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Operation Route 66 – serving those who served us.
A year and a half ago my son and I started down a path that changed our lives. As a country we had just learned there was going to be an end to Combat Operations in Iraq, but there was a lesser-reported story emerging: veterans were starting to die by their own hands at home, at a higher rate than on the battlefield. We decided then that we were going to meet the men and women who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, document our experience and talk about how we – Americans – can serve those who served us.
When we first began, we realized there was a disconnect. We didn’t know a single veteran and initially we had trouble connecting with them. After exhaustive research; tapping out friends, families and social networks we began to find them. At the beginning we would go on 26-32 hour road trips to connect with a veteran for a single interview. And once we arrived we would discover the veteran wouldn’t want to talk about much of their experience, and certainly not on camera. It became clear that these men and women had been through things that many of us couldn’t comprehend and rehashing it was very painful.
In May of 2012 we made an almighty push. A road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, across Route 66 – direct through America’s Heartland. Documenting the whole way we met with veterans from every branch of the military; men and women who had been deployed as many as 4 times to the frigid mountains of Afghanistan and the blazing heat of the Iraqi desert. We interviewed these vets and their families and even citizens who have no connection to the military. Our goal was to get as complete a picture as we could.
Slowly and carefully we extracted stories from these veterans. Stories of the people they were before service, on deployment and now, what life is like after war. It is oft reported that “war is hell” and “war changes you”, but those phrases do little to describe how both broad and nuanced war affects those who experience it. No one knows the true cost of battle. No one.
We completed our trip and have gathered hundreds of hours of footage, thousands of photographs, and one amazing story. We are gathering our resources for one final push to present this film to the American public. To give this project to those who have served, and those who have benefited from service.
Alex Velez’s situation is more complicated. He wears dark Oakley sunglasses indoors and out to prevent extreme headaches – a feature I’ve learned to associate with traumatic brain injury, the hallmark wound of our most recent wars. In addition, after being dislocated, his leg never healed properly. He drags the half-dead limb around waiting for our over-burdened VA to get around to an ‘optional’ amputation. A prosthetic will give him much greater mobility.
It did not take long for Blake Leitch to get his feet wet in the veteran community. We first met Blake in Springfield, IL on the first day of our cross country ride. We have since traveled to film Blake back in Springfield and in Mattoon, IL where Blake resides with his wife Jackie and son Spencer. Blake credits his faith and a strong family with his ability to greet the challenge of each day with a positive attitude. He travels to meet with other veterans and represent his country wherever he can. “I speak about how sharing what happened to me and my fellow comrades helps me combat my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I also share how, after being involved in more than 20 roadside explosions, I am still alive. Although I did take some shrapnel and have a bad back from the whiplash I endured, I am very lucky that I walked away with so few injuries.”
Amber Atchley has held more than one man’s life in her hands. She served as an Army medic in OIF III where her skill literally kept some soldiers together and alive under enemy fire. You’d think with such experience, Amber could transition those skills to a civilian paramedic but in reality not one medical certification transfers. Amber is a fellow with The Mission Continues and continues to serve warriors through art therapy and warrior writers. Amber lives in Waynesville, MO and Tulsa, OK.
LT Col Tim Maxwell. He deployed six times twice in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. During his final deployment to Iraq, LT Col Maxwell suffered a severe traumatic brain injury on October 7, 2004 when his forward operating base in Kalsu was mortared and shrapnel tore through the left side of his brain. Through his recuperation, he discovered that for himself and others, recovery was enhanced by being together with other wounded warriors. Today, due to his extraordinary leadership and vision, Marines at the Wounded Warrior Barracks (Maxwell Hall, named in his honor) located on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, find improved recovery through team healing.
Dan Casara deployed to Iraq on July 24, 2005. He was critically injured when the M113 that he was riding in drove over an anti-tank mine, flipping the vehicle. Two soldiers were killed and four injured. The blast fractured Casara’s right tibia and fibula, shattered his left tibia, heels, and anklebones, and dislocated his right hip. Dan spends his days looking for positive ways to impact the warrior community. Even with a leg that should have been replaced Dan plays golf, does triathlons, and works diligently to be a beacon of light and hope for returning warriors.
About the Authors
Hailing from Chicago, Kurt and Nick Gerber are a father and son team who have been around the world together making photographs that tell the stories of their journeys. For their latest adventure, they tackled something closer to their hearts, and to the hearts of all Americans. In a time when Americans are pushed apart by pundits and politics, the duo decided to highlight important issues that resonate with the left and right. Using their skills as storytellers, they crossed the American west on Route 66. They met, interviewed and photographed veterans who have served over the last 10 years. Follow their progress on Facebook and Twitter. Participate in Operation Route 66 – visit the Kickstarter project by CLICKING HERE!