New Documentary 'Farmer/Veteran' Traces Long Road To Recovery From PTSD

New Documentary 'Farmer/Veteran' Traces Long Road To Recovery From PTSD

5:36am May 26, 2017
Alex Sutton on the farm. (Photo Credit: Jeremy M. Lange)
  • As part of his PTSD recovery, Alex Sutton takes a large assortment of medications daily. (Photo Credit: Jeremy M. Lange)

  • Jessica Sutton provides strong support for her husband and their two daughters as her husband Alex continues healing from the wounds he suffered during three tours of duty in Iraq. (Photo Credit: Jeremy M. Lange)

  • After receiving a grant, Alex Sutton began a small farm in Jackson Springs, N.C., near Southern Pines. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Lange)

  • Alex Sutton was abandoned by his parents at a young age, and raised by his grandparents. He joined the army right out of high school. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Lange)

In the United States, the average principal farm operator is nearly 60 years old, according to the most recent Department of Agriculture census. The USDA is spearheading efforts to bring in a younger generation of farmers, and that includes returning servicemen and women. The Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program sets aside funding for providing training, resources and technical assistance to veterans.

A new documentary, Farmer/Veteran, looks at one former soldier's struggle to overcome trauma from the battlefield and begin his long, slow healing process on the farm.

The central character is Alex Sutton. During his first tour in Iraq, fresh out of high school, Sutton was wounded by shrapnel and received the Purple Heart. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, and sent back for two more tours of duty. As his medications became scarce overseas, Sutton was unable to function, and he was eventually medevaced out of the country. After returning to the United States, he received a grant, and started a small farm in Jackson Springs, N.C., near Southern Pines.

Filmmaker Jeremy Lange spoke with WFDD’s David Ford about the documentary.

On Lange’s expectations at the start of this film project:

Our initial plan was to make a short film about this movement to get veterans into farming. You know, there are a lot of servicemen and women from Iraq and Afghanistan, getting out of the military and becoming veterans. And there’s a longstanding correlation between returning soldiers and farming—this whole idea of sort of swords to plowshares—dating back a long time to Vietnam and World War II... 

So, our original intent was to make this sort of light, upbeat short film about a veteran getting into farming. Seemed like a great idea. You’ve got a lot of hardworking, able-bodied, young men and women who need a new purpose. We need farmers—I think the stats are something like 60% of American farms are in their last generation—so there’s a real need for farmers in this country. And there’s also a need for veterans to find a new purpose when they get out of the military.  

On establishing trust with Alex Sutton and his wