Veteran stories often yield unsatisfactory conclusions.
That sentiment anchors the rugged tone of “Tribal,” an 85-minute narrative-driven documentary funded solely by Army infantry veteran Mark Kershaw, who, like so many veterans of the Global War on Terror, has become all too familiar with the mental health struggles plaguing those who have donned a uniform over the last two decades.
“I think I’m averaging losing one person from my unit to suicide per year,” Kershaw told Military Times. “And that’s not people I knew in passing. Those are directly from my infantry line platoon.”
Kershaw, who was medically discharged in 2013 after a tumultuous Afghanistan deployment, paused a successful career in software sales in 2021 and drained his savings to fund what amounts to a deeply visceral film that distances itself from scores of veteran-focused projects that harp on post-traumatic stress awareness and little else.
To do so, Kershaw enlisted Army veterans John “Michael” Gomez and Omar Hernandez, as well as Marine veteran Wade Spann, each strangers to one another at the outset of the project who go on to convey dramatically similar narratives of the trials that follow combat.
Suicide is openly discussed, as is PTSD, but unlike so many projects that endeavored to tackle those themes from a 30,000-foot view, Kershaw’s three subjects share shockingly intimate stories rooted in identity loss, search for purpose and the painstaking desire for community.
“I wanted to highlight authentic storytellers, people who don’t act like Johnny Hero,” Kershaw said. “And these are three different personalities that resonate.”
On-camera interviews interwoven with dreamlike reenactment sequences paint a raw and unfiltered picture even the subjects themselves were hesitant to share. Vulnerability, after all, is not exactly something ingrained in military culture, Kershaw noted.
For Spann, an infantryman with Fifth Marines and Purple Heart recipient who deployed to Iraq three times between 2003 and 2005, the project offered a platform to honor the stories of friends lost — even if meant reluctantly sharing his own.
“I don’t think my story is that special,” Spann said. “But it’s authentic. And these stories point to a greater need within our society of authentic people talking about authentic things. And if this can lead to someone else getting help or even talking to loved ones about their experiences, it’s worth it.”
In the process, Spann and the film’s other subjects hone in extensively on their own imperfections. There is anger, resentment, uncertainty of worth, and the patterns that so often ensue once uniforms are closeted for the last time.
“My unhappiness has led me to do a lot of stupid, self-destructive shit,” Spann said. “But if sharing that unhappiness on camera demystifies why veterans struggle and desperately seek community among other veterans — often at the cost of other friends and family — then I’ll continue to do that.”
Of course, getting a personally-funded film off the ground is no easy task. There are the costs, but beyond funding, any pitches to major production companies often involve pressure to alter content, structure or themes.
“Some places felt like it was too raw,” Kershaw said. “They said, ‘You got to end this on a happy note,’ like things are all good, and they’re not. That’s not how the film would have its biggest impact.”
It is Kershaw’s hope that sticking to his guns via a more gritty portrayal of veteran struggles will lead to it becoming the force multiplier he believes it can be.
“Tribal” might not offer an uplifting ending depicting a successful veteran figure with a quintessential family, successful job, or comfortable home. But for Kershaw, Spann, Gomez and Hernandez, it does provide a catalyst to conversation that could prevent additional losses and act as an incubator for community.
That potential is well worth the individual vulnerability, Kershaw said.
“As veterans you’re going to take on a burden, and that’s what this is,” he said. “But that’s what we’re supposed to do as leaders, right?”
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.