Relieving the Weight Of An Untold Story
A local documentarian strives to understand the experience of veteran caretakers.
“I tell them: ‘Just talk to me’,” says producer and writer Stephanie Seldin Howard, who’s spent the last four years working on “The Weight of Honor,” a documentary that explores the lives of family members as they tend to wounded veterans upon their return home. “Try to forget there’s a camera there. Try to forget there are other people there. Just look at me and talk to me.”
While her crew of three – she keeps the group small so as to not intimidate the caregivers and their families – worked on setting up their equipment and gear, Stephanie would talk to them. If they had children, she’d even pause to play. By then, she’d already spoken with the families several times over the phone in an effort to get to know them better, and for them to warm up to her. When the cameras started rolling, she’d listen. She’d listen to them talk about the things they’ve seen and done, the catch in their voices, that break before a sob. They talked about their spouses and brothers, who went into war strong and steady men and slipped out of it, but barely, as other people entirely.
“[I wanted them to feel] like they were conversing with me. And that’s how I am actually in all of my interviews,” says Stephanie, who has worked at L.A. bureaus of Fox News Channel, CNN, NBC News and Reuters. For her work as associate producer of “L.A. Roundtable,” she even snagged a commemorative Los Angeles Area Emmy. Back in 2012, she was looking for an idea to tackle, and after a conversation she had over coffee with Micaela Bensko, vice president of Rebuilding America’s Warriors, it came to her.
It was a story that wasn’t often told, a different side to the wars fought post 9/11. Since modern medicine gave troops wounded in the battlefield a better chance at survival, they would return to civilian life, often times struggling with severe brain injuries and burns. Their spouses fell into the role of caregivers almost by default. It’s around-the-clock job — learning the ropes of basic home care, dressing wounds, keeping track of medication and appointments and surgeries. And in understanding that, Stephanie thought: There’s a story there.
Soon enough, she found herself knee-deep in research and quickly realized her resources were limited to a few articles and Facebook groups, where caregivers went to find support, advice and, sometimes, simply to vent.
“There were no books,” said Stephanie. “I could only go online and do research. I would see medical studies and stuff like that, and I would try to talk to those people. It wasn’t typical.”
It was no easy task finding the right subjects, either — people who were willing to open their homes to not only her, but her crew and a whole lot of equipment.
In the years she’s been working on the documentary, she’s traveled as far as Texas, Kansas and D.C. to meet and speak with the individuals she tracked through social media and other organizations.
“I contacted people who work a lot with veterans, and I told them what I wanted to do. And what they did then was they reached out to other people,” she said. “Some of those sources work with groups, and they knew individual families. What they would do is contact the families and get back to me.”
There’s Kathreyn Harris, for example, caring for her husband Shilo, who was injured in a roadside explosion nine years ago in Iraq. There’s Ashley Toppin, nursing her husband Andy, whose legs were amputated after an explosive device hit his convoy. There’s Carissa Tourtelot and Rebecca Morrison and others, who, at the time, were adjusting to new relationships with their spouses, and some even coping with divorce and deaths from suicide.
“It was very emotional,” Stephanie said. “Most of them were very emotional interviews. They would be crying, and I would be crying. And it would be really hard on my camera crew, as well.”
When the crew turned their cameras off, unplugged the microphones and dimmed the lights, Stephanie rested her palm on her subject’s knee and said what she thought — that she wasn’t there to take advantage of them, nor was she looking to make good TV. She was there to tell their stories, and much to her surprise, the caregivers shook their heads and said: This is helping me talk about it because no one has ever asked me how I feel.
“For me, it was about telling their stories for the greater good,” Stephanie said, “for civilian audience to really understand what they were going through.”
To follow the production of “Weight of Honor,” please visit www.theweightofhonor.com, or follow Core Issue Productions on Facebook.