By Patty Mooney
When the Veterans Administration hired our company, Crystal Pyramid Productions, in July 2007, to shoot interviews and footage at the 20th anniversary of the San Diego Stand Down, my partner, Mark Schulze, and I had no idea that we would end up spending the next year and a half immersed in producing a 43-minute award-winning documentary that illuminates a true American tragedy, called The Invisible Ones: Homeless Combat Veterans.
A military tenet is to “never leave a man behind,” so 22 years ago Viet Nam veterans Dr. Jon Nachison and Robert Van Keuren decided to reach out to “those veterans who exist beyond the wire of homelessness.” They devised a three-day event during which homeless veterans can come off the streets for meals, a place to sleep, medical, dental and psychological treatment, and even a haircut. Van Keuren and Nachison decided to call this event a “Stand Down,” which in military parlance is a time for a soldier to rest, away from conflict.
After meeting many of the homeless veterans and the coordinators of the Stand Down, Mark and I were so deeply moved, that we decided to tell the world what we had discovered, in a documentary — that there are far more homeless veterans than people know about and who deserve the help of American communities.
Mark and I divvied up production duties; he has been an award-winning director of photography and camera operator since 1981, so he shot our doc footage with the Sony Z1U. I was producer and sound technician. Together we conducted gritty on-the-street interviews with homeless veterans. We also spoke on the site of San Diego’s biggest “tent city,” at the corner of 16th and Island streets, with David “The Water Man” Ross, a Korean veteran who passes out water to the homeless on a daily basis, and Rachel Jensen, the Director of Girls Think Tank, a group that helps the homeless by raising funds with events.
We also conducted formal green-screen interviews with U.S. Congressman Bob Filner, Chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Congresswoman Susan Davis, Chair of the Military Personnel Committee, Al Pavich, former CEO of VVSD (Veterans Village of San Diego), General Bob Cardenas aka “Flying Wing Man,” Gary Becks, Director of Rescue Task Force, Jessica Brian and Michael Kilmer at the VA Hospital in La Jolla, and several others.
I edited the project on Avid Pro in the evenings and on weekends, and almost immediately ran into problems with system crashes, probably due to mixing so many formats (HDV, standard definition Betacam SP, archival .avis and .mpgs, etc.) In addition, the software became more and more sluggish as I applied chroma-key on the green-screen interviews. A couple of times the Avid software did not open at all due to corrupt files. Talk about a panic attack! I’m sure many other editors have experienced the heart-dropping feeling of losing hundreds of hours of work in one fell swoop.
A global rendering of the entire project to 24P really caused the system to protest with flames and smoke emitting from the computer (barely kidding). I then transferred the show to Adobe Premiere Pro which seemed a bit more robust than Avid, but this software, too, became “haunted” during the process of cutting the documentary, and would crash intermittently, leading me to want to rip my hair out and just walk away from the project. Every time I threatened to quit, Mark reminded me that I didn’t really mean it. Then I’d think about the homeless veterans who were out there, some of them placing their heads on a sidewalk instead of a pillow at night. What’s rougher, a few editing software crashes, or a life without shelter, comfort and good health, surrounded by family?
So I plodded on. Finally, in early 2009, the project was finished.
Everybody who contributed anything to the documentary (production, music, editing, graphics, duplication, etc.) did so pro bono. All proceeds from the project have been going to Veterans Village of San Diego, which coordinates the Stand Down and runs a program for homeless veterans at its 250-plus bed facility. People are welcome to show the DVD at their churches and Kiwanis, Lions and veterans groups. It’s gratifying to see that since Mark and I grabbed the baton, there’s been more of a surge in national news about veterans’ issues, and I think that The Invisible Ones has been a small part of that.
At the latest count, The Invisible Ones has garnered five international awards, and has screened at both the Big Bear International Film Festival and the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival.
Once viewers see the documentary, they want to do something to help. Several people have told me that they are now more aware of the plight of homeless veterans, and do some interesting things for them. They volunteer at their local Stand Down or homeless shelter; they carry Power Bars or some sort of compact nutritional food in their glove boxes to give out to hungry homeless, or they hand out meal coupons. One friend said that she bought take-out turkey dinners for a few homeless people last Thanksgiving and sat down to dine with them on the curb outside the restaurant. She observed that as soon as she did this, she became “invisible” to all passersby. “It’s just not right,” she said, shaking her head.
If you decide to lend a hand to a homeless person, it’s advisable not to give money because that enables them to purchase alcohol and drugs. Some folks now simply look into the haunted eyes of homeless veterans and say “hello” and “thank you for your service to our country.” After risking their lives and limbs in the military service to protect our nation, is it so difficult to show these now homeless men and women a little appreciation?
Some people have asked why we spent a year of our life producing The Invisible Ones. Mark’s father is a veteran, and both my parents and my sister are veterans. My great-uncle, Father Tom Mooney, was the first chaplain to die in the northern European conflict of World War II, while tending to a wounded man. While Mark and I both believe that peace is a much better path to conflict resolution than war, we also agree with The Veteran Watchdog, who says that “regardless of your feelings about war, you should respect the sacrifices made by the men and women of the United States Armed Forces while fighting honorably under the U.S. Flag. As a nation, we have a duty to make sure that they are taken care of properly when they return to civilian life. We must make sure that they are not subjected to the horrors of war, in our name, and then subjected to abandonment and abuse when they return home.”
What Mark and I were aiming to do with our documentary was to merely open the eyes of our fellow Americans about an issue we can all do something to alleviate. Many of us have plastered our homes and vehicles with American flags or little yellow ribbon magnets that shout, “Support Our Troops;” and yet we are sadly uninformed about how many of our troops step off a plane from Iraq or Afghanistan, and then end up homeless under a highway bridge. If we really do want to “walk the walk,” and not just “talk the talk,” it’s time to step up and thank our veterans for their service to our country by giving them something of ourselves.
Learn more about homeless veterans and how you can help at www.theinvisibleones.org. Connect with San Diego-based producer/writer Patty Mooney via email at email@example.com.