Vet Filmmakers Recount War Experiences On-Screen

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Iraq war veteran Tristan Dyer edits his film Enduring Erebus i

Iraq war veteran Tristan Dyer, who joined the U.S. Army after high school, edits his film Enduring Erebus, one of five films by veterans-turned-filmmakers featured in the documentary series Operation In Their Boots. Ineke Dyer/Courtesy of Tristan Dyer hide caption

itoggle caption Ineke Dyer/Courtesy of Tristan Dyer
Iraq war veteran Tristan Dyer edits his film Enduring Erebus

Iraq war veteran Tristan Dyer, who joined the U.S. Army after high school, edits his film Enduring Erebus, one of five films by veterans-turned-filmmakers featured in the documentary series Operation In Their Boots.

Ineke Dyer/Courtesy of Tristan Dyer

An online documentary series called Operation In Their Boots features the work of five veterans-turned-filmmakers, whose films show the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a darkened edit room, a film rolls on two monitors.

Watching over the editor's shoulder is the film's producer and director, former Marine Sgt. Clint Van Winkle. Everything about him says Marine — the buzz cut, the intense concentration. For weeks, voices of his war buddies and images of combat have replayed in front of him.

"It's taken an emotional toll on me, doing this project," Van Winkle says. "Just, you know, thinking about putting myself back in the war again."

The title of his documentary is The Guilt. With Van Winkle behind the camera, he and two of his friends revisited their most harrowing memories of combat and coming home. In one scene, a friend recalls the funeral of a fallen Marine.

"The only thing they were able to recover was a dog tag. I had to give that to his wife. But when I went to hand it to her, his mom also put out her hand," the friend of the Marine says.

Telling Their Own Stories

Clint Van Winkle (left) in uniform in Iraq i

Former Marine Sgt. Clint Van Winkle's (left) platoon fought in the battle of Nasiriyah and conducted combat operations throughout Iraq. Shawn Kipper/Courtesy of Clint Van Winkle hide caption

itoggle caption Shawn Kipper/Courtesy of Clint Van Winkle
Clint Van Winkle (left) in uniform in Iraq

Former Marine Sgt. Clint Van Winkle's (left) platoon fought in the battle of Nasiriyah and conducted combat operations throughout Iraq.

Shawn Kipper/Courtesy of Clint Van Winkle

Van Winkle says after having so many other filmmakers try to depict the experiences of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he felt that it was time for veterans to tell their own stories on-screen.

"As a veteran, I think it's our job to try to help people understand," Van Winkle says.

That's what inspired Richard Ray Perez, the executive producer of the project, to allow veterans to share their experiences unfiltered — "and at the same time ... allow veterans who are interested in filmmaking to have that opportunity to become filmmakers," Perez says.

Best Friends

Former Army Sgt. Tristan Dyer had thought of becoming a filmmaker in high school. But then came graduation and a change of plans. He and a number of other friends, including his best friend, enlisted.

"That summer was like the summer of goodbyes kind of for the neighborhood, you know? Each week it seemed like another kid was leaving," Dyer recalls.

And then there was the summer of coming home.

His best friend got out just before he did. They spoke on the phone a few times before Dyer found out that his friend had overdosed. Other friends, he says, died in drunken-driving incidents.

Not surprisingly, Dyer's documentary Enduring Erebus deals with substance abuse among veterans. Four veterans, three men and a woman, provide the narrative to his film.

"The common theme among the people in my film is that they can't sleep very well," Dyer says.

The audience never sees their faces, but the stories these veterans openly share with the filmmaker — the memories of war behind their insomnia and addiction — are brutally honest and sometimes hard to hear.

In one scene, a veteran describes seeing a mother in a battlefield picking up the pieces of her husband and three children's bodies.

A Desire To Get It Right

Dyer says he is not plagued by the same demons as the veterans in his film, but he feels a responsibility to them. Recently he joined a writers group for veterans sponsored by the Writers Guild of America. He says he has other stories of his experiences in the military that he would like to tell.

As with the other veteran filmmakers, Dyer's experience of war has informed his creative expression and his desire to get it right.

"I hope ... I hope they're proud of what I've done, you know?" Dyer says.

The documentary series Operation In Their Boots will premiere online in November.

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