Harlan brothers' documentary examines personal toll of tour of duty in Iraq

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comJuly 3, 2012 

  • See a film clip

    To see a clip of Two Brothers go to Kickstarter.com and search for the title or use this link: Kck.st/MtixAk. Donations to pay for an original soundtrack may be made through Kickstarter.com. The deadline to raise $3,000 is 8 p.m. Saturday; as of Tuesday night, $670 had been pledged.

Joe Edwards shifts nervously in the unfamiliar room. He subtly angles his chair, trying not to let on that every few minutes he's peeking at the door, wary of what he imagines could burst through.

It's already been a long day, driving the three hours from Harlan to Lexington to the VA to see his doctor, and now doing what might help him the most but hurt the worst — telling his story.

Telling how when he came back from an extended 18-month tour in Iraq he slept 22 hours a day, how his brain had shifted into such a permanent state of high alert that everyday life was overwhelming, that he knows other soldiers suffer and that he wants to give them hope that they can get better if they get support like he is.

"The thing you hear most is the stigma," said Joe, 26, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from service in Iraq.

Joe's older brother Jason, 32, a film student, is helping in his brother's recovery by making a documentary, Two Brothers, about Joe's journey. One of Jason's professors at Eastern Kentucky University, John Fitch, has signed on to help. He was moved by their story, especially how Jason is involved in Joe's recovery.

Jason had talked Joe through the film project and knew he was ready to take part. Joe wanted other people to know that things can get better, he said.

It was important that Joe be invested in the project and that it wouldn't be too much for him, Fitch said. "As soon as I met him, I knew we were going to be OK," said Fitch.

The film, which so far has cost a couple of hundred dollars, spent mostly on gas, is being edited. It includes interviews with Joe and his family, his girlfriend, the people closest to him who have seen his struggle firsthand.

It's a struggle they never could have imagined.

Joe was so eager to serve his country that he tried to join the Kentucky National Guard before he got out of high school. Another brother, Brandon, was in the Army. Although Joe was ready to serve, his mom, Lynn, wouldn't sign the papers.

But soon after graduating in 2004 from James A. Cawood High School in Harlan, Joe joined the Guard. He'd get a signing bonus to help him afford the things his infant daughter needed, and being in the service would help him pay for college, where he hoped to study physical therapy.

It also was a way to make more of life in a place where career choices were limited. Joe hadn't been the best student in high school, so scholarships for college were out of the question. His dad, Roger, was a disabled coal miner, so the family couldn't pay for college. "We were kind of middle class in Harlan, but we would have been poor anywhere else," said Jason.

Joe assumed he'd be deployed overseas. His only tour, which was supposed to last a year, was extended to 18 months. His unit was trained to be military police but ended up in the center of the fight.

He turned 21 in Iraq and came back changed.

"The Joe that went to Iraq wasn't the Joe that came back," Jason said.

Joe was withdrawn, easily agitated and soon was drinking too much. His marriage to his high school sweetheart and mother of his daughter had ended while he was in Iraq, so he moved in with his parents. Jason said Joe would sleep all the time, emerging from his room just to get something to eat and go back to bed. After a while, Joe moved in with Jason, who wanted to help nudge Joe back into the world.

For the most part, it didn't work.

"It was hard watching him deteriorate right in front of me every day," said Jason.

Although Jason doesn't come right out and say it, it's clear Joe's lowest point also was one of Jason's worst days.

In 2008, Joe, hysterical and crying, called Jason at work. Jason went to their apartment.

Joe was there, but "he could barely walk. He was rigid and stiff and bawling," said Jason. "He said he didn't belong, that nobody loved him. It was totally out of character."

Jason could have taken his brother to the hospital in Harlan, but he didn't think Joe would get the help he needed there, Jason said. So, with his brother sobbing all the way, they got on the interstate and drove to the closest VA hospital, in Lexington.

"It was not a pleasant trip," Jason said.

Joe had to stay just a day in the hospital, but it became a point of contention with the brothers for a while because Joe felt as if Jason had abandoned him. But Jason said he knew Joe needed help he couldn't give him.

It was during that episode that Joe became willing to admit that his wounds went beyond the deafness in one ear caused by an explosion and the damage to his knees from hopping in and out of transports loaded with gear.

Joe says now that he knew something wasn't right, but he didn't have a name for it. The Army culture doesn't really embrace showing weakness, he said, and he wanted to solve his problems himself.

He remembers playing the war-themed video game Call of Duty with his girlfriend's son, and the sound of the gunfire set something off in him. Suddenly, "I was miles away from everybody," back in the thick of the battle, he said. When those things would happen, he said, "everybody around you doesn't know what's going on."

It's called a flashback, and experts in PTSD say reactions to some kinds of stimuli — sights, smells, sounds — are so powerful they can cause increased pulse and heart rates, and changes in the way the brain processes information. For many, including Joe, even going to a crowded restaurant is terrifying. The greater the number of people, the greater the number of potential threats. Even now, if Joe can't see an exit, he can't stay in a room.

The hard part, Joe said, is that, for the most part, people can't see what's happening to him because it's internal. If he'd lost a leg or an arm, that would be a challenge people could understand.

Meanwhile, Joe is working with his doctor and therapist to retrain his brain. "You have to learn to tell your brain that it's not real," he said.

Medication can help. Joe went through "a lot of medicines" before finding one that seems to be helping stabilize his mood, he said. But Joe has to do the heavy mental lifting, otherwise known as exposure therapy, coping with the traumatic events in manageable chunks and learning to see what else might serve as a trigger.

Currently on disability, Joe has good days and bad. As he progresses in his healing, he hopes to marry fiancée Lisa Farley. He still talks about going back to school.

He goes out now, can tolerate crowds a little better and is learning to work through the terrors when they come. He can sit through a movie in a theater, something he couldn't do before.

"It's nice to see him in an upswing, every day getting a little bit better," said Jason. "We still have to kind of motivate him" to push his boundaries, go out to dinner, talk about his worries.

Filming Two Brothers is part of that. Telling his story can be painful, but Jason is supportive and sympathetic. Jason and Fitch hope to enter the documentary in film festivals across the country, showing it to anyone who might benefit from learning Joe's story. The hope is to roll it out in the fall, but Jason said there's not likely to be, say, a premiere at The Kentucky Theatre. That environment would be too much for Joe.

The brothers are in talks with Gotyour6, a public service campaign that works with non-profits to help veterans returning from war, about featuring the project in its efforts. "Got your six" is military slang for "I've got your back."

They also are trying to raise money to commission an original soundtrack for the film, using KickStarter.com, a Web site where people may donate to creative projects.

As all that unfolds, the brothers will do what they've always done, hang out, watch movies, play video games, enjoy the ease of being with each other.

"I know he'll never be the same Joe that left," Jason said. "I'm getting to like better the Joe that came back."

For his part, Joe said, he hopes the film can "help as many people as possible."

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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