Digital Storytelling: A New Healing Tool For Veterans And Military Families Coping With Post- Traumatic Stress

By Benjamin Patton

traumatized war veteran

As far back as 3,000 years ago, an Egyptian warrior Hori wrote about how he felt at the start of a battle: “You determine to go forward… Shuddering seizes you, the hair on your head stands on end, your soul lies in your hand.” Ever since, veterans have used the written word to help them process traumatic experiences.

Today, study after study has shown that constructing written and/ or spoken narrative can be a very effective means of reducing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms and can be a valuable component in recovery from PTSD among veterans.

As we finally close the chapter on this country’s two longest-ever wars, the need for effective PTSD treatments such as narrative therapy has never been greater: Of the 2.5 million American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, at least 1 in 5, or over 500,000, are thought to suffer from PTSD. But with the average age of these veterans a mere 27, writing is no longer the primary medium of communication of today’s warriors, member of the YouTube-Facebook-iEverything generation. VA clinicians report that OIF/OEF1 veterans are more difficult to engage in treatment than those of previous wars. So we must, in the words of Dr. Charles Hoge, one of the Army’s premiere experts on PTSD, “meet the warrior where they are, and do whatever is necessary to ensure that the warrior feels understood and supported while telling their story.”

When the Veterans Health Administration announced earlier this year that suicides among active-duty servicemen and women had finally begun to decline after peaking the previous year, this welcome news masked another, less hopeful revelation: during the same period, suicide among veterans under 30 had increased – most sharply among veterans between the ages of 18-24. Moreover, a comprehensive RAND study of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans indicated that only half of the veterans surveyed who showed symptoms of depression or PTSD had sought mental health treatment in the preceding year.

Traumas experienced in the military – especially during deployment to a combat zone – are often repeated and can be far more intense than in a civilian environment. Moreover, the risk of death or injury can be ever-present. Military service can also involve extended tours of deployment – sometimes a year or more – in distant locales far from family and other normal support networks. The process of adjusting to life at home – post-deployment – can take a long time, especially when you consider the stresses of such things as medical retirement, finding a new job, disabling medical conditions or injuries. All of these factors can exacerbate conditions relating to post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and anxiety, and the consequences can be profound and often tragic.

Today, virtually every camera and smartphone can shoot video, and virtually every laptop can edit it.

And indeed, digital video therapy curricula especially for veterans coping with PTSD which draws on these ubiquitous tools are being designed and implemented now. My own organization has been hosting multi-day digital video production (aka “filmmaking”) workshops for veterans being treated for PTSD at Army Warrior Transition Units around the country. At our workshops, veterans coping with PTSD have an opportunity to work together with other veterans and civilian instructors to produce short films about subjects and service-related experiences they have trouble talking about with anyone – even their own family – in a conventional way. Topics addressed in our films include such things as loss of a colleague, sexual trauma, severe injury, parenting, employment, nightmares, and just being comfortable with one’s “new norm” as a veteran.

Using popular assessment tools long accepted by the VA, our data is showing a substantial reduction in reported PTSD symptoms among participants over the course of the 4-day workshop. I am not aware of any other organization undertaking this kind of work, which combines the therapeutic value of storytelling with the power of digital media in the service of veterans. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, as of this writing, not a single study has been published assessing the therapeutic value of narrative video production in the treatment of PTSD. Consequently, it has never been seriously considered as a viable treatment option for suffering veterans. It’s time.

Adding digital storytelling to the therapist’s toolkit would bring an age-old remedy into the 21st Century. Video production is narrative– only the implement has changed from a pen to a camera. It shares many of the same qualities as written narrative, with at least three distinct advantages. First, while writing can be a group activity, it need not be. But video production is inherently collaborative: It is very difficult to make a film by yourself. Second, creating narrative in any medium usually involves an indefinite process of revision.

But with video the stages are more delineated – conception, preproduction, production, post-production. Finally, there is no more ubiquitous or powerful tool for creating narrative than the video camera – this tool is literally at our fingertips every day.

All of which reinforces the fact that we are still a long way – per Dr. Hoge – from meeting our brave but suffering veterans “where they are.” Innovative new approaches to addressing PTSD in the military are necessary, and the promise of incorporating digital video cannot be overlooked any longer. We need research on this promising new realm of narrative therapy now. The hundreds of thousands of PTSD sufferers who have served this country in uniform over the past decade, not to mention the millions more from previous wars who silently suffer, need and deserve nothing less.

Learn more about the I Was There Film Workshops at 1 Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq)/Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan)

Benjamin Patton is the founder and president of the non-profit organization, the Patton Veterans Project, Inc, and created the I WAS THERE Film Workshops ( The youngest grandson of WWII’s General George S. Patton, Jr., and son of the late Major General George S. Patton IV, Ben is coauthor of Growing Up Patton: Reflections on Heroes, History and Family Wisdom (Berkley-Caliber, 2012). Formerly a producer and development executive at New York City’s PBS affiliate, Ben also operates Patton Productions, LLC, a full-service video production company specializing in marketing and promotional videos and high-end family biographies for private clients. Mr. Patton is a graduate of Georgetown University and holds a master’s degree in developmental psychology at Columbia University Teachers College.