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Let the healing begin

Wounded Spirits offers path to recovery from PTSD for Vietnam vets


by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Colleen OCallaghan has gone to the utmost effort to help her husband Jack Estes recover from the PTSD he acquired over 40 years ago in the Vietnam War.

Christmas is the happiest day of the year for many people. But for a Vietnam veteran it could be the worst day.

“A veteran might say, ‘Christmas was the day I had to bag 17 bodies,’” said Colleen O’Callaghan of Lake Oswego.

That is why O’Callaghan and her husband, Jack Estes, of Lake Oswego wanted to make “Wounded Spirits, Healing From Trauma: the Vietnam Veterans,” a documentary film that reveals the toll post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has taken on people who served in the Vietnam War. The film, directed and produced by Lisa Rylander, has a simple format — four Vietnam veterans, including Estes, talk about what they endured in a war that officially ended in 1975 but which they are still fighting in their minds and souls.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Jack Estes is shown in 1969 at age 19 as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam. He described himself as a frightened but competent soldier.

The project came about because O’Callaghan refused to give up in her effort to help her husband recover from PTSD. Great discouragement, even when she seemed to be on the verge of success, often met her efforts. She always tried again.

“Colleen is a visionary,” Estes said. “She did things that were years in advance, like meditation. Now that is standard practice for helping PTSD victims. She set up retreats. She sought to replace muscle memories. The texture and depth of understanding she has is truly amazing. She has had an amazing impact on my life.”

When they first married, though, O’Callaghan was just a young wife faced with a crushing problem.

“Jack had the ‘1,000-yard stare,’” O’Callaghan said. “It was a bone-chilling look. It was a look of death that was terrifying.”

It was no comfort for O’Callaghan to find out that other loved ones of Vietnam veterans had also experienced “the look.”

O’Callaghan said, “The daughter of a Vietnam veteran told me, ‘My daddy has looked that way at me my whole life.’”

Estes well remembers when he acquired the look.

“I snapped,” Estes said. “I went from being a frightened but competent soldier to going dead inside. This was the berserk stage.”

The Vietnam War reached perhaps its highest peak of fury in 1968 and 1969, the years Estes was serving as a Marine in Vietnam. There were 28,000 American service people killed during that time. A lot more almost died. There was a photo taken of Estes and his best friend, a photo like countless others revealing camaraderie and tragedy. Later, Estes desperately tried to patch up his friend after he was shot four times in the chest.

Coming home brought no healing. Instead of the parades for heroes that followed the Allied triumph in World War II, Estes and other veterans encountered an American public that was sick of the war and questioning more than ever why it was being fought. The returning warriors were ignored at best. When the war was lost in 1975, the sense of failure for Vietnam vets was overpowering.

“It’s important that people of our generation pick up a piece of the pain of our veterans,” O’Callaghan said. “The community didn’t rise up to take in our veterans when they came home. If everyone picked up their share of the pain they could begin to comprehend what war does to people.”

O’Callaghan went on to fight her own private war against PTSD. One of the first things she did was encourage her husband to write and speak about his experiences, and Estes did this quite successfully. His book, “A Field of Innocence,” has been re-issued and is now available on Amazon.com. Perhaps her most daring idea was for Estes and other Vietnam veterans to go back to Vietnam in 1993 and revisit the places — the fields of fire — that had so shaken their lives with grief, guilt, nightmares and thoughts of suicide.

“Colleen thought that by going back I would replace my memories of carrying a gun with memories of carrying a box of toys for kids,” Estes said. “Going back to Vietnam was tremendously helpful.”

But it wasn’t a cure-all.

“I thought our troubles would evaporate,” O’Callaghan said. “But it was not the panacea I thought it would be.”

But she had just begun to fight. O’Callaghan then came up with the concept of holding retreats for Vietnam veterans where they could meditate. This was difficult because these former soldiers had spent years trying to ignore their pain instead of healing it.

“Getting veterans to come to these retreats goes against a lot of their symptoms,” O’Callaghan said. “It was a monumental task roping them in and tying them up.”

O’Callaghan has now held 14 meditation retreats for Vietnam War veterans and they have broken new ground in treating PTSD. Still, O’Callaghan believed not nearly enough veterans were being reached.

“It was very difficult reaching veterans,” she said. “That is why I wanted this film created by Lisa to show veterans they had nothing to fear by coming to these retreats.”

The first attempt to make a documentary failed. One of O’Callaghan’s best friends took some video tapes of vets being interviewed, “but it was hard to capture the essence.”

