Blog Editor’s Note: Tonight, Phoenix House honors America’s veterans with a special screening of The Welcome, an award-winning documentary that chronicles the experiences of veterans during a unique healing retreat. We interviewed the film’s producer, Bill McMillan, to find out more about the film and its goals.
Phoenix House: Can you tell me about the genesis of The Welcome? How did the retreat and the film come to be?
Bill McMillan: My wife Kim is the filmmaker and I’m a therapist. We were teaching stress reduction with veterans because we felt frustrated with how separate we were as civilians from the reality of the veteran experience. We participated in a program for veterans that also asked for public involvement, but the public just wasn’t there—it was just my wife and I, and a couple of military family members. So we started thinking about how to make something much more interesting and successful happen in our town. The idea went along with our training involving rites of passage and community participation. We knew Michael Meade did that kind of work, so we asked him to lead the retreat.
PH: The film follows an amazing trajectory, and a lot of the participants are very hesitant at first. Was it hard to find participants?
BM: We were met with some resistance. It was easy to get the community involved. The hard part was getting vets to go along with it. We realized early on that we would have to meet the vets individually so they could get to know everything we intended to have happen on the retreat: writing, being filmed, speaking in front of an audience. That knowledge eliminated a few folks, simply because of their PTSD or their level of discomfort with the idea. It took a year to find those people who ended up participating. They came because they knew what they were getting into and wanted to be a part of it. We all knew it would be a really powerful thing in the end, but it still felt like a high-wire act.
PH: Was there a turning point during the retreat or the filming process when things really started to come together?
BM: Well, on the third day, we filmed that scene when Ellie kind of loses it and gets angry. That outbreak had been building and it was just a question of how long it would all hold together. But yes, there were lots of turning points throughout the process, especially when different people shared something personal and moving. And after that afternoon when Ellie had such a difficult time—when everyone did— we brought in the healers and the massage therapists. They came in to do bodywork and really created a different kind of energy.
PH: That positive energy is noticeable in the film after the veterans receive bodywork. We’ve noticed that here at Phoenix House as well—how ancillary therapies like yoga, meditation, and acupuncture can really help people in recovery.
BM: Yes, a combination of different therapies is a great idea. It’s never a good idea to rely solely on prescriptions to deal with disorders like anxiety or PTSD. Like Jake, the vet in the film who writes that poem about being heavily medicated and then dumps all the pills out of his backpack—that’s so normal for them. We all self-medicate to avoid emotions, but veterans do it harder. In Vietnam, a lot of people used opiates and heroin, and left terribly addicted. Prescription use in the military has gone up 5000 percent in the last five years. Many drugs, anxiety drugs especially, are meant to be used for a week or two, but vets end up on them for years and become dependant.
PH: Agreed. The scene where Jake dumps out the pills really resonates for our recovery community. What sort of feedback have you gotten from the participants about the retreat and film experience?
BM: I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback, and I’m still in close contact with some of them. The Vietnam vet and his wife, their marriage was over when they came to the retreat; it was the last thing they were going to do together. But now they’re like newlyweds again, both working with vets and their family members. They’re all doing amazing things and say their experience was incredibly positive. Of course, it didn’t remove their PTSD symptoms, but it did make them feel more connected and get that sense of greater purpose.
PH: What’s the overall goal of the project? How would you like to see communities become involved?
BM: Phoenix House showing the film was one of the things we wanted to have happen. Mostly, we just want more civilians like us to actually start caring about what’s going on with vets. The film is a kind of preparation for community members. The intention is to not intimidate regular folk but to get them to talk to vets and pay attention. Most families have some connection to the military and what we’ve been hearing a lot from family members who see the film is, “I finally understand what was going on with my mom, dad, grandfather, or cousin.” It wakes people up to the idea that they are more connected to the military than they had previously thought.
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