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Iraq Vet Filmmaker Focuses on Veteran Suicide

The first two phone calls that Seth Roberts received telling him two former Army comrades had taken their own lives left him stunned and upset.

Then came the third and fourth calls, within two months of each other. Those pushed Roberts to his emotional limits.

"It put me in a really bad place... contemplating taking my own life," the 44-year-old from Turner said. "I was like 'Where is this coming from? Who's next?'"

Roberts, a photographer and filmmaker, decided to do something constructive in his friends' memories. He has co-written and hopes to direct a Maine-based indie film called "Those We Leave Behind." It's a drama focusing on the story of an Army veteran who takes his own life, and the emotional havoc it wreaks on his wife and daughter.

The film has been written and cast with local actors. Now Roberts and his Maine filmmaking partners are trying to raise the $100,000 they say they need to make it. They hope to film in July all around Maine and eventually play the film at festivals and sell DVDs.

Roberts, whose two stints in the Army included a six-month deployment in Iraq, said he wants to make the film to bring attention to the national epidemic of veteran suicides. He feels the film could raise awareness of the struggles his friends faced and help other veterans and their families.

MORE SOLDIER SUICIDES EVERY DAY

An estimated 18 to 22 veterans die by suicide daily, or about 8,000 in a year. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs started a national suicide prevention program in 2007 to try to deal with the problem. The actual number of suicides daily is likely higher than the estimates because those numbers are based on deaths involving people who were identified as veterans and whose cause of death was clearly suicide, said Mark Lawless, the department's lead suicide prevention coordinator for New England, based in West Haven, Connecticut.

Some veterans who take their own lives might not have been getting services from VA facilities, and therefore they are harder to identify as veterans. Some might have died of medication overdoses or in a single-vehicle accident, causes not always ruled suicide.

Lawless said there is no single factor, or group of factors, that are common threads among veteran suicides. The victims cover a wide age range and include combat and non-combat veterans. In Maine, where 50,000 veterans are enrolled in the VA's health care system, there were five documented veteran suicides in 2014 and five in 2015. Overall there were 220 suicides in Maine in 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for a rate of 16.5 per 100,000 people.

Jim Doherty, a spokesperson for the Maine VA, said that there was no common thread among the 10 veterans in Maine who took their lives in the past two years, reflecting the trend nationally.

Public education is a huge part of preventing veteran suicides, including helping people to understand why a suicidal veteran might be hard to spot, Lawless said. Veterans generally have a higher "tolerance for crisis," so might not ask for help until it's too late, for example.

It's important for people to understand that asking a veteran, or anyone, if they've had suicidal thoughts is OK.

"There's this myth that if you ask someone, it'll make the suicidal thoughts worse," Lawless said. "But talking about it will help relieve the sense of isolation" for the veteran.

The four servicemen who Roberts knew came from different parts of the country and ranged in age from their 20s to their 40s.

Because Roberts doesn't want his film to be seen as exploiting their memories in anyway, he doesn't want to name them. He has chosen not to ask the families for details about the suicides, saying, "The last thing I want to do is be a source of pain for the family." But he described the men in general terms.

The first of the four calls, more than four years ago, was someone who Roberts served with during his first stint in the Army, right out of high school, some 25 years ago. The man, from Maryland, had been Roberts' best friend in basic training and was part of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq.

A year later, Roberts learned about the death of another friend from his first tour, a man from Louisiana who also served in Desert Storm, someone Roberts described as a "very sweet, honorable, hard-working friend."

The third call Roberts received was about a man who served in Iraq with Roberts.

"You gotta understand, out of all of us, he had the most potential. He was brilliant," said Roberts, his eyes welling as he sat in his home photo studio. "I remember thinking, if he doesn't have a chance, if he felt he had no chance, then what chance do I have?"

Two months later, more bad news, this time about a man much younger than he who Roberts knew but didn't serve with in the Army.

The cumulative effect of the four calls was to plunge Roberts into a "bad place." He had been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, after coming back from Iraq in 2010, and spent about 12 days in the psychiatric unit at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. He has dealt with nightmares and "dark thoughts" since.

Though Roberts saw combat in Iraq, he says his PTSD was caused by a combination of factors, including the death of his 18-year-old stepdaughter, Madison Dillingham, in an auto accident a couple of years before he re-joined the Army in 2008.

Part of the reason Roberts wants to make the film and help other soldiers is that he only sought treatment, and medication, with the help of a fellow solider. That person saved his life, he said.

"He saw that something was going on with me, and he got involved."

Iraq veteran Seth Roberts is photographer and filmmaker working on a film dealing with PTSD, suicide, and other returning veteran issues. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

WRITING BROUGHT PAIN, THEN RELIEF

Roberts grew up in the Lewiston area and joined the Army right after high school, because he "needed some direction in my life." After his enlistment was up, he came back to Maine. He eventually got a job at Andover College (now Kaplan University) as an admissions representative. He married his wife, Tia, about 10 years ago. Together they have a 9-year-old daughter, Morgana.

Around 2008, at age 36, Roberts decided to re-join the Army, partly because he wanted better health insurance to cover medical issues his wife and daughter were facing and partly because he's a self-described "sucker for patriotism."

He was a cannon crew member in the 1st Armored Division and, while in Iraq, was stationed at Forward Operating Base Warrior in Kirkuk. He went on patrols and was part of the force used to keep order during Iraqi elections.

When he got back to Maine after his second stint, in 2011, he studied photography online through the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and started his own photography business, PSR Images. He specializes in fantasy portraiture, photographing models in costume to be used for DVD or book covers and movie posters. A few years ago, following a passion he's had since childhood, he got involved with filmmaking locally.

He was assistant director on a Maine-made horror film called "How To Kill A Zombie," which was distributed on Amazon video and various cable systems. He also wrote and directed an indie film that came out last year called "Bad Kid."

Roberts may never have written "Those We Leave Behind" or found a way to deal with his grief, if it wasn't for local filmmakers Bill and Tiffany McLean. Roberts had mentioned the calls about the suicides to the McLeans a couple of times, but started talking a little more in depth about their impact on him last summer while they were working on "Bad Kid."

"I was listening to him tell his story and it was just touching, so I said, 'You should write about this. It's personal, and it's something you know,'" Tiffany McLean said. "Those are always the best stories to tell."

Roberts said that writing the film was "rough on him" and that he had a lot of people praying for him. Writing about a veteran who dies by suicide made him think about his four friends and all the unanswered questions those deaths left him with.

Once he had finished the script with the help of writer Nick Salve, the process began to feel therapeutic. Others looked at it for accuracy, including a crisis counselor. As he worked on revisions, Roberts began to feel that he was doing something that would serve a purpose.

The story focuses on Richard, an Army veteran who saw combat in Iraq, living with his wife and teenage daughter in Boston. Early in the story, he shoots himself, at home, while his family is there. Roberts said he wrote the scene that way because so many suicides happen "in that moment when things are just too much to take."

After Richard's death, his wife gets a job in Maine and moves there with her daughter. The rest of the film's story is about the mother and daughter dealing with their shattered lives.

With a script and cast in place, the film's production company, Killatainment Films, is trying to raise $100,000 for the budget. Costs will include paying cast and crew, paying for the use of locations, editing and digital effects, and a musical score. In two months, only about $1,700 of the $100,000 had been raised on the film's page on the Indiegogo.com fundraising website. The lack of interest makes Roberts worry that people don't "care enough" about the issue to donate.

But Bill McLean, an Air Force veteran, thinks the film's heavy subject matter might be dissuading investors.

"People have shorter attention spans today, and this is a film that's quite heavy," he said. "It takes people to the depths of reality."

Roberts said he won't give up. To him, "Those We Leave Behind" is not just another film project on his resume. It's his way of doing his part for fellow soldiers. ___

(c)2016 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)

Visit the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) at www.pressherald.com

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This article was written by Ray Routhier from Portland Press Herald, Maine and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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