Through their 'Faces of PTSD' project, Isaac Walsh and Lance Abrims want to show what care looks like so more veterans seek help.
A 2021 study by the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs found that an estimated 30,177 active duty personnel and war veterans had died by suicide after 9/11 — four times the amount of those who were killed in subsequent war operations.
The study found that the high suicide rates were caused by several factors, including high exposure to trauma, stress, military culture and the difficulty of reintegrating into civilian life, among other specific factors unique to post-9/11 service members. When Ormond Beach filmmaker Isaac Walsh was presented with this statistic, he was taken aback. He knew that many veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder, but not how widespread it was, nor how heavy an impact it was carving on the veteran population.
"There is an epidemic of suicides among veterans," Walsh said. "Even right now, veterans are 50% more likely to take their life than a civilian."
It's a statistic he may have never heard if he hadn't met Lance Abrims, creator of Veteran Today Productions, Inc. Abrims and Walsh are neighbors, and Abrims had gotten word from a mutual friend that Walsh was a filmmaker. One day, the two struck up a conversation, which eventually led to collaborating on a film project they hope will do more than increase awareness about PTSD in veterans — it will prepare them to recognize the signs and be able to help.
"Awareness is great, but I want to help people be ready to take action," Abrims said.
And thus, "Faces of PTSD," a 14-part short film series, was born.
Care in action
About 11%-20% of veterans who served in Afghanistan or Iraq have PTSD, according to the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs. The percentage is about 12% for those who served in the Gulf War, and it is estimated that 30% of Vietnam veterans have suffered from PTSD in their lifetimes.
Abrims' own PTSD journey has been a long one. As a Navy veteran who saw combat in Beirut, Lebanon, he didn't start receiving treatment for PTSD until 10 years ago.
If he had videos such as the ones he and Walsh are co-producing to recognize the signs of PTSD when he transitioned back into civilian life, he said he would have realized he needed help earlier.
One of the PTSD elements he experienced in his life is featured in one of the short films that has already been released. The episode, titled "Isolation" portrays a veteran who had lived in his office for five years to avoid being around people at night. Abrims, who writes the episodes, lived that reality: He lived for 10 years in an office, and showered at the gym every day.
"Getting a veteran to care is extremely difficult. They feel like it's a sign of weakness. ... I wanted to show just a snippet of therapy so that somebody could see that they don't have a light bulb over your head, and it's not this grueling, terrible thing. It's just a conversation."
Lance Abrims, writer and co-producer of "Faces of PTSD"
In addition to showing a different element of PTSD, each short film also portrays a portion of a therapy session. It's meant to show veterans what such a session would look like, and that's a critical part of the project.
"Getting a veteran to care is extremely difficult," Abrims said. "They feel like it's a sign of weakness. ... I wanted to show just a snippet of therapy so that somebody could see that they don't have a light bulb over your head, and it's not this grueling, terrible thing. It's just a conversation."
He thought that was important. He said he wanted people to see care in action.
"For those of us that have been in therapy, we know that it's a godsend, and for those who have been thinking about it, or could never imagine it, I think that other half of that film is just to desensitize them enough to say, 'It's just you and some person,'" Abrims said.
A friend of Walsh's who works as a therapist for Veterans Affairs advised him not to get attached to the veterans he spoke with. He said veterans are used to being ignored for most of the year, save for Memorial Day or Veterans Day.
But Walsh got attached. He said he is dedicated to the project he and Abrims started in November of 2021, and the pair has been hard at work in trying to raise the funds to produce the remainder of the films.
Having directed his first feature film in 2020, "Incarnation," he is no stranger to fundraising for movies. But raising funds for this project has been one of the hardest things he's ever done, he said, and he believes it's because PTSD is a hard topic for many people to face.
"Because it's hard, it has to be right," Walsh said.
Working on this project has also shifted his priorities, he added. His goal is still to make movies, and to bring the film industry to the greater Daytona Beach area, but he wants to make films that matter.
"It's hit so close to home," Walsh said. "I have so many friends and family members who served or are actively serving, and [PTSD] is just such a monumental thing that is still happening. When I look at where the next 15 years of humanity is going, I don't think war is going away anytime soon. More young men and women are going to be sent out and then what? If we don't change things, the pattern, the cycle will continue."
Fundraising for the project
Abrims and Walsh are aiming to raise $250,000 for "Faces of PTSD."
Abrims, who founded Veteran Today in 2003, has always run his nonprofit on a small budget, having often gotten by through the sale of T-shirts. Prior to the film project, his organization was more service oriented, he said, but he'd been wanting to make a shift towards education. The short-films fulfill that wish, but they come at a higher cost, and thus the pair are looking for individuals or corporate sponsors to help fund their project.
"When I look at where the next 15 years of humanity is going, I don't think war is going away anytime soon. More young men and women are going to be sent out and then what? If we don't change things, the pattern, the cycle will continue."
Isaac Walsh, director and co-producer of "Faces of PTSD"
Once the films are all completed, their goal is to distribute them nationwide at no cost.
The community plays the most important role in reducing the rate at which veterans die by suicide, Walsh said. The issue with PTSD, he continued, it's that it's often "right under the surface" in someone.
"If you have members of your friends or family, groups who are in the military, please watch the videos," Walsh said. "As you go out into your life, assume that everyone else is having a bad day and treat them with kindness."
If someone wants to support "Faces of PTSD," Abrims wants them to call him and invite him for coffee. He takes it very sweet, with lots of cream and sugar.
"Can they just send a check or make an online donation? Sure," Abrims said. "But I think it's more meaningful to both of us if we sit down."
Contact Abrims at 386-999-1963 or at [email protected]. To watch the first two short films of "Faces of PTSD" visit veterantoday.org.