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Two Marine combat veterans make a film to find peace after war.

Once a Marine is a documentary about two war veterans, one a filmmaker, the other a heroin addict, traveling across the country to interview the men they fought beside in search of a deeper answer to the question of what it’s like to come home from a battlefield.

Here's the trailer:

Our Director, Canty on the left and Doss, the producer on the right.  We were both 18 then on our first deployment.
Our Director, Canty on the left and Doss, the producer on the right. We were both 18 then on our first deployment.

America has been at war for twelve years. Countless infantrymen have fought on the frontlines in two conflicts. There have been hundreds, if not thousands of stories about war and PTSD but none have been told entirely by the men who participated. Our entire crew served together on multiple deployments to Afghanistan. When we interview someone, they are willing to be honest and open because we have earned their trust. In almost every other documentary, when a combat veteran talks to an outsider, they speak from behind a mask.

This documentary is important because it will help us heal by allowing us to talk to the men that were there. This is the first documentary about the transition to civilian life where everyone involved-our producer, director, and sound man, all fought alongside one another and have learned to depend on each other. This is our story and your donation will give us a voice.

After getting out of the military, many veterans struggle with depression, loss of purpose, and suicidal ideation. The effects of PTSD have been well publicized, but for the men with the diagnosis, the symptoms they suffer are part of a much larger experience that changed them forever, for good and for bad. No matter how successful combat veterans end up "transitioning" back to the civilian world, war was the most formative and, to date, most significant part of their lives.

Casualty evacuation in a poppy field.
Casualty evacuation in a poppy field.

My name is Stephen Canty and three years ago I was a Marine infantryman fighting in Marjah Afghanistan, a place that was called at the time "the last Taliban stronghold" Now, as a civilian I am trying to make a documentary about the Marines I fought alongside in Afghanistan and their struggle to return to civilian life.

Combat is indescribable. It is humanity at both its best and worse. I never felt more alive than when I was that close to death. But when we started to lose marines from our company, I found I had to get comfortable with the idea of not coming home to deal with the realities of war. Six months after my second deployment to Afghanistan, I was out of the military and back in my hometown.

I joined the Marines in 2007 at just seventeen years old. Technically, I was still a high-school senior. At the time I was enrolled in the best courses my high-school had to offer, pursuing all those things middle class kids do to look good for college admissions officers. But I felt I needed to prove something to myself. So I dis-enrolled from all my smart kid classes and graduated early in order to go to boot-camp in the middle of my senior year. My teachers said I was throwing away my education. Little did they know, hell I didn't even know, what kind of education I was about to get.

I didn't plan much before I got out. I just wanted to be done. I got a job, went to college and tried to move on. I was doing well by all accounts, but still felt numb towards life. I couldn't maintain personal relationships, started drinking and doing drugs, and struggled to find a purpose. One day I bought a camera and started filming everything around me.

I started looking at film schools and thought a short documentary about the transition from combat to civilian life would be unique enough to get me in. I called some of the guys I was in with to see if they'd be willing to talk. Many of us hadn't spoken since we'd gotten out of the Marines. I'd assumed everyone was doing better than I was. We'd only spoken on Facebook and never about anything important. I called a few guys up and our phone calls lasted for hours. As it turned out, we were all in the same boat.

After talking with just three of them, I realized that they all mentioned the same issues; depression, lack of purpose, bitterness, and difficulties that they had in dealing with the loss of friends. We thought about Afghanistan all the time. The budding film-maker in me realized there was a story here.

I couldn't film much besides interviews; I didn't have the budget to stay in any location for more than a weekend or the equipment to make any handheld shooting look more than amateur video. But I cut a trailer and people started to take notice of what I had. They saw that these guys were willing to talk with me openly and honestly because I was one of their own and they had at one point trusted me to watch their backs.

Marines I served with messaged me on Facebook tell me, "I'm glad to know I'm not the only one that feels this way." Marines I hadn't served with told me they were glad someone was finally telling our story.

A few weeks after posting the trailer, one of my closest friends from the Marine Corps, Doss, came down on a train from Schenectady, New York to spend the weekend with me. He paid for the ticket himself because I couldn't afford it. He'd kicked the heroin habit he'd developed shortly after getting out of the Marines and wanted to sit down for an interview. Doss got out 3 months before me. I used to call him just to hear how awesome it would be when I got out.

Doss during our interview.
Doss during our interview.

By the time I got out, Doss had less positive things to say about being a civilian. In the first few months after getting out, many of us had tried calling him but he started answering less and less. In the Marine Corps, Doss was always comic relief. He wasn't so funny as heroin took over his life.

Doss showing off his tats and tracks.
Doss showing off his tats and tracks.

After our interview, he volunteered to help with the film in any way he could and really meant it. He said, "Dude, I don't have a job, I don't have shit to do, I'm down to travel with you, carry stuff, set up cameras, whatever you need."

I'd fought beside him in combat and regardless of his struggles with heroin, I knew I could trust him with my life. I knew he could handle tasks and that I could rely on him so I told him he'd have to learn to be a producer. Now I had a crew.

I realized that this was something greater than making a short documentary for film school. I was telling a story that had never been told. Up until now, I had been using spare curtains as a backdrop and mismatched cameras to shoot with.

I decided that I had to do this project right, the first time, because I feel like it's the only chance I have before people will no longer care. The novelty will be gone. And this is where you come in.

I need to raise $50k to buy equipment and travel the country to conduct interviews with the men we fought alongside who are now scattered across America.  Your money will help tell a story you’ve never heard before, straight from the horse’s mouth it will cover equipment, legal fees, website development, insurance, post-production, and all the little bits and pieces necessary to make a film and get it to an audience.  Here's a complete breakdown of our budget:

Equipment

Canon 5d MK III with 24-105 mm lens- 3,900 This camera matches up with the one I have and will allow me to cut between cameras with no noticeable picture change. The lens has image stabilization which helps with run and gun shooting.

Camera accessories- 4,200- Tripod, batteries, memory cards, shoulder rig with follow focus, and external monitor. These are all the nuts and bolts required to shoot all day, power the camera, and move with the camera. I'd like to shoot more than just static interviews and show these Marines in the civilian world. Up until now, I haven't because I don't have enough equipment.

Laptop- Macbook Pro-4,000- This is the cost of a Macbook and a bunch of external drives to store and back-up any footage I shoot. I plan on using the travel time to start editing the film together and with just 5 interviews the documentary already takes up close to a terabyte of space. I'll need a powerful machine and a ton of storage.

Lighting- Kino-Flo 4 Bank 2 Light kit and bulbs-3,100 The lights I use now are very hot and usually become a distraction at some point during the interview. These lights are expensive but don't get anywhere near as hot as the tungsten lights I use now. I'll be able to interview subjects longer before they get uncomfortable.

Audio- 1,500-A Rode NTG-2 Shotgun microphone, blimp, boompole, and audio recorder

Desktop computer for final edit-3,000-The first thing I did when I got back from Afghanistan the second time was build a computer. That was over three years ago. I didn't build it with video editing in mind and it shows. I had a major hard-drive failure over the summer and almost lost everything I was working on. Having a powerful desktop computer will cut down on my editing time and ensure a great finished product.

Travel 2 Months on the road-50 dollars a day per diem per person-6,000-This is for food, any hygiene supplies, and whatever else we need.

Gas and tolls- 1,000 dollars-New York to Florida is roughly 1,300 miles one-way. This should cover all of our road costs.

Airfare-2,000- This is from Washington to Salt Lake City to Alaska for two people with additional luggage.

Surplus-2,000-This will cover any additional travel expenses such as hotels we may need to stay at (in case someone can't put us up) or car problems.

That leaves about 15,000 dollars after Kickstarter gets their cut. This will cover legal fees, Kickstarter rewards fulfillment, film festival submissions, and the final edit for the film.

Doss and I will be driving up and down the East Coast from New York to Florida making stops as we go to visit our brothers-in-arms. When someone has spare time and wants to come along, we’ll find a place for them on our crew as a boom operator. After we shoot those interviews we'll fly to Nevada to visit a Marine who re-joined after five years of civilian life! Then we'll head to Alaska to give one of our furthest-flung friends an opportunity to speak.

I've already spent a year getting to this point. This is the only thing I've done since being back that has any meaning. And I know it's helping the guys by giving them a voice.

Sunset on Marjah
Sunset on Marjah

Please make a contribution to help make Once a Marine a reality.

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

Nothing would be fun without risks, right? Some of the challenges include traveling large distances with expensive equipment and structuring the story to cover something as complex as the transition to civilian life.

Marines are experts at gear accountability and there will always be at least one set of eyes on the equipment at all times. I've spent the last two years working my ass off to afford some of this stuff and won't part with it easily. There's a saying in the military, "gear adrift is a gift" so I plan on making sure none of my cameras, lights, or audio equipment qualifies as "adrift".

I plan on giving myself a year to finish this film. Considering what I've done in the past few months (shooting five interviews in three states as well as a Kickstarter video) on a limited budget between work and school, I think a year will be overkill. But that's what we like.

I've always heard that you shoot first and find the story afterwards. I plan on shooting way more footage than I could possibly use in a two hour film so I'm sure that there will be something. I've been thinking about this subject for the past two years and talk about it constantly so the ideas and concepts in the documentary are already developed in my mind's eye.

As far as any other challenges are concerned, I'm not worried. I've done far more difficult things than going around to my friends and filming them.

FAQ

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