Jerry Miron remembers the firefight well, though it took the 68-year-old Twin Cities man and Vietnam War combat veteran 45 years to publicly share it.
He noticed a fellow soldier cowering near him, curled into a “little ball” while he and others engaged the enemy.
Then he heard another soldier berate the man, calling him every name in the book.
“I said, ‘Shut the hell up and keep putting out the lead,’ ” Miron, his voice choking, recalls in “Iron Will: Veterans’ Battle with PTSD,” a documentary that was scheduled to premiere Saturday at the Showplace ICON Theatre in St. Louis Park.
“Afterwards, after the firefight was over, he was yelling at him and I said to him, you know what scares the hell out of me? What scares the hell out of me is that I don’t know from battle to battle if that‘s not going to be me.”
For nearly two hours, Miron and more than a handful of other veterans from all walks of life and gender lower the curtain of silent hurt and pain and offer viewers a deeply human, insightful and sometimes inspiring look into the world of a veteran dealing with post traumatic stress. (Most drop the “D” for “disorder” in conversation, believing it further stigmatizes veterans.)
This is a film, narrated by actor Billy Bob Thornton, that grows on you because you realize that in the end, these are just ordinary, very relatable people thrust into the chaos and insanity of armed conflict and struggling to fit back into civilian life. And the best thing about it is that there is no political or other agenda being pushed other than raising awareness about the plight of veterans who need help.
“This is not about whether one is a Democrat, Republican, Independent, black or white, gay or straight,” Tim VandeSteeg, an award-winning filmmaker and the film’s producer, told me during a recent chat. “It’s about being a human being and being there for these veterans.”
Most creative projects are labors of love. But this one was intensely personal for VandeSteeg as well as for the film’s director, Sergio Valenzuela.
VandeSteeg’s younger brother, Chad, served in the military and battled with PTSD. He took his life four years ago. Valenzuela, also dealing with PTSD, served in Iraq and was influential in getting veterans to trust him and open up.
There’s Sal Gonzalez, an Iraq War veteran who recalls being ordered to wipe down a Humvee in which soldiers died following an explosion.
“Cleaning up all the gore and the bits and pieces were left up to us, pulling pieces of flesh and body and bone and anything we can find and try to clean,” he recalled. “And these are our friends. This is the blood and the gore of somebody we were close to.”
There’s Chris Krieger, another Iraq veteran who understands well why the government trains soldiers to become deadly and mentally strong and self-sufficient but is derelict or woefully inadequate when it comes to helping them acclimate back home.
“There’s no boot camp to convert you back to the man or woman that you were when you left,” he said.
Marine veteran Kristi Ennis, whose leg was amputated below the knee and who underwent 43 surgeries after her helicopter crashed, touched on the warrior mindset: “I felt guilty because all my friends were back in Afghanistan and I was home in the hospital.”
The estimated 20 to 22 veterans who commit suicide daily is a major focus of the film. In fact, four veterans primed to be part of the film died by their own hands.
“The lowest point with post-traumatic stress was the day I decided I did not want to live anymore,” said Stephen Cochran, a country and Western musician and Marine veteran who suffered head and other injuries in Iraq in 2004.
He was laboring to put a shotgun to his mouth at his Nashville home when his 60-pound dog given to him by his ex-fiancee scratched at the door and managed to enter. The dog kept jumping on him as he tried to push it away. Finally, in tears, he just embraced the dog, lay down on the bed and “screamed for help.”
He went to a VA therapist the following day.
For Miron, it was another dog that served as lifesaver for him and many troops. Miron was a scout-dog handler who walked point with Rebel, his German shepherd.
“I swear he was the best dog over there,” Miron told me. Miron came back to St. Paul and was spat upon at the airport and called a baby killer. He went on to become a mortgage broker and financial adviser but rarely if ever talked about the war with his wife or other relatives until recently.
But he swore while in Vietnam that he would make it back home, buy a 427 Corvette, date, get married, and have kids.
“It all came true,” said the father of three. But “BS war,” as he describes it, came with a heavy price: PTSD.
The film ends with a summary of resources for veterans who need help that include the use of service dogs and a nonprofit devoted to veterans with traumatic brain injuries.
“I hope with this film it will get (veterans) to get out and talk to someone,” he said, again his voice choking.
“Whatever you are going through, we all are. Please come out and talk. Don’t internalize. Get away from the alcohol; get away from the drugs.”
According to VandeSteeg, the film’s trailer alone has more than 1 million views and more than 22,000 shares on Facebook.
He chose Minnesota for the film’s debut partly because of his hometown roots, the fact that it will be part of the Twin Cities Film Festival and because he was told that the state has among the highest veteran suicide rates in the nation.
“Our goal with this film is to raise awareness, educate, empower and save lives,” VandeSteeg noted in an email.
Hope this is one mission that gets accomplished.
For more information about the documentary and showtimes, go to IronWillMovie.com.