Your grandfather George Patton Jr. is one of the most famous generals in American history. Your father was a major general who served with distinction in Korea and Vietnam. That’s a unique way to grow up.
My father used to say, “We’re not better than anyone or worse than anyone. We’re just different.” We definitely were made to feel different insofar as we had a responsibility to act a certain way, behave appropriately and have a service-oriented mind-set.
You didn’t join the military. Was there pressure for you to do so?
I think I felt pressure from history. I had a very strong, but somewhat challenging, relationship with my father. I grew up thinking that that’s what he most wanted — for me to go into the military. I think deep down what he wanted me to do was to find my own path and to lead an authentic life.
What inspired you to become a documentary filmmaker and teacher?
I got interested in film. I wanted to find a way, beyond just going to veterans’ events and representing my family, to apply those talents and skills to the service of veterans and military families. That led me to seek an opportunity to teach film to veterans — to use film as a therapeutic approach for veterans transitioning home from a combat theater, often with post-traumatic stress.
And that led to the work of helping those veterans capture their experiences on film?
Yes. Initially, I was focused on combat veterans who just weren’t able to communicate with their family in the same way as when they had left. There were things they experienced that they simply couldn’t articulate in normal conversation. We began to see that the medium of film could be a wonderful conduit for a veteran to express something without even having to use words.
Your grandfather won lots of glory but was criticized for slapping two soldiers suffering from what was then called combat fatigue. It’s ironic you work with veterans with PTSD.
I’m not an apologist for my grandfather. I would say that generation of the military really just didn’t understand this phenomenon. I don’t excuse him because the actions that he was responsible for, particularly in the summer of 1943 in Sicily, were inexcusable. He had a warrior aura about him where sometimes going into military hospitals had its consequences, setting back his career. But I’m inspired by the fact that both he and my dad were very well-known for caring for their soldiers. What I’m doing is shifting the way we understand what “care” means and broadening it. Fortunately, we have learned a great deal more about these mental health challenges over subsequent generations.
How many films has the Patton Veterans Project produced in the past few years?
I’d say between 300 and 400 films at this point. We’ve worked with close to 1,200 veterans. My mission is to reduce the distance between a veteran and everyone he or she interacts with, be that a battle buddy, boss, neighbor, spouse, son or daughter, or parent. If we can see veterans be closer and more communicative with those around them, then I think everyone will be better off.
Why did you think that filmmaking would resonate with service members today?
Younger veterans are part of the YouTube generation who understand the medium of video better than past generations. We are all carrying around a video camera in our pocket that, with a little bit of software, can be used to edit video. Because we are so familiar with this technology, we can slip into a creative process almost instantaneously. It’s a very easy and quick way for someone to create a narrative.
And that’s what makes your work different from other PTSD projects?
There are wonderful writing programs and theater programs, but there is something about being able to create narrative in this way. Many of the clinicians we work with have said this medium allows the veteran to switch sides. They can observe themselves in a video but also be a participant in it. We can really begin to help them get support they need and actually enable them to take control over their lives.
Learn more about the Patton Veterans Project at pattonveteransproject.org.