When veterans return home they are generally surrounded by words of gratitude, welcoming signs and reunions with loved ones. It’s hard to imagine that these events would bring anything but comfort and happiness. Unfortunately, the reality is that when veterans do return from service they face challenges such as depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is defined as a mental health condition triggered by a distressing event. The symptoms include panic attacks, substance abuse, insomnia and suicide.
The documentary Bastards’ Road: Coming Home from War is just the Beginning, follows Jonathan Hancock, a veteran who walks 6,000 miles across the country as a therapeutic tactic to work through his PTSD, overcome his alcohol abuse and reconnect with other war veterans. The film portrays an honest and insightful view of this Marine’s battle abroad as well as his internal struggles to re-acclimate to civilian life.
The Greenwich International Film Festival was honored to showcase Bastards’ Road at the 2020 virtual festival. The audience was moved by Jon’s story of service, self-destructive behavior, healing and empowerment. We sat with Jonathan to discuss his time in service, the origin of the documentary and the continual growth of this movement in the future.
Jon, can you please share with us your background of how you enrolled into the marines and about your time in service?
Sure, I grew up a navy brat. I lived all over the world including England. But I spent most of my youth in Maryland and consider that my home. The Marines would come to our schools to recruit kids. From a young age I was around Marines and knew that’s what I wanted to become.
In an effort to follow my dreams, a few weeks after I graduated high school I went to boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina. Four days after graduating boot camp, the towers fell and I was put into service in the Marines. The country was going to war. I was part of the Second Battalion Fourth Marines, known as the Magnificent Bastards. In 2004 we fought in Ramadi which would become the worst casualty rate since Vietnam-34 dead, 33 marines and 1 navy hospital corpsman. After two deployments with 2/4, I wasted no time and immediately re-enlisted and went from MOS 0311 to MOS 0211 Counterintelligence/Human Intelligence Specialist and was deployed another 6 times supporting all facets of human intelligence in units across the special operations spectrum.
Following 8 years of being active duty service, I enrolled at the University of Maryland. I went directly from service to class. I was very focused and it was going fairly well in regards to academics. I did struggle with the lack of structure and creating new friendships. The whole collegiate experience was odd and different. I was years older than my classmates. I would find myself after class heading to local bars and becoming the bar fly sharing my war stories. Alcohol became, very quickly, a coping mechanism that allowed me to escape any of the issues I wasn’t ready to deal with.
This destructive behavior morphed into a DUI in 2011. I had a second one a year later in 2012. The night of my second DUI I was brought home by an officer and decided to end my life. I attempted suicide through pills. After I became ill from the medication I changed my mind, I did in fact want to live and drove myself 45 minutes to the Baltimore VA psych ward. After pumping my stomach they transferred me into the psych ward and eventually an intensive outpatient program. I had hit rock bottom.
Tell us about your road to recovery.
While in the psych ward I saw a t.v. news story of a man walking across the country named Mike Viti. He was ending his journey at the Army Navy football game in Baltimore in a few weeks. This really spoke to me, but I was out of shape and 308 pounds. I had been eating and drinking my feelings for years. Once I set this goaI I Immediately started getting myself into shape. I started biking 9 miles to work each way. I secured a position at a gym where I also worked out daily. Besides getting into physical shape, I also needed to save money for my adventure. So I also took a second job as a line cook. I sold everything I owned to help pay my way across the US. Finally, after months of preparation, on my scheduled departure date I was so excited I couldn’t sleep and began my walk in the middle of the night on September 11, 2015.
Did you have a definitive itinerary or did you wing it?
All I knew was that I wanted to visit with Marines. I coordinated through Facebook, my plan, and asked Marines to tell me where they lived in order to create a suggested walking route. I started with the veterans that lived in Maryland and then walked north to Pennsylvania Maryland border and turned south to the Arlington National Cemetery.
All along the way visiting Marines Brothers whom I served with.
It was invigorating to see my Brothers. It had been years but it was as though we had never skipped a beat. At these reunions there were tears and laughter-it was soul lifting. It was also incredible how many strangers took me in to shower, do laundry, have a meal and a place to crash. They read about my initiative online and through local tv stories and wanted to be involved. It was incredible.
I did quickly realize I was going to run out of money and was convinced by supporters to start a Go Fund Me page. Amazingly by the time the trip was concluded, I had raised an astonishing $18,000. While I did use this money to continue my mission I also shared it with veterans I encountered that were in need. Whether they could use help paying their bills or to get their car fixed. It was great to be able to help others along the way.
After I concluded my walk on December 12th aboard Camp Pendleton, CA I set my goals to return to college and finish what I had started back in Maryland years ago. I was accepted to the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona. I’m happy to report I just graduated.
Can you share how your story turned into a documentary?
A high school friend of mine introduced me to Brian Morrison who is the director and editor of the film. When we met we discussed putting this documentary together and decided to give it a shot. He flew out several times to film while I was on the road. This is Brian’s first documentary and it doesn’t show. He worked tirelessly to immerse himself in the various struggles veterans face when they return home. And he captured that struggle on camera. Also I asked my brothers to open up to him and they did speak candidly. It took probably 4-5 years to put it together but now it’s done and being well received.
In addition to the documentary you’ve started a non-profit, Bastards Road Project, can you share some information on this organization for us?
It began because we needed financial assistance to finish the production of the documentary. We held a successful fundraiser in my hometown Maryland in 2018. Tiffany, my girlfriend, had been involved in fundraising in the past and we put her skillset to good use. As you can see we did get the money to complete the project and the organization evolved into a way to help veterans experience what I experienced. There is nothing uniquely groundbreaking about the healing power of the outdoors, but we had to figure out a way to get veterans outside. Thus, Bastards’ Road Project was born.
Our tagline is, ‘Walk long distances figure some shit out’. The mission statement is to bring veterans into nature, specifically in the national park and national trail systems. By bringing Veterans out into nature to complete an arduous hike, we give them the time to focus on and work through memories with physical exhaustion. We will have a group of 8 veterans plus a psychologist on the hike. We plan to walk between 40-60 miles. Unfortunately, we had to postpone our first program but hope to complete it by the end of 2020. Forcing the function of confronting your fears and allowing physical activity to sort through them ultimately helped me and we want to show others it is possible, if nothing else we have given those veterans time in their own head, while accomplishing a goal through personal strength.
We also plan to roll out the #welcomehome initiative. The goal is to educate civilians that the best thing to say to a veteran is “welcome home”. Most people say, “thank you for your service”, to the veteran it comes across as hollow. The well-wisher really doesn’t know what the military service person encountered in their past. Therefore, we encourage people to say ‘welcome home’ this brings the veteran from wherever they are mentally to feel warmth in being brought into the fold of home.
If we are going to be honest with others and allow them to see us in order to have a better understanding of what veterans return home to it is important to speak about the term “thank you for your service”. As veterans we make fun of ‘thank you for your service’. We do not make fun of you for saying it, it is more of a defense mechanism. Not all veterans have experienced combat. as veterans we questioned, in our own minds, what the person is thanking me for. Is it thanking me for going to war, killing a kid, never being able to fire my weapon, desiring to go to war and never experiencing it, watching a buddy die helplessly? So we just say thanks and move on. We propose doing away with this seemingly hollow phrase and bringing back ‘Welcome Home’. If we are to help and understand veterans, we must show them that welcoming them home no longer delves into service but suggests they are safe and brought back into the fold of society. Welcome Home is inclusive and does not force the veteran to question his or her voluntary service, we seldom understand why we are being thanked for volunteering.
To learn more about Jonathon Hancock and the film the Bastards Road……