Then O’Callaghan and Estes brought in their long-time friend Rylander, also a Lake Oswego resident, who had just started Twintree Productions. Rylander had never made a film before, but her passion for the project and work ethic were unmatched. Together, they all gradually learned the lessons of how to make a documentary film.

“Our first interview was with the son of a Vietnam veteran and it was so intense that we couldn’t use it,” O’Callaghan said.

Eventually, the format was narrowed down to four subjects for interviews — Pat Helmstetter and his wife, Colleen, a former nurse in Vietnam, Ray “Spike” Cornelius, and Estes himself. It was Spike who made one of the film’s most telling revelations when he talked about how PTSD could cause severe and irreversible problems if it is not treated.

The last step was to present “Wounded Spirits” to the public, and O’Callaghan, Estes and Rylander succeeded in having it broadcast several times over OPB-Plus. But a much larger audience is greatly desired.

“I saw ‘The Buyers Club,’ a new movie about AIDS,” O’Callaghan said. “There were six people in the theater. People don’t like to see real things. They don’t like to engage in things that are uncomfortable. Raising funds for this project has been like pulling teeth. And this movie is about a war that tore apart our generation.”

But American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still going on and servicemen and servicewomen are returning home. Undoubtedly, many of them suffer from PTSD. That makes “Wounded Spirits” more important than ever.

“My goal is to get a copy of this to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness),” O’Callaghan said. “People need to develop an awareness of PTSD. Then they can help by doing something as simple as bringing over a meal to a family. I’m looking for the most effective way to reach people who need to see this film.”

Namely, veterans of all wars and the people who love them.

For more about “Wounded Spirits” and the work of Colleen O’Callaghan, Jack Estes and Lisa Rylander, go to the websites fallenwarriorsfoundation.com, authorjackestes.com and twintreeproductions.com.

A private battle to make a film

Lisa Rylander gives years of her life to making 'Wounded Spirits'

When it came to making the documentary film "Wounded Spirits," Lisa Rylander was a true soldier.

In fact, if a Purple Heart for filmmakers was given, Rylander would deserve one.

She served as director, producer, camera operator and composed the film score. She interviewed Vietnam veterans for years and shot hundreds of hours of film. She overcame sound issues, camera issues, computer crashes and other problems. And she did it all while suffering from shoulder pain that continually became more intense.

Rylander ended up with a film that accomplishes what she set out to do: Make a film that Vietnam veterans could not only watch without becoming re-traumatized but encourage them to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder instead of silently suffering and risking that their condition could get even worse.

"I did not accomplish my vision, but I'm satisfied with what I did accomplish," Rylander said. "I wanted to make a film that would not leave people disturbed and distraught. I wanted to make a film that was different from other documentaries about the Vietnam War."

She accomplished this by treating the feelings of Vietnam veterans with the greatest consideration. "Wounded Spirits" does not rely on stock war footage or photos of battle scenes. The sound track does not feature the sound of helicopters.

"Something like that would retraumatize them and they wouldn't watch it," Rylander said. "I wanted to do something from a more human angle."

This consisted of telling the stories of Spike, Pat, Colleen and Jack, four Vietnam veterans who have suffered from PTSD for decades. Their stories are sad, sometimes shocking, but not without hope.

"I wanted to make sure I showed Spike with his dog," Rylander said. "It was important that I ended the film showing Pat and Colleen working in their garden."

Rylander made this stirring film because of a hope that did not pan out. She and some other aspiring filmmakers sought to obtain a Woman's Vision grant to finance a documentary about people who suffer from different types of trauma, "something that had never been done and could be very helpful to society." They did not get the grant, but Rylander and a few of her friends decided to stick together. Then came the opportunity to do "Wounded Spirits."

Rylander's aspirations for the film were so high that it took her years to complete. She had some very good people who helped her, such as co-producer James Tuchschmidt, associate producer Lisa Wible and cameraman Jarratt Taylor, plus Rylander's daughter, Adriane.

"I need to thank her for putting up with me all the years it took to complete it," Rylander said.

"Wounded Spirits" is a film that deserves to be seen. It has been shown several times on OPS-Plus, but the months ahead will be a time when Rylander and executive producers Colleen O'Callaghan and Jack Estes will strive to increase the venues that will show the documentary.

"This film can help people know that they are not alone in how they feel," Rylander said, "and it is not just for Vietnam vets, it is for all vets.

"What made the film so significant to me was the fact that all of the participants, including those in the documentary and those who were not, were determined to contribute and were brave enough to do so."

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