While trekking 2,700 miles from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Santa Barbara, California, two Iraq War veterans find redemption and forgiveness in a new PBS documentary premiering on Nov. 13.
The film — “Almost Sunrise” — follows Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson as they learn to cope with “moral injuries” from combat, the film‘s Emmy-nominated director, Michael Collins, told Military Times. You can watch the film’s trailer here.
“Post-traumatic stress disorder is really associated with fear-based trauma, like shock to your nervous system,” Collins said. “Moral injury has more to do with guilt and shame associated with actions that you have to take or actions that you don’t take, but essentially throw off your moral compass.”
For Anderson, the deviation of his moral compass came after two tours as an infantryman in Iraq, he said in a statement.
“I had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning,” he said. “I was breaking down.”
Voss, who joined the Army at age 19, deployed to Mosul, Iraq, in 2004 and had similar issues in coping with his experiences, according to the statement.
Sleep disorders, chronic anger, suicidal thoughts and the accompanying alcohol and prescription drug abuse compounded their troubles.
“I needed to do something to help myself. I needed to take a stand,” Voss said.
The two veterans decided to walk cross-country, raising funds along the way for a veterans gathering place back home in Milwaukee.
“One of the definitions of moral injury is a wound to the soul,” Collins said. “So it made sense to me that they were out there seeking spiritual mentors to guide them back to themselves.”
Along the way, Voss and Anderson met a Native American spiritual leader who went by the name Wolf Walker. He reached out to Collins and asked to arrange a meeting with the two veterans.
Wolf Walker took the men to the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he shared traditional knowledge and insight with them.
“Part of the knowledge he shared with them was how just a few steps from there was a vast, wide-open expanse, and that’s always there, you just have to look for it,” Collins said. “He asked them to follow him and they walked through this little doorway in the rocks and they were standing there in front of this incredible view of all the mountains across Colorado as far as you can see.”
The walk itself was therapeutic for the two veterans, Collins said. Spending time in nature, talking with a friend and exercising were holistic treatments that tapped into their psyches. But that moment in the Garden of the Gods felt uniquely pivotal to Collins.
“It was just such a big turning point for them,” he said. “There was just something kind of magical in that moment ... you could feel that there was a transformation happening inside them, but you were also seeing it reflected in the environment.”
As the men walked, they used social media to broadcast their movements. People who saw their posts were eager to reach out and offer places to sleep, shower and wash their clothes, Collins said.
For two men who had seen the worst of humanity in combat zones, the contrast of what good people could do for one another was something worthy of note.
“Anthony talked about that a lot,” Collins said. “A big part of his healing journey was gaining trust again in humanity: seeing the good in people. When he was deployed, he had to be distrustful. It was just the safest way to be.”
“He had isolated himself for so long. ... That reconnection to society was one of the most healing things for him on the journey,” Collins added.
Leading up to the film’s premier, Collins and his film company, Thoughtful Robot Productions, had traveled to hundreds of schools and communities to screen the film as part of an impact campaign to raise awareness about veterans’ issues.
“Even though the film is going to be on PBS, we’re still hoping to do that because we see the value in bringing communities together physically in a space where civilians and military families can sit down ... and realize we’re all in this together. These issues are our issues. These wars are our wars,” Collins said.
To find out more about how to bring a screening of the film to individual communities, Collins urged viewers to visit the the film’s website, and take action.
Kyle Rempfer was an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.