While at the Newport Beach Film Festival, I visited with Justin Roberts, whose film No Greater Love was one of the festival selections. A former Army chaplain, Roberts made this documentary based on footage he took while deployed in Afghanistan and then meeting later with some of the men he served with. It focuses on what the unit went through while deployed and what it was like when they returned home.
At the beginning of the film you reference your own depression that you were dealing with. How are you doing now?
I’m doing a lot better. The film has helped me to process a lot of stuff, because you’re watching it again and again and again. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a lot of it is experiencing a traumatic event and not processing it—not fully coming to peace with the moment and what happened. For me, the film kind of forces the process. I think that’s the way I’ve been throughout my life. Any time I’m going through something difficult I’m probably going to do some sort of artistic project—start writing something or working on something. So the film was just another one of those for me. When I’m dealing with something difficult I try to see it through a different lens. Plus, I have an amazing wife and she won’t let me sink too low. She’s always carried me through a lot of that stuff. I’m doing good now.
In the film you don’t do a lot of labeling. You don’t say “This is PTSD. This is Traumatic Brain Injury. This is Moral Injury.” You just kind of have a gestalt, a mixture of everything.
I think we have like an evolution of definitions for the reactions, but so much of these reactions bleed over into each other. It’s really hard to pinpoint and define. We can say what TBI is, and MTBI, but that’s never just the one issue. Usually if they have TBI they also have some form of PTSD or Moral Injury. So part of our problem in dealing with these things is that you try to put it on one shelf and just deal with that one shelf, and then that care process doesn’t work fully. You have a person who’s dealing with a litany of issues. So poly-trauma then becomes a better approach—dealing with the whole person, a holistic approach. I didn’t get too heavy in the film on that. I just wanted to touch on it, because I could make a documentary about any one of those things, and not tell the whole story. So that was my approach, at least on that.
I believe theology is something that’s best done with pencil.
I’m sure the deployment was a challenging time of you trying to do theology. How about doing this film? How did making the film give you things to think about theologically that might not have been there before?
The first thing that I wanted to express through the film, and the reason we titled the film No Greater Love that comes from John 15:13: “No greater love has any man than this that he lays down his life for his friends.” Now, for me, growing up in ministry and also going to seminary, I knew that at a theological level—this conception of Christ dying on a cross. I knew it and of course it was very deeply personal. But this was the first physical experience that I had of people I knew risking their lives and dying for people that I loved.
So this was the first flesh and blood example that I had—that I could put my hands on that person even as I was praying for that person. This was a man who put his life on the line for me and he’s about to go meet his maker. That changed my concept radically on that idea of sacrifice. It made me appreciate it so much more because when I’m losing that friend and he’s gone I understood what he did for me at some level, and then understanding God’s sacrifice—what Jesus did on the cross—it just magnifies it. I don’t think in America today that we have a concept of sacrifice.
We have it on such a thin level. We’re inconvenienced when the line is too long at Starbucks or we deal with our problems that generally are not that heavy. To dive deeper in understanding the sacrifice on the cross, it helps to understand the sacrifice being made by people as well—the martyrs that are throughout our world, and those people who are on the front lines, and those first responders who risk their lives every single day, and how we appreciate them and help them and support them is a direct relationship about how we truly feel about the sacrifice Christ made on the cross.
We have veterans right now who are struggling—struggling—and how much is the church becoming a part of that solution? It’s not. Not on the whole. Most of them aren’t even aware that there’s a problem. So if they say they fully understand the sacrifice that happened on the cross, but they’re not willing to just go across the street and help that veteran who put his life on the line for their religious liberties, they don’t understand it. They just don’t. They don’t appreciate it. If they did, they’d at least be willing to walk across that street and help that guy, who is now mentally broken because of the sacrifices he made on their behalf. They say they appreciate the sacrifice, but they aren’t even willing to do minimal ministry for that guy.
It breaks my heart. I didn’t realize it until I became a chaplain and came back and started down this road and reach out to the church. We get some love from some amazing ministries and amazing churches, but as a whole it’s a hard road ahead. It’s not because they’re apathetic. They’re just ignorant to what happened. So that’s the point of the film: to raise awareness, because I truly do feel that when the church becomes aware of a problem, they do react to it. They just need to wake up and realize there is a problem.
I sensed in the film that there was a kind of incarnational aspect. As you were saying, you understand more about sacrifice that God made through seeing the sacrifice these people made. And although none of these people are fully divine…
No, they were rough guys.
I noticed one scene in particular where you were talking about the First Sergeant who would say to you, “How’s Jesus today?
“How’s Jesus doing?” with a dip in his mouth.
I assume you realize he was asking how you were doing because you were for him Jesus. You were the incarnation.
Uh-huh. It’s like that physical representative of God. It’s so funny because these are guys who are rough, wounded, foul, but willing to put their lives on the line for others. They have a concept of eternity, you know, it’s just sometimes a very rough one and a very loose one. Yeah, every single time I saw him, “How’s Jesus doing?” and he’d have that big chaw in his mouth. An amazing guy. The soldiers loved him. It was such a painful hit when he died because everybody lost a father that day.
