November is an important month, for so many reasons. Aside from marking the official start of the holiday season, it is also National Veterans and Military Families Month, as well as National Family Caregivers Month. In our latest episode of DE Talk, these two designations collided as we sat down to chat with Stephanie Howard, the Executive Producer, Director and Writer of the documentary film, The Weight of Honor–the first comprehensive documentary to chronicle the lives of the caregivers and families of veterans severely injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Take a moment to review the highlights of this important conversation below and be sure to listen to the full episode to hear more about her impactful experience and what we can all do to help military caregivers.
You’ve had a 25-year career in broadcast journalism. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and how that led you to documentary film making?
I was thinking about it and I have never wanted to be anything else. I’ve always wanted to be a journalist. I have a degree in broadcast journalism and I had internships with some very well-known networks, some really great places. I’ve had jobs in markets big and small. Really what brought me to documentaries is something that I knew early on, that your typical news story, if you’re lucky, is a minute and 20 seconds. Usually, they’re 30 seconds or less. It’s really hard to cover a topic in that amount of time. I frequently would get to do multi part series, hour long specials. I would get to work on those kinds of things because I felt like I could really dive into an issue, really look at different aspects of what makes that an issue. Documentaries were a transition for me. I had to get a point where I had paid my dues enough to where I could do documentaries. That’s where that really comes from.
As a journalist, as a filmmaker, I’m just naturally curious and I’m always looking… I think I was in a place where I was really looking for my next film and I was trying to find something that struck a chord in me. I came to this because I had met a group of wounded vets who came to speak here in my hometown in California, at Santa Clarita. They spoke to the students at the junior high and the high school. I had a son at each one of those. The interesting thing was they did not speak about their wounds, they spoke about what it was like to be different. That really resonated with those students.
I saw it in person and I thought, “Wow.” I thought about doing something about that, but there were so many films about returning service members, especially the wounded. I just felt like I’m not in a position to say anything new. I just didn’t feel comfortable with that. I felt like I didn’t have the wherewithal in so many areas. A friend of mine who was involved in that program to bring those vets to our town, said, “Well, but no one has done anything about their caregivers.” At first, I said, “Well who, the doctors and nurses?” She goes, “No, the spouses, the families.” I thought about it and started doing research. And yes, that resonated with me because as you and I have talked about, no one really knows that much about these people, about the families.
What did you find was most compelling about those individuals that, as you put together their stories, shaped the documentary?
I was just so impressed with their determination. There was billions and you’re going to hear me talk a lot about resilience because we could make this just a film about, “Oh, these poor people,” but that’s a negative. A positive is, “Yes, they’re going through a lot, but look what they’re coming up with. Look how determined they are. Look how much they love the person who they’re trying to help.” I was so impressed by that resiliency. The other part was, I was so happy—but also almost surprised—that they were so outspoken.
And nobody ever even thinks about that piece of it. I mean, the caregiving is such a big part of the whole situation that they’re facing and the paperwork and all of that, the insurance, the appointments, nobody even thinks about that. So given this discussion, Stephanie, what do you hope that people take away from your film?
Well, okay, there are two goals really. One is for people to understand that this really underserved community exists. I mean, maybe I’m using the wrong word, but I feel really strongly that they’re underserved. I think that as we’ve spoken, that people don’t see them. People don’t see them.
I think Elizabeth Dole would agree with you. She does a lot for caregivers.
Yes. Her caregiver foundation has worked a lot. The people who… Her caregiver fellows, there are two from each state, work very hard lobbying and with legislators and with speaking with people in their communities. They’re working on that. There are other organizations that are working directly with caregivers to offer support, to offer classes online, to offer support groups and one-on-one, as well, because a lot of these families live off the grid. They will live hours away from a metropolitan area, from a VA, because some of the servicemembers just can’t take being around a population. They can’t… I went off track here a little bit. We need to know that these military caregiver families are here and we need to reach out to them. The other thing is that we, I think I said this before, this is not a film about a negative. We’re talking about the positive. Here are people who are committed. They’re resilient. They’re courageous. They don’t want people to take pity on them. We want to show that they are an example that we can all live up to and we can be proud of.
Wow, such a great story, Stephanie—thanks for sharing!
We highly encourage you to listen to this podcast episode in its entirety to learn why military caregivers could be an invaluable asset in your workforce, and of course, be sure to rent The Weight of Honor on Amazon. You won’t regret it!
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