Stories like that of Army Sgt. Nick Mendes of California are a testament to the strength and perseverance of the men and women who wear military uniforms.
Put in situations many people can hardly imagine, and sometimes forced to deal with consequences of a war that would destroy most, some of these men and women act as beacons of hope. They’re proof of how grateful we should be for the freedoms we have. They also prove how much harder we and the government should be working to take care of those who serve — and risk or lose so much.
Paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 21, Mendes was a young man with an uncertain future. A new documentary, “American Veteran,” follows the soldier’s journey as he learns to deal with his injury and falls in love with his wife and caretaker, Wendy Eichler.
The film’s director and producer, Julie Cohen, is a veteran documentary filmmaker based in New York. She took some time to talk to LifeZette about her newest feature and its inspiring subject, Nick Mendes.
Question: Tell us a little bit about this film and how you got involved.
Answer: My documentary is about a young veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Sgt. Nick Mendes, who was blown up by a 500-pound IED and paralyzed from the neck down, and Wendy Eichler, the medical caregiver he meets in a VA hospital and falls in love with. It’s a serious and sobering subject matter for sure — but because of the kind of people Nick and Wendy are, it’s also a lot of fun to watch, and it was definitely a lot of fun to make.
In the five years since his injury, Nick has learned to do a lot of things with his mouth: Drive his wheelchair, play first-person shooter video games and even go fishing — you’ll see all that in the film. But I think the most striking material is the way Nick and Wendy take on the challenges of their day-to-day life and move beyond just coping to having a really good time. Nick’s great attitude and his humor are infectious. I think that’s why his friends and family like spending time with him, and I know audiences of the film enjoy spending an hour and 15 minutes with him, too.
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Q: It’s an incredibly moving story you’re telling here. What would you like to see audience members, civilian and otherwise, take away from your film?
A: I made this film primarily for civilians — and maybe even a little more specifically, blue-state civilians. Just to be totally honest, the general demographic of people who show up at documentary film festivals often don’t have that much exposure to veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s a gap in our understanding of our country, and I think it’s a sad thing.
I hope audiences come away feeling like Nick has defied their expectations for a young, seriously injured veteran. A lot of people have two stereotypes of someone wounded in battle: either an ultra-patriotic superhero of epic proportions, or someone who’s deeply damaged and broken.
Nick is neither of those things — he wanted to make it clear that he joined the Army not out of some grand notion of fighting to protect our freedom, but because it was a challenging, well-paying job (one he’s still very proud to have done well) that was a better alternative to working in a chicken plant. And despite his severe physical injuries, I’d say Nick is actually one of the least broken people I’ve ever met.
Another thing I’d love civilian audiences to leave the theater thinking about is the crucial role played by caregivers — often spouses or parents of veterans. Nick’s the one getting saluted and celebrated on Veterans Day, but I think Wendy also deserves a medal — for the time, hard work, and grit it takes to take care of him and stand by him.
“Despite his severe physical injuries, Nick is actually one of the least broken people I’ve ever met.”
Q: What does it mean to have your film screening at the GI Film Festival, and what are your plans with your movie after the fest ends?
A: I’m beyond thrilled to be screening at the G.I. Film Fest. The response from vets and active-duty military who’ve been to other screenings has been amazing. Most people seem to find a lot in Nick and Wendy’s story to relate to, even if the specific experiences differ. We’ve got more festival screenings coming up, and we’re also teaming up with some veteran and caregiver groups to have screenings around the country.
A distributor in L.A. will be representing the film, and they plan to have it available to stream online through commercial platforms in the fall.
Tickets for the GI Film Festival screening of “American Veteran,” which will be held at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater in Washington, D.C., on May 26, can be found here.