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A Veteran Works to Break the ‘Broken Hero’ Stereotype


Army.ca Relic
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WASHINGTON — Chris Marvin began to believe veterans might have an image problem when he went out to his mailbox one morning and found a check from a wounded veterans charity for $500.

“I didn’t know them,” said Mr. Marvin, 35, a retired Army helicopter pilot who broke his legs, an arm and bones in his face in a crash in Afghanistan in 2004. “I didn’t ask for it. I started to wonder, what is this for?”

“It really started to bother me,” he said. “I didn’t need charity. I needed a new sense of purpose.”

To Mr. Marvin, he was being stereotyped by what he believes has become the dominant image of veterans on television and in Hollywood today: the “broken hero," as he puts it, “who once did incredible things but is now forever damaged and in need of help.”

“The truth is, 99 percent of us are neither heroic nor broken,” Mr. Marvin said. “We are people — people the public has invested in who have a lot of potential. And it’s time to get over the pity party.”

Mr. Marvin is part of a group of veterans and veteran-run nonprofit groups pushing back against the stereotype, often by urging fellow veterans to volunteer in their communities. And his organization, Got Your 6 — a fighter-pilot phrase meaning “got your back” — is essentially the marketing arm of that movement, going behind the scenes in the entertainment industry to push writers, television networks and Hollywood executives to present characters that show the full scope of veterans’ experiences.

Last week his organization received a major boost from Michelle Obama and the actor Bradley Cooper. Both of them joined Mr. Marvin to announce plans to give a seal of approval called “6 Certified” to movies whose makers consult with veterans in production and then portray them in a fair and accurate light, as judged by a panel of producers and veterans.

”We believe the way veterans are portrayed on the screen is the way they will be thought of in the living room and the way they will be treated in the community,” Mr. Marvin said at the gathering of hundreds of producers, writers and veterans in Washington. “We need to make sure everyone sees them as assets and encourages them to continue to serve in the community.”

Mr. Marvin asserts that film portrayals of veterans tend toward the extremes: John Rambo in “First Blood” (1982), a former special forces soldier who terrorizes the authorities in a small Washington town; or Staff Sgt. William James in “The Hurt Locker” (2008), a battle-hardened bomb technician unable to readjust to civilian society after the horrors of war.

“The middle ground just isn’t there,” Mr. Marvin said.

Television has not been much better, he said, often depicting veterans as berserk because of post-traumatic stress disorder or emotionally shaky and struggling with drugs and alcohol.

The portrayals may color the public's perceptions, causing people to think that veterans are more likely to be unemployed and to commit suicide than their civilian peers, which Mr. Marvin insists is not true..

A number of veterans groups say that some employers are afraid to hire veterans because they fear they could become violent, perhaps as a result of portrayals in the news media. “It’s gotten to the point where people think all veterans are ready to snap and could be dangerous,” said John Roberts, an executive vice president at the Wounded Warrior Foundation.

The Hollywood image of combat-scarred veterans struggling to reintegrate into society has some roots in the post-Vietnam era, when veterans pushed for wider recognition of the psychological toll of war. But now that post-traumatic stress disorder is widely accepted, veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are making a more nuanced point: Not all veterans return with psychological wounds, and people with post-traumatic stress disorder can still contribute to their communities.

“People see us as people who have made tremendous sacrifices but now should be pitied,” said Sidney Ellington, a retired member of the Navy SEALs who recruits veterans for Teach for America. In part, public sentiment is a response to veterans’ being ignored and mistreated after Vietnam, he said. “It comes from a good place, but maybe we’ve overcompensated a bit.”

The 6 Certified program will give a seal of approval to movies that do at least one of the following: consult with veterans to ensure accuracy; portray veterans as multidimensional characters; hire veterans as writers or actors; or tell stories with “meaningful and accurate” veteran themes. It gives no guidance on what themes are acceptable. A board of advisers made up of producers and veterans will decide which films are worthy.

After being medically retired from the Army in 2009, Mr. Marvin got a business degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, then worked for a new organization called The Mission Continues that encourages veterans to do community service.

At home in Philadelphia, he kept finding himself infuriated by the portrayal of veterans onscreen, and realized that if veterans were going to successfully reintegrate into society, they needed better branding. It inspired him to start Got Your 6 in 2012, where he looked to copy successful grass-roots campaigns that swayed attitudes on drunken driving and gay rights.

Mr. Marvin points to the Concert for Valor, held this Veterans Day on the National Mall, as one of his successes. The three-hour HBO broadcast featuring Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Metallica and Rihanna, with video shout-outs from celebrities, was notable for what it did not include, he said.

“It wasn’t just all calls for charity and talk of suicide and unemployment — I know because I edited the script,” he said. “HBO asked me, I went through looking for anything that would elicit a public reaction of pity and replacing it with a public message that veterans are leaders and civic assets.”