Film exposes mental health crisis in the military


By Karrie Allen Columbia-Greene Media

CHATHAM – During the 88 minutes it takes to watch the documentary, "Thank You For Your Service," a veteran will have taken his own life.

This fact is one of many in this award-winning film with an overall message: There needs to be more focus on mental illness and the military.

Thanks to the efforts of Peter Bujanow and the Chatham Film Club, the Crandell Theatre offered a free advanced screening of director Tom Donahue’s film Saturday afternoon, followed by a panel that included Donahue, producer Ilan Arboleda, Lt. Col. William W. LeCates with the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-19, and Eric J. Hesse, director of the New York State Office of Veterans Affairs, along with moderator Parry Teasdale.

Gibson and Hesse are both retired U.S. Army colonels, having served together in the 10th Mountain Division. LeCates, a kidney specialist and medical director at Bassett Healthcare Center in Cooperstown, served as a military doctor in the New York Army National Guard for eight years and was deployed to Afghanistan twice.

Letters from U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as well as a video from U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-20 – read and viewed before the film – all expressed support of this film and its important message.

Cuomo wrote that the film will provoke reflection and start a conversation.

The film

The stories featured were not necessarily the ones Donahue set out to film, the director said after the panel discussion. Through friends of friends, he came across many of the veterans you see in the film.

The veterans he ultimately filmed had a "vulnerability," Donahue said, adding that one of them was not too keen on being interviewed but told him it was worth it if his story could save someone.

Donahue said that the mother of Phil Straub, one of the veterans featured, told him that she learned more about her son in watching the film than he had ever shared.

At the beginning of the panel discussion, Teasdale asked the director from Red Hook why he made this film.

A 2012 op-ed piece in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, titled "A Veteran’s Death, the Nation’s Shame," struck a chord with executive producer of the film, Gerald Sprayregen, who brought it to Donahue’s attention. He was inspired not just by the piece but also because his best friend hanged himself and his father is a Vietnam veteran, he said.

Donahue incorporated in the film the opening sentence of the op-ed: "For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands."

He later said that that statistic could be even higher by now.

The film includes top military and civilian leaders, like former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former General David Petraeus; politicians like former Mayor Rudy Giuliani; veterans advocates like actor Gary Sinise; and of course, the veterans with the stories that drive the film.

The panel

The film was "painful to get through," said Gibson, who said he had watched the film a few nights prior to the screening.

Mentioning that his wife, Mary Jo, is a social worker who works with veterans at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center (she later commended Donahue for this film), he said he knows there "isn’t one, there are multiple wounds."

Gibson referred to "moral injury" and "survivor’s guilt," both talked about in the film.

"With PTSD, you may have more than one of the emotional wounds," he said.

Referring to veterans from 2003 combat, Gibson said that the crossfire with civilians is something "every soldier carries with them; that’s Iraq,"

The congressman, who was a cosponsor, briefly talked about the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act that President Barack Obama signed into law on Feb. 12, 2015. The Marine veteran for which it is named served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but when he came home, he struggled with mental illness, taking his own life in 2011.

Gibson commended Donahue for putting a focus on social workers, adding that he is involved with the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at SUNY New Paltz.

"One of its programs is to train social workers to be prepared to work with veterans," he said.

"These are unspeakable acts and we have to learn to talk about it," Donahue said.

As it was said in the film, "there should be mental health screening that’s required for everyone," LeCaste added.

He said as soldiers are getting ready to leave the country, they are asked: Have you sought mental health care in the last year? They are likely to say yes because "they want to be soldiers, they want to go, they want to be there," he said.

LeCaste did acknowledge that New York is addressing this more and more and there are steps in the right direction – reducing the stigma, increasing the availability of resources – but there is more to be done.

Petraeus told Donahue that the mental health stigma shouldn’t just be looked at in the military, but "in our country as a whole," he said. Petraeus added that it should be considered in counseling or general public education, so that someone would go see a social worker like they would get a physical fitness test.

An audience member, who introduced herself as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, said that there seems to be no community approach; "we do not get to feel other people’s pain," she said, adding that there is no shared guilt. She asked: How could the country open up to understand what’s going on with the soldiers?

Gibson responded that while returning soldiers appreciate the parade and the support, they are carrying around a guilt, a burden, and may put up a wall. They are trying to integrate the experience and rationalize it in a way so that they can move forward with their life and in society.

Gary Flaherty, executive director of the Columbia County Veteran’s Service Department and a Vietnam veteran, shared with the panel that so far this year, he has talked five veterans out of suicide, but failed with one.

"Veterans want to talk to veterans who have a shared experience," he said.

When veterans come to him, he asks: "Have you served? Do you have any effects? Then they open up."

Flaherty lauded the work the Albany VA is doing, saying it is one of the best in the country.

Gibson added that only one-third of the veterans are eligible to use VA services.

"Peer to peer programs" are integral, he said.

The key piece in this, he added, is for soldiers to immediately feel support when the come home.

Veterans "have to have a sense that they’re needed," a "sense of service," Gibson said.

Hesse said that soldiers have the support of a company, a platoon, while in service, but when they come home that changes.

"It is easier, deployment after deployment, instead of being home," he said, speaking from experience. "Many are still trying to find their routine" when they return.

The percentage of Vietnam veterans committing suicide each day is 70, Hesse said. The average age of Vietnam veterans committing suicide is 51.

"I’m 51," he said. "It’s tragic on every level."

When asked why he took the direction he did with the film, Donahue said he talked to many veterans and found that the most intense trauma was combat trauma, followed by sexual trauma in the military, however he referenced the film "The Invisible War," which he said did a good job of focusing on this issue.

In early 2013, he met Dr. Mark Russell, who had a complete understanding of suicide and the military, dating back to the Revolutionary and Civil wars, Donahue said. Russell was not only featured in the film, but was a guiding force behind the direction the film took.

Russell told Donahue that mental illness needs to be addressed from day one, that policies in the military need change so that the VA doesn’t have the problems it has.

"There will always be war trauma, but we need better ways to solve the problems earlier on in the process," Russell said.

A retired Air Force pilot who works in family practice and said he has tried to help some veterans, told the panel that there needs to be a focus on civilian workers.

Donahue responded that he helped start the nonprofit Military Behavioral Health Initiative, which will introduce this film into social work programs at schools across the country.

This issue is "tough on soldiers, tough on families and honestly tough on the health care system to try to keep up," Hesse said.

Spread the message

A clear take away from the film is that the military needs a Behavioral Health Corps. The movement, defined in the film, is Behavioral Health Corps NOW. Find out more at and start trending #BHCNOW.

Donahue is offering anyone to host a screening of the film by going to and click on "Click Here To Host A Screening." You can pick a move theater, date and time.

The film will open for a week-long screening in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. on Oct. 7. To see the trailer and learn more about the team behind "Thank Your For Your Service," go