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Veterans film fellow vets coming home

Back from Iraq or Afghanistan, five veterans pick up cameras to show the challenges of coming home to a civilian lifestyle for fellow vets.

By Gordon Lubold/ Staff writer / March 26, 2010

War Veterans: Clint Van Winkle (l.) watches as cameraman Jon Dunham films David Paxson being tattooed at a parlor near Philadelphia with a ‘battlefield cross’ in honor of a friend after coming home.

Sabina Louise Pierce/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Norwood, Pa.

Clint Van Winkle fought in Iraq and lived to tell about it.

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Now the former Marine sergeant is making a movie about surviving the hardest part of war: coming home.

That may sound counterintuitive, especially with "The Hurt Locker" taking top honors at this year's Academy Awards for its gripping depiction of the intensity of life on the modern battlefield. But for many veterans, the most difficult challenge of war is not its horror, monotony, and loneliness, but readjusting to life at home. Mr. Van Winkle deployed to Iraq in 2003, and when he returned home he faced post-traumatic stress disorder and other maladies. Ultimately he sought and received the treatment he needed. Now he is trying to help other veterans by directing a short documentary about the return of two of his buddies and how they conquered their own demons.

"Not a lot of people have asked them to tell their story," says Van Winkle.

He is one of five war veterans chosen by a foundation in Los Angeles to tell their stories on film. One will explore how veterans cope with the surrealism of leaving the battlefield one day and coming home the next. Another will look at substance abuse among vets. Van Winkle will focus on readjustment, highlighting the phenomenon known as "survivor's guilt," after his buddies lost a close friend in Iraq in 2005.

The veterans-turned-moviemakers were chosen from a group of about 100 applicants by the Brave New Foundation in Culver City, Calif. Each of the five attended a three-day moviemaking "boot camp" there, where they learned storytelling and film direction. Then they were handed a $7,500 stipend, a professional cameraman, and $10,000 for expenses – and then turned loose. The edited documentaries, which are not allowed to make political statements, will be completed this summer and distributed online or perhaps get broader distribution by a cable network.

"I was inspired to develop this project when I realized that there are veterans who have basic storytelling skills … and how it would be amazing to hear their unfiltered stories," says Richard Ray Perez, creator of this film project, which is called "In Their Boots."

In March, Van Winkle joined friends Shawn Kipper and David Paxson in Philadelphia for an emotional reunion. The three grabbed dinner at Tony Luke's, a popular cheese steak restaurant, and then went to a hotel, where Van Winkle conducted two intense interviews that forced his friends to recall some of their roughest combat experiences.

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