Good People for the Resistance is a twice-monthly interview with people who give me hope. This week, meet Los Angeles-based filmmaker Beth Dolan, who is in the final stages of finishing a documentary, Stranger At Home: The Untold Story of Military Mental Health. After working on TV situation comedies, NBC movies-of-the-week, and most recently, Los Beltran, an award-winning Spanish language comedy for Sony/Telemundo, Dolan has turned her attention to elevating awareness of the mental health crisis in the U.S. military.
(Personal note: This post is dedicated to my niece, Sergeant First Class Rosalind Atkins Green, who served 24-years in the military, including a year in combat in Iraq. Ros has taught me much about what it means to be a warrior – in every sense of the word. Years after retiring, she’s still there for any of her soldiers who need her).
Q: As far as I know, you have not served in the military. So how’d you get interested in the topic of military mental health?
First, I’m from a big military family; two of my brothers went to West Point. While I was making the film my sister’s son enlisted in the Marines, and did two deployments. So I have a heartfelt connection to military service. Also, before I fully committed to the documentary, someone very close to me started talking about suicide. At the time, I had no idea the person had been struggling to this extent. I started thinking a lot about what is mental health? This project, with a military backdrop, suddenly came into my conscience. I said, this is what I can do, I can make a film about this. I quickly learned that I was just as ignorant to the military picture on mental health as I had been to my friend’s struggle.
Q: One of the characters you focus on in the film is, “a loathed military whistleblower.” Tell me about him.
Dr. Mark Russell, a former marine, who grew up on a Marine base and has three kids who were in the military. After he left the Marines he became a psychologist for the Navy, where he became an expert on combat stress, which earned him a Presidential Medal of Honor. He’s the real deal.
Russell was deployed to Iraq, then worked from a tented hospital in Spain, which was the first stop for evacuated casualties from the Middle East before they were evacuated to Germany. He was shocked by the lack of mental health services for our soldiers.
When he got back from deployment, he went up the formal chain of command, saying we are going to have a shit storm if we don’t do something about mental health. There simply were not enough mental health professionals to treat the rapidly growing number of psychologically/emotionally damaged troops coming back. Plus, most of the staff they did have were not formally trained on how to treat PTSD. Soldiers were waiting 3 months to see someone. They were committing suicide.
Q: Who did he blow the whistle on?
He sent memos to his higher-ups, made endless recommendations on how to fix the situation. Nothing changed. Finally, he went public with his concerns and filed a complaint with the Inspector General against the Military for malpractice and gross negligence. The complaint rattled cages and he was asked to testify before a Congressional committee. It’s a really big no-no in the Military when one of your own officers hangs the dirty laundry out there. He was called a Benedict Arnold.
Q: What happened to him?
The Inspector General complaint and his speaking out went nowhere. Ultimately his life was threatened. He stopped being promoted. After 26 years of military service he resigned. Now, he’s a psychology professor at Antioch University in Seattle. He has a book coming out about all of this. And he’s still fighting for policy changes so that service members and families can get help.
Q: A film on military mental health seems like something everyone can rally around in these divisive times. Has it been easy to get support for the project?
Well, we started thinking just that, of course people would be angry when they learned that the mental health of our servicemen and women is being deliberately neglected, and that funding for the film would pour in quickly. It didn’t happen. Now we say that this project is a Himalayan climb and we’ve spent a lot of time at base camp. We’ve been working on this for six years, and we still need funding to finish it up and for distribution.
Q: Tell me a statistic that surprised you.
22 military suicides/day, both active duty and veteran continues to stun me. That’s the yearly reported number from the VA. I think the unreported number is much higher. 26% of returning soldiers are depressed, drug or alcohol-dependent, homeless or suicidal.
Q: I continue to be confused about our hawkish, right-wing government refusing to take care of its soldiers. What’s your take on this?
It’s a reptilian thing – until it affects you, you don’t give a shit. If it’s about money and power, ego and fear, you won’t focus on the human being behind the soldier. Trump, in his sickness, has no capacity to have an understanding of the situation; he gave lip service to the job Shulkin (Secretary of Veterans Affairs) started under Obama, then fired him and killed all the policies he had initiated to clean the place up.
Q: If you were invited to the White House, would you go?
I would be amazed that I’d been invited. My energy is so disparate and in contrast to Trump’s. I guess I’d think, wow he’s had a spiritual awakening, so yes I’d go.
Q: Would you shake Trump’s hand?
If anyone reaches out to shake my hand I always respond with a connection. Yes. I’d look him in the eye and I’d say, “let’s go and get you the help you need.”
Q: If people could take one thing away from this film, what would it be?
That mental illness isn’t a weakness, and wanting and maintaining good mental health is a basic human right, not only for those who are serving or have served our country, but for society as a whole.