a military term for hiding mental health issues. Fortunately, in the past decade, veterans from every conflict and every age are becoming more comfortable with opening up.
“There are so many veterans that went to the grave without saying anything,” Tubbs continues. “I’ve been blessed to find these men, from the older generation, who will talk and, maybe, that will give their family some understanding or indicate to other vets that it’s okay. If we have one goal with this documentary, it’s to impact one veteran.”
Check out more about Art of War and “ACRONYM.” Although tomorrow’s premier is invite only, Tubbs is planning to distribute the film to more theaters soon.