The way I approached ministry was relational and to find the place in the middle we can all sit at and to love people there. Through that relationship the gospel’s best delivered. That was my approach in both the ministry and the film. The film is a middle place. It’s not heavy-handed religious. It’s not proselytizing. But it is expressing the faith in an organic way. The hope is that it’s not a film that’s going to minister to Christians. It’s not a doctor that’s going to heal the healthy. The job of the film is to get Christians awake to a need, and then for them to become ministers to the sick who are in their area but are invisible to them right now.
We have thirty-six suicides per day. We would not have 36 suicides per day if the church were doing something about it. They have the resources to connect, care, and love. They have the power to bring the gospel to a broken people who are not a thousand miles away, but are right next door to them. And they’re not doing it. The number wouldn’t be there if they were. This is not a far off ministry. It costs nothing. But it’s a people group that is difficult. They generally don’t want to go to church. They’ve been baptized by fire. It’s not that we’re doing a charity for them. We owe them a magnificent debt. And we are in some small way paying them back by simply reaching out, loving on them, and helping them. That’s my personal feelings.
You mentioned last night in the Q&A that you started this connection with them even before the deployment in an effort to build connections that would prevent suicides afterwards.
It’s all about the relationships. If you look at a lot of veteran charities right now, a lot of them are working to raise awareness of the veteran suicide issue. Part of the problem is their focusing all their mind, money, time, and energy on awareness, in large part because they’re not really sure what to do about it. It’s a very difficult, mysterious curse that’s hanging over our veteran population. Now what I saw in my unit was the best way to approach it was not trying to force 100% of the population through an individual psychiatric care program. I’m not saying that psychiatric care does not have a place. It does. But the problem is you can’t target the people who need it and most of them aren’t going to go. If you understand the culture, you understand that.
You have to understand the tribe that you’re trying to treat. Most of them are not going to say they have an issue. And then most of them are also not going to go get care. We can work for 100 years trying to change that culture and meanwhile we’ll have 36 suicides per day. So the best way to approach it is to reach out, build that community, get people interconnected, building up strong relationships, so that way when they do have a problem they’re going to start talking to people they’re connected with and know aren’t going to judge them, aren’t going to think less of them, just going to be there and love them. All these guys and gals, they have amazing BS detectors. They know when someone’s legitimately caring for them or not—or just out to try to sell them something. So it has to a legitimate relationship, a selfless, loving relationship. When they have that, they may well have that bridge to get care. If they don’t have that, there’s not a shot. There’s not hope. And a lot of those guys, if they do have that bridge—a person who’s caring for them and loving them—they’ll consider going to a counselor or psychologist. It usually takes some love and encouragement. So the goal is build the community, build the tribe, get them plugged in, then there’s a shot. That’s what I saw work in battalion, so that’s what we’re trying to do on a national level.
You mentioned that you couldn’t carry a gun, so you carried your camera. What was your plan for what you were filming?
I had this loose idea of doing a documentary, but not full, and definitely not this. If you know me, generally, I’m working on something. I’m just a project person. I’m generally going to be writing something or working on some sort of film thing. At the time I thought it would be cool to capture some of these moments. I wanted to take pictures to send back to the moms and grandmas. I really did have the largest grandma and mom fan club on Facebook. It was a way for them to stay connected to their soldier. It also became a way for me to connect in to the guys on Facebook, because that became about a third of the counselings I was doing down range.
I couldn’t be everywhere at once. We were in four or five different locations at any one time. So for me to be able to take on counseling with a guy that day, sometimes it would have to be through Facebook. So if I took his picture and his mom liked it, he’d want to see it, and on Facebook we’d become friends and it would open up the door for the counseling. So there was a ministry strategy to it. It evolved into what it currently is. I never saw how the ministry that I did within the unit was going to marry the film until I got a little further along. I thought I could use this to do this ministry, to get guys connected. Then when I saw how that got married together it became the mission, and it’s led me here.
I saw you got some nice awards from festivals. What’s the plan ahead for the film?
We’ve gone through I don’t know how many festivals now. We’ve gotten eight or nine, and we did a Congressional screening for the House VA Committee. We’re looking at doing a screening at the Pentagon and the White House. But what all this is leading towards is a theatrical release of the film, and to use that to help raise awareness and support for veteran charities and veteran ministries, to encourage churches to take on veteran ministries and to create this conversation across the country. If we don’t raise awareness—if people don’t get involved—if veterans, service members, and civilians don’t get involved in working for a solution, the number’s never going to go down.
It’s only by getting everybody actually involved and aware and acting that we can actually do something about it. So this is that one shot we have. There is no other national program. There’s no other national initiative and there’s no clear concept on how to achieve real results in the way we can help them. I’m functioning on the theory that if we get people connected in real relationships and really talking we can do something about it. All of this is to test that theory. It’s something I’ve seen work at battalion level, then we need to see if it can work at a national level.
We’re looking at pushing it out to theaters. It all depends on where the community support is. If we get communities reaching out to us, then we know we can bring the film there. That’s why the important thing is that they start connecting with us on Facebook or email, then we know we can bring the film there.
Photos courtesy of NLGFilm.com