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Vets walk 2,700 miles to call attention to post-war trauma

After returning from the Iraq War, veteran Tom Voss struggled with PTSD and “moral injury,” the grief of doing something that goes against one’s beliefs. The film “Almost Sunrise” documents Voss’s attempt to call attention to these issues as he walked halfway across the U.S with fellow veteran Anthony Anderson. NewsHour Weekend’s Megan Thompson spoke with Voss about his experience and the film, which will air on POV on Monday, November 13.

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  • Megan Thompson:

    The documentary “Almost Sunrise” begins with the story of Tom Voss. He joined the Army in 2003, at 19 years old, and spent a year fighting in Iraq, where he witnessed the deaths of fellow soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

  • Tom Voss:

    There was a kid in the backseat. A lifeless ragdoll that they pull out of the car. I will never be able to forget his face.

  • Megan Thompson:

    After returning home to Wisconsin in 2006, Voss took college classes and got a job. But he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • Tom Voss:

    Having trouble with sleep. Started isolating myself, using alcohol to self-medicate.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Voss also had difficulty coming to terms with his participation in a war whose mission, for him, was far from clear.

  • Tom Voss:

    What we thought we were fighting for was to bring democracy to Iraq. That changed to, winning hearts and minds of the people to – I mean, it just kept getting tweaked and tweaked and tweaked. So at one point you’re just like, what are we doing? What’s the purpose?

  • Megan Thompson:

    The film explores “moral injury” – a condition that Voss grappled with.

  • Tom Voss:

    Moral injury is more of grief, guilt, shame– was I justified in what I did?

  • Megan Thompson:

    Therapy and medication didn’t help, and after years of depression, Voss thought about suicide. In 2013, to clear his head, Voss came up with the idea of taking a very long walk — 27-hundred miles from Wisconsin to California. His friend and fellow Iraq War veteran Anthony Anderson agreed to join him. “Almost Sunrise” chronicles Voss and Anderson’s five-month journey across the Great Plains and through the Southwest. Their goal was to raise awareness about the struggles of returning veterans like them.

  • Tom Voss:

    22 vets a day are killing themselves.

  • Megan Thompson:

    All while trying to get a handle on their own memories of war. Michael Collins directed the film.

  • Michael Collins:

    We didn’t want it to just be another film about post-traumatic stress, you know, kind of perpetuating this stereotype, honestly, that you know we have, that soldiers come back, and they’re broken, or they’re just heroes. And I was very excited, because I saw immediately how open Tom and Anthony were about the complexity of their experience.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Collins and his crew would join Voss and Anderson for a couple weeks at a time…and then would leave them alone.

  • Michael Collins:

    They were going to be walking across the country in a big part of that was to be a little bit isolated. And I didn’t want to get in the way of that.

  • Woman:

    They’re coming down the road!

  • Man:

    How about some marching music!

  • Megan Thompson:

    Along the way, total strangers fed and housed the two veterans.

  • Tom Voss:

    I think a lot of veterans have trust issues coming home. So for us coming and seeing the outpouring of help from the civilian population and people who have no idea who we are as people, just opening their doors and letting us in. I mean it was just amazing for us.

  • Woman:

    Oh, I see him! There he is! There’s daddy!

  • Megan Thompson:

    The veterans finally reached Los Angeles. But Voss continued to struggle. He eventually found relief after learning meditation and breathing techniques.

  • Megan Thompson:

    How are you doing now?

  • Tom Voss:

    I’m doing well, I’m doing well.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Voss now advocates for the Veterans Administration to offer alternative therapies, like meditation and yoga. And he gives talks about the issues raised by the film, which has screened some 300 times since its debut last year.

  • Tom Voss:

    For me it is totally worth it to put my story out there so that people can really see the veteran experience and a lot of family members are gaining a better understanding of what their loved one has gone through if they’re not open to talking about it.

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