Living

Kansas film festival’s ‘Weight of Honor’ shows sacrifices of soldiers and their families

BY JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

“My nemesis is memory loss,” Gina Hill of Ottawa says of her husband, Army Staff Sergeant Allen Hill, in “The Weight of Honor.”
“My nemesis is memory loss,” Gina Hill of Ottawa says of her husband, Army Staff Sergeant Allen Hill, in “The Weight of Honor.” Photo and poster courtesy of Core Issue Productions

It’s not just medical personnel who are forced to spend six hours a day changing soldiers’ soiled bandages.

“When I tell people my movie is about the caregivers of military wounded, they think right away it involves nurses and doctors. Nope. I’ve had to explain it’s the families who care for the wounded coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” says filmmaker Stephanie Seldin Howard.

“I probably shouldn’t be impatient about that. But it’s part of the reason I’m making the film.”

Assembled over the last five years, “The Weight of Honor” showcases the wives and mothers of soldiers whose own lives become consumed by the 24/7 responsibility of providing care for loved ones damaged during America’s ongoing wars. The documentary screens at 5:25 p.m. Saturday as part of the Kansas International Film Festival (KIFF).

“Around 99 percent of the civilian population doesn’t know about these people who are caring for the catastrophically injured,” says the Los Angeles-based Howard.

“We went into this project just wanting to say, ‘Hey, this is going on.’ As we followed the arc of the story, we started wanting the audiences to realize they’re meeting very resilient, honorable and brave women, and to be inspired by that.”

Filming commenced in Kansas.

Howard – an Omaha native and longtime TV journalist – gathered initial leads from Facebook. Several caregiver and non-profit pages led her back to the Midwest.

In Atchison, she found Luana Schneider. Her son, Army Staff Sergeant Scott Stephenson, had suffered catastrophic burns and an amputated leg after his Humvee hit an IED in Iraq.

In nearby Ottawa, she located Gina Hill. Her husband, Army Staff Sergeant Allen Hill, had survived a similar attack in Iraq, leaving him with a significant brain injury that dramatically altered his personality.

“My nemesis is memory loss,” he explains in the picture. “When I got home, I didn’t know my kids’ names.”

Gina Hill says the title of the documentary couldn’t be more fitting.

“We have been placed in this journey due to honor, the honor of my husband’s service. It has been a weight for most of that time -- 10 years in November. However, we no longer view it as a weight, but more of a blessing,” Hill says.

Not all the five families featured grow closer because of the trauma; estrangement and divorce factor into the outcomes.

“I definitely view our story as a happy ending,” says Hill, who’s remained married for 15 years.

Marriage also entered into the filmmaking itself.

“The Weight of Honor” was shot and co-produced by Stephanie’s husband, Roger Howard.

How stressful on a marriage is it making a movie with one’s spouse?

“In some ways it’s really good because he’s there and we can talk about it. And in some ways it’s really bad because he’s there and we can talk about it,” she says, laughing.

In addition to scenes shot in Atchison, Ottawa and Kansas City, Mo., filming also took the couple to Texas and Washington, D.C. Wherever they went, they discovered the stories of the family caregivers were underreported and often unknown.

“I hope our film inspires individuals and communities to step up. We’re getting awfully good at the parades and ‘Thank you for your service.’ But we also need to think about the long-term impact on these families,” says Howard, who’s earned a regional Emmy for her producing work in L.A.

After living with this subject for years, Howard couldn’t help but be personally affected by it. She recalls premiering the feature in July during the Disabled American Veterans National Convention in New Orleans. A Vietnam vet pulled her aside and warned her to be careful she didn’t experience her own version of PTSD.

“I kind of shrugged it off because the film’s not about me,” she says.

“Then I went and saw the war film ‘Dunkirk.’ It was really emotional. Roger and I left the theater and were talking. All the sudden, I just broke down sobbing. I could not even catch my breath. Roger said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘I can’t go to movies like this for a while.’”

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”

The 17th Annual Kansas International Film Festival (Nov. 3-9) is held at the Glenwood Arts Theatre, 95th & Mission in Leawood, Kansas. Festival passes are $40 for Film League Members; $60 for non-Film League Members. Individual ticket prices range from $6.75 to $9, with a discount for seniors. Complete schedule and more info at kansasfilm.com.

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