During the first week of October, 2013, I was kicking around ideas for what was going to be my first “major” home video. I was fifty-eight, had been unemployed for two years while trying, unsuccessfully, to earn money as a screenwriter, and had decided to buy some basic video recording equipment so I could try my hand at digital film making next.
One afternoon I was walking around my house while having a phone conversation with my eighty-four year old mother – who lives in Kingsport, Tennessee – and I asked her for ideas. She commented that she always enjoyed seeing the Veterans walking the beautiful grounds of the nearby military home in Johnson City, Tennessee. “Why don’t you make something about them, about Veterans?” she said.
So I thought about her idea for a few days, which led to thinking about the VA. Since I was a patient registered with the White River Junction VAMC, I had a little familiarity with the facility.
I researched the history of Americans caring for injured soldiers and sailors, and found a good amount of usable information.
And the message is one that’s been at the core of who I am since I was in grade school: I’m grateful I’m an American. I could have been born anywhere else, any other nation, but I’m here, and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for all the things I’ve always wanted America to be an example of: fairness, honesty, intelligence, decency. I’m grateful for all the good things America does for its people and its land, like libraries and schools and airports and safe roads and police and firemen and hospitals and park rangers and a bunch of stuff, including, of course, the Armed Forces of the United States.
I know things are wrong in many government organizations or how they are run. It always upsets and saddens me when higher-ups or lower-downs, corporations or individuals, haves or have-nots, behave in ways that are not fair, honest, intelligent or decent. Corruption and selfishness is very “un-American” to me, and I know that is naive. Maybe I was influenced at a young age by JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” So it’s truly discouraging to hear about incompetence, greed, and corruption, in the ranks of American society, everywhere. I have always wanted us (Americans) to represent good.
But one thing that’s always ironic is that we hear a whole lot about what is going wrong, but we seldom hear about what is going right. By the time the news is done, it seems like everyone and everything is evil and deserves to be prosecuted. But that’s not really the case. Often, the “bad” – those things that we hear the most about – is a small percentage of the overall; meaning, there are a whole lot of things that are “right”, and maybe we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
Which brings me to the White River Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center. When I’m here and I look around, I see happy employees and happy patients. I see smiling caregivers who spend time with their patients. I see a reasonably modernized facility with a proud and helpful staff. The service I’ve received has been good, and my general impression is that this place is doing a good job. I decided the WRJ-VAMC would be the focal point of my next video. It was something I was grateful for. I titled it “More Than A Soldiers’ Home” because the VA has become a lot more than what it used to be a century ago.
I put the plan in motion. I had written an outline and had some character and story threads that I was hoping would come together, but nothing was cast in stone; basically, I was willing to just “wing it” figuring that I’d find a story when I started editing after the principal shoot. I made good progress on my taping and editing schedule, with the exception of having to tap dance around several inclement weather and transportation issues! I was on schedule with my “fluff” piece.
But then, history intervened, and the VA Phoenix scandal broke into the news. At first, I tried to ignore it, but the bad news was like the proverbial “elephant in the room.” I rewrote my narration dozens of times as I tried to refine and finalize my sequences, but the ever-worsening news headlines made my commentary seem trite and ignorant. I was stuck in a kind of artistic limbo where I couldn’t just ignore the major news, yet I had no desire to politicize the positive and uplifting video I had planned to make.
I continued to film interviews and events, and I released a trailer and fundraising video within a week or so of my production projections, so I wasn’t horribly behind. But I still hadn’t settled on the narration or introductory theme.
I read dozens of news articles and tried to tie together the wide-ranging information so that my film’s statements would be true to my vision, and yet honest enough to face the events that were still unfolding. Each time I rewrote the narration, I had to re-record the audio, lay it down in the editor, sequence the video, and review it several times. The next morning, I would dig into the latest news to see if anything I said was too far off the mark to be in my film. Finally, a day after the signing of Senator Bernie Sanders VA funding bill (August 7, 2014), I drew the line; I had to stop reacting to the news. The video was going out. It was ready.
Like all things in life, it could use improvement. I may revisit the film to make cuts or add footage, but for now, More Than A Soldiers’ Home is complete and viewable, and it is something I can stand behind. I hope you take a few minutes to watch it, and if you like it, please share with your friends and colleagues.
Frank D’Aprile is a freelance filmmaker and aspiring screenwriter who lives in Vermont. He entered the U.S. Naval Academy in July, 1973, but resigned from the naval service in October, 1975. Since then, he has worked as a mason laborer, cook, paint salesman, computer animator, public school teacher, customer support specialist, and air traffic controller, amongst other jobs. His video production business is Star And Seegull Alternatives.