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How one of Gen. George Patton’s grandsons helps vets with PTSD

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Benjamin Patton created free filmmaking workshops that tap into the power of storytelling. Participants report a significant drop in PTSD symptoms after completing the workshop, he says.

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    Benjamin Patton (c.) works with service members editing film in a 2014 workshop at Fort Campbell, Ky.
    Courtesy of Patton Veterans Project
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The short films are thought-provoking and have a common thread: They were made by US service members and veterans dealing with post-traumatic or other service-related stress.

And they came out of the innovative Patton Veterans Project, which offers free, four-day filmmaking workshops for these individuals.

“Patton” is a well-known name in US military history, and it’s no coincidence that it’s part of this more recent endeavor. The filmmaking project’s founder is Benjamin Patton – the youngest grandson of George Patton, the legendary World War II Army general.

The workshops “seemed like a powerful way to give back to a community that I’m connected to in deep, intricate ways,” says Mr. Patton, who is also the project’s executive director.

Patton’s other grandfather, as well as his father, were also decorated Army generals. Being “profoundly proud of their service,” he considered a military career himself, he says. “But it was also my grandfather, General Patton, who slapped a traumatized soldier in the face for his ‘cowardice,’ and that’s something I’ve struggled with for years.”

After Patton became involved in filmmaking and then studied psychology, he came up with the idea of film as a kind of alternative therapy. He launched the workshops – called I Was There – in 2011.

Those dealing with post-traumatic and other stress, Patton notes, often feel isolated and stigmatized, and they don’t know how to talk about their experiences. Sometimes when they do try to confide in someone, it goes poorly, he says.

The filmmaking workshops give service members and veterans another option – one that can allow participants to explore feelings and thoughts with a little more anonymity.

“It’s amazing what happens when these remarkable men and women realize they can use a camera to tell their stories,” Patton says. “It cracks open their emotions, and once that happens, they can make connections that have been closed off for years, sometimes even decades.”

The workshops teach the basic mechanics of filmmaking – how to work the camera, how to create a shot, how to edit. Participants also go over the power of storytelling, collaboration, and community. The resulting films cover myriad topics, including combat flashbacks, feelings of alienation, and powerlessness.

Sgt. 1st Class David Acosta, who has had tours of duty in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bosnia, completed the workshop in October 2015 at Fort Stewart, Ga. “Soldiers tend to keep things inside,” he says. “The work we did at I Was There forced us to collaborate and talk about our experiences, and it made me realize I wasn’t alone in dealing with stress or depression.”

Acosta says he considers the workshop a turning point, and he’s now much more comfortable with talking about things and getting support if he needs it. “I’ll tell anybody who’ll listen that we need to have this workshop at every single base and installation. This one works,” he says.

According to Patton, participants in the project report a significant drop in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms after completing the workshop. And they frequently describe it as an “icebreaker” that allows them to reconnect with family, overcome the stigma of PTSD and mental illness in general to pursue other avenues of treatment, and take steps toward new careers in post-military life. Patton says alumni of the project have gone on to professionally pursue filmmaking and start PTSD awareness charities, among other paths directly influenced by the workshops.

Many people struggling with PTSD delay getting help, notes Charles Drebing, manager of the Mental Health Service Line at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Bedford, Mass. He finds the filmmaking project remarkable because it’s getting veterans in the door.

“It’s a unique intervention that raises the potential for helping veterans get care earlier than any other tool we have,” Dr. Drebing says. “We’ve seen that first step lead to other treatment, and that’s huge.”

The Massachusetts hospital is working with Patton to undertake a clinical study in 2017.

Providing quantitative evidence about the value of the workshops could expand the reach of the project, a possibility Patton is excited about.

“We know ... there are some experiences veterans may never be able to speak about in conventional ways,” he says. “Our hope is that maybe they can find our workshops and make a film that safely expresses what they are feeling, help[ing] them rebuild their sense of community and begin to heal.”

For more on the Patton Veterans Project, including films created by participants, visit iwastherefilms.org.

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