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.
If it helps other vets, 'we've succeeded'
"It got pretty in-depth," Mr. Kipper said later. Kipper, who once repaired tracked vehicles in the Marine Corps, is now a field service technician for a rental company. "I felt like I was putting myself out there for everybody to see, but the whole thing for me is, if it helps another struggling veteran feel as if he's not alone, then we've succeeded in this."
When Kipper's deployment to Iraq and time with the Marine Corps ended, the transition from worrying about killer roadside bombs to picking up his role as husband didn't go well at first.
Little things bothered him, and he turned to alcohol to soothe the anxiety he says he felt all the time. Kipper recalls going with his wife to reactivate his cellphone after his return and practically jumping one of the store's employees when he was peppered with questions.
"Rock bottom, for me, was watching my marriage go to shambles, just everything around me, wanting to drink all the time, feeling as if I couldn't accomplish anything," Kipper recalls.
But in those dark days, his daughter, then still a baby, gave him hope and inspired him to put his life back together.
For the documentary, Van Winkle, Kipper, and Mr. Paxson visited a tattoo parlor on the outskirts of Philadelphia, where Paxson had a "battlefield cross" added to his forearm. The artwork memorializes Brad Harper, a friend killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2005.
The battlefield cross is commonly used at memorial services in the field, in which a rifle with bayonet attached is pushed into the ground, with the boots of the dead soldier placed in front and the soldier's helmet placed on top. Paxson had the tattoo artist add Harper's name to a black-and-white drawing, and then sat for nearly three hours, camera rolling, while it was etched into his arm.
Picking up their lives or starting anew
The three men have quietly reassembled their lives. Kipper got divorced but now has a close relationship with a woman and enjoys raising his 6-year-old daughter, Callie, in Chesapeake, Va. Paxson works in helicopter assembly and repair outside Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife and two boys.
Van Winkle has taken a different road since leaving the Marine Corps in 2004. After submitting a piece to a literary magazine about his experiences in war, he was contacted by an agent. The result was "Soft Spots: A Marine's Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," published by St. Martin's Press last year. He has since earned a master's degree in creative writing and now teaches creative writing at a community college outside Phoenix.
He hopes the movie has an impact on veterans who have gone through the same adjustment as he and his friends.
A lot of what happens in war is unpredictable, says Van Winkle. "You're just in the wrong place at the wrong time and you get shot. We've seen stuff happen to people, and there isn't any reason that it wasn't us."