Filmmaker focuses on challenges of brain injured soldiers


Filmmaker focuses on challenges of brain injured soldiers

The first couple of scenes into “Along Recovery,” and you know what’s coming isn’t pleasant. An armored vehicle explodes in a plume of smoke and dust. A helicopter shudders across the sky, an immense blue canvas stretched over a desert landscape.

At ground level, soldiers are fighting for their lives. Some will win that fight; others will not.

Yet even those who make it don’t always return intact. They are missing limbs. They are burned.

And some have an affliction that can defy the sharpest microscopes or the best MRIs. They have traumatic brain injury, or TBI. It’s been called, over and over, the “signature wound” of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Justin Springer knows. A former Army captain and a native of Fayette County, Springer did two tours in Iraq with the 1st Infantry Division. He returned committed to making a film about TBI. The result: “Along Recovery,” 90 minutes of cinema verite that gives TBI a painfully human face.

Make that faces. For a year, Springer followed four veterans as they tried to overcome their invisible afflictions. He bankrolled most of the production, which cost about $80,000.

“I felt like this was important to do,” Springer, 32, said in a recent telephone interview from Denver, where he now lives. “I saw these guys coming back, and … I knew they had problems.”

A problem that the Department of Defense recognizes, too. Since 2000, more than 250,000 soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen had been diagnosed with TBI.

In 2008 Springer approached the Department of Defense, asking for access to soldiers seeking treatment, as well as those helping the veterans. Defense officials took Springer’s request seriously, said Kenneth Dawes, who heads the Army’s Los Angeles public affairs office. A year after Springer made his pitch, he started filming.

“We wanted to show what the Army is doing for our young men and women,” said Dawes, whose office handles all filming requests. “It is a horrible injury.”

TBI occurs when the brain collides with the inside of the skull, or when a bullet or shrapnel penetrates the skull, injuring the brain. The injury can cause memory loss, impaired cognitive skills, mood swings, dizziness and death. If treated quickly, mild forms of TBI can be cured.

Compounding the problem: Some victims may not realize they have TBI, or don’t want to admit it.

That’s understandable, Springer said. “They see other guys missing limbs, who’ve been burned,” he said. “And they look like they’re OK.”

* * *

Torrey Kramer, Sean Hollins, Josh Kinser and Ryan Soto are young, tough … and afraid. They find themselves at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, ground zero for TBI treatment.

Each soldier suffered injuries from improvised explosive devices or flying shrapnel in Afghanistan or Iraq. At first glance, each looks OK. But none is.

Sgt. Kramer, for example. You can sense his quiet panic when a hospital intake worker tries to assess his disability. Can he name the months of the year backward?

“Uh, December…” His dark brows furrow in thought. An agonizing 10 seconds pass before Kramer slumps his shoulders, whipped by a simple question.

Spec. Hollins is just as worried. He’s eager to return to action – Hollins wants to be a career soldier, not a wartime statistic. When a hospital worker asks him if he’s ever considered other jobs, he snaps at her: “This is all I’ve ever wanted to do!”

Kinser? His neck is hurt in addition to the wound his brain has suffered. It’s hard to tell which bothers him more – the real pain in his neck or the phantom scrambling of his thoughts. “It’s like getting hit in the head by a 2-by-4, but it just stays,” says Kinser, a staff sergeant.

Soto, a sergeant, took some shrapnel in the mouth. But the real injuries are somewhere deep inside. His eyes flutter like frightened birds.

Using a hand-held digital movie camera, Springer gives viewers a window into the world of our warriors.

He follows Kinser as he drops a wild boar with a single shot from his hunting rifle. When Hollins visits the widow of his best friend in the Army, killed in the same attack that left him with TBI, Springer is the quiet presence in the room, the unblinking eye.

When Kramer’s wife says her husband’s afflictions put a strain on their marriage, Springer fills the frame with her tired, worried face. When Soto wades into a physical-therapy pool with other veterans, Springer gets wet, too.

Springer, who has a degree in film from Tulane University, charted each soldier through the seasons, beginning in early 2009. Each warrior is clearly hurt, and each struggles to accept it.

In time, each does.

“I didn’t think it would be something that stayed with me so long,” Kinser complains.

“I have trouble sleeping,” Soto admits. He has nightmares, too — a symptom of his PTSD.

Their therapists gently lay out what is known about TBI — how each case is different, because, really, each brain is, too; how each will have to learn strategies to cope with his mental wounds.

“It’s like papers have been thrown up in the air,” one therapist says, “and scattered all over a room.”

Theirs is a halting trip back. At the film’s conclusion, only Soto remains on active duty, and he does not return to combat; three take medical retirement.

Kramer is a firearms instructor. Hollins helps at a homeless shelter. Kinser conducts therapeutic hunting missions for soldiers who, like him, didn’t return from war unscathed.

And Springer? These days, he works in television production but is hoping “Along Recovery” will reach a national audience. It’s been shown in four film festivals and took the audience award for best documentary at the San Antonio Film Festival last year.

Like his film subjects, Springer wrestled with coming to grips with his war experience and the aftermath during the course of shooting and producing the film.

“I think everyone comes back with adjustment issues,” said Springer. “War changes you.”

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