By Riley Brennan
In honor of Veterans Day, Veteran Student Life at the University of Maryland partnered with Military and Veteran Services at George Washington University to host a screening of “The Weight of Honor.” The documentary follows the lives of wounded veterans and their caregivers over the course of five years, shedding light on the unique, frequently overlooked struggles of those caring for people injured in combat. The film claims to be the “first comprehensive documentary to chronicle the lives of families caring for their catastrophically wounded returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Filmmaker Stephanie Seldin Howard said she was motivated to tell the story of these wounded veterans, and the often untold story of those who care for them, after attending her friend’s event where wounded veterans spoke at schools about their experiences.
It was after the event, when Howard went and got coffee with her friend, who ran a wounded veteran nonprofit that aimed to pay for surgeries Veterans Affairs wouldn’t (like certain dental and cosmetic procedures), when she realized there was a story not being told, specifically about the families and caregivers of those wounded in combat — those who “get lost in the sauce,” said Howard, quoting one of the caregivers from the film.
When Howard set out to make the film, she wanted to provide a new angle to veterans’ stories and their struggles. She said the process of making the film grew to be a cathartic experience for the families, as they were able to answer questions they’d never really been asked before and shed light on their everyday struggles.
Following the screening of the film, there was a question and answer panel hosted by the university’s Stamp Student Union director and chair of the Veterans Services Steering Committee, Dr. Marsha Guenzler-Stevens. Those on the panel included Howard; Timothy Brown, the president of Georgetown University’s Student Veteran Association and a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran who was wounded in Afghanistan after stepping on an explosive device; and Elyse Braxton, a veteran and military nurse.
The panel answered questions from Guenzler-Stevens as well as those from audience members. Questions ranged from their experiences in the military or with those in the military, as well as the most taxing parts of those experiences, or their jobs.
Brown, a wounded veteran, shared his story of waking up in Bethesda at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, having no memory of the day he was injured or anything after that.
“My first thought was, well shit, I know what that means,” said Brown upon waking up after his injury and being told he was at Walter Reed.
Brown lost both of his legs, and his right arm, but chooses to focus on the fact that he still has a beating heart, and left arm. He said his will to preserve, and heal, came from the instinct to survive. His desire to get out of bed while on bed rest and the will to survive made recovering and moving on a reality rather than a question.
“I don’t remember really why I decided to keep pushing, some of it’s basic survival instinct. It is just like, being bedridden for months on end sucks ass. Like I don’t want to stay in this bed,” said Brown. “It’s just basic survival, I never really had a question of was I going to push forward or was I going to give up.”
Brown also cites the support from his family and community he was able to build after his accident as motivation to move forward. Following the accident, his mother moved from their hometown in Texas to Maryland to help take care of him. Eventually, as Brown moved forward in his recovery process, his mom was able to return back to Texas, and he was able to enroll in classes at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland.
However, Brown’s mother’s decision to come to Maryland to care for him was not one without sacrifices. She had to quit her job as a teacher when she was five years away from retirement and had to walk away from her retirement salary, in addition to moving to another state and the day-to-day struggles that come with caring for an injured, disabled veteran. Brown’s mother’s experience reflects that of many veteran’s caregivers, and emulates the families shown in the film.
Following two years at Montgomery College, Brown was able to transfer to Georgetown, where he is now a senior managing and marketing major and president of the Student Veteran Association. Brown highlighted being apart of a community of veterans, and building new communities after he was injured, as part of what helps him keep going. One of the ways he has been able to foster a community is through sports, specifically biking, he said.
“You have the basic physiology of getting exercise endorphins from working out, but you’re also not doing it alone. You’re with friends, you’re with people who you may not have served with, but you’ve all relatively gone through the same thing,” said Brown. “It really helps to focus on building a new community.”
Part of this new community can often be created for veterans at their places of treatment, where they are surrounded by other wounded veterans, and sometimes cared for by veterans as well. Elyse Braxton became a nurse years after enlisting and serving in the Navy. She worked as a nurse for the United States Navy Nurse Corps and served as a staff nurse at United States Military hospitals in Kuwait.
Having experience both serving and caring for injured veterans as a nurse, Braxton has seen a lot. “You sort of detach from what you’re seeing,” she said about the injuries she comes in contact with. She also highlighted that as a nurse she provides care, but is not anyone’s sole caretaker and thus has the ability to go home at the end of the day, a distance that primary caregivers do not get.
Braxton also emphasized that caregiving in any capacity, whether it be as a veteran’s personal caregiver or as a nurse or doctor, requires a lot of love and strength. She cites her job as being a labor of love, and one that requires her to be strong for her patients, and to encourage them when they’re not.
More than anything, everyone on the panel emphasized the rolethat humor plays in their lives. “We need humor,” said Braxton on the importance of having a good sense of humor in the job they do. Brown echoed these sentiments, saying “Wounded warriors take dark humor up three notches.”
Along with being a way to decompress, everyone on the panel agreed that humor also serves as a tool to normalize situations they find themselves in, and to disarm the power certain circumstances have. “You need it for survival,” said Braxton.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Weight of Honor’s Facebook page.
Riley Brennan is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.