The soldier who returns home from deployment may find that while their feet are back on American soil, their minds are still at war.
For its 16th festival, The Rome International Film Festival will roll out the red carpet for the biggest stars of America – Her veterans. RIFF announces one of its marquee presentations, “Sgt. Will Gardner” by Max Martini.
Martini’s previous credits include films: “Saving Private Ryan”, “13 Hours”, “Captain Phillips”, “Pacific Rim” as well as television: “The Unit”.
“Sgt. Will Gardner” explores the struggles of a troubled Iraq veteran who finds it difficult to reintegrate into society and sets out on a cross-country journey with the hope of reuniting with his son. The film was written and directed by Martini, who is also the film’s star.
He is joined on the silver screen by Gary Sinise “Forrest Gump”, “Of Mice and Men”; Robert Patrick “Terminator 2” and “The Unit”; Dermot Mulroney “My Best Friend’s Wedding”, “August”, “Osage County”; Omari Hardwick “Saved, For Colored Girls”; Lily Rabe “American Horror Story”, JoBeth Williams “The Big Chill”, “Wyatt Earp”; and Elisabeth Rohm “Law & Order”.
The film donates 30% of profits to the veteran charities: 10% to The Gary Sinise Foundation, 10% to Higher Ground USA and 10% to Warrior’s Heart.
“Sgt. Will Gardner” will screen on Saturday, November 9th at 7 p.m. at the Rome City Auditorium. To honor veterans and their families, RIFF will be donating 15% of ticket sales from the film to the Gary Sinise Foundation and 15% to The Davies Homeless Shelter. Following the film, RIFF will host a Q&A session with Max Martini, Producer Mike Hagerty, CSM Eric Haney, and whoever else pops in.
“RIFF has an initiative to partner with and support local non-profits,” said RIFF Executive Director Seth Ingram. “This film allows us to work with multiple groups and highlight topics that are pertinent both regionally and nationally.”
The story of thousands, inspired by one ranger
It was during a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan that Martini met an army ranger whose story would have a lasting impact on him.
Starting in 2005, Max Martini portrayed Delta Force Operator Mack Gerhardt in the CBS action-drama ‘The Unit’. The show is based on Lindale native CSM (ret) Eric L. Haney’s best seller, Inside Delta Force: The Story of America’s Elite Counterterrorist Unit. Haney was an original operator of 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, the Army’s elite counter-terrorist unit known as Delta Force.
Haney, who retired after serving as Command Sergeant Major during Operation Just Cause, was writer, co-producer, and technical adviser to ‘The Unit’. Haney’s life and abilities inspired the cast of the fictional Delta Force unit in the show to organize a trip overseas to visit with Iraq and Afghanistan Ranger forces in 2007. During that trip, Martini met the army ranger whose story hit him hard.
Martini and the ranger forged a friendship that eventually led to honest and raw conversations about the ranger’s struggles with a Traumatic Brain Injury he sustained in combat. Those experiences became the inspiration behind “Sgt. Will Gardner.”
“He had sustained some pretty significant injuries, and when he came back to the states, he had a hard time reintegrating,” Martini told RIFF in an exclusive interview. “He dealt with loss and homelessness. For a veteran who is struggling with the effects of TBI, it can be really hard to come forward.”
That ranger’s story is just one of thousands. TBI is the signature injury among Iraq and Afghanistan Conflicts, according to medical experts. The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center report nearly 350,000 incident diagnoses of TBI in the U.S. military since 2000. This leads to devastating repercussions for soldiers who return to reintegrate into U.S. society as they battle symptoms of depression, cognitive disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment and a high risk of suicide. Key to this issue is the difficulty some veterans may feel at reaching out for help.
A grassroots movement
“Sgt. Will Garner” tackles tough topics in a moving way, and also expertly folds the message into the heart of the film that hope and healing are possible for veterans who struggle with the effects of TBI as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“What we’re doing with this film is trying to alleviate the stigma of asking for help,” said Martini. “We’re demonstrating to veterans that they are still valuable, still capable and not far from living a full life.”
The film’s producer Mike Hagerty noted that during the ten years it took to raise funding for the film, the production team hoped TBI would become less of an issue among veterans. That wasn’t the case.
“But the greater need just drove us harder to make the film,” Hagerty said. “It seemed even more important to shine a spotlight on an issue that impacts so many—too many--of our nation’s heroes. The film heightens awareness of TBI issues as well as illustrate helps that are available.”
Among the veteran population, Martini sees a huge response to the film, daily.
“I get 30 plus messages a day from veterans saying things like, ‘You’ve influenced me to reach out and get help.’ It’s really wonderful,” said Martini. “There’s an uptick in awareness and action now for these heroes. And it’s happening on a grassroots basis—it sure doesn’t come from having a huge advertising budget.”
“I’m looking forward to showing the film in Rome,” Martini concludes. “I learned from working with Eric that Northwest Georgia has always had more than its share of soldiers. So many men and women from the area have served our country over time. I hope I get to meet them at RIFF when the film screens.”
Tickets to “Sgt. Will Gardner” are available at https://riff2019.eventive.org/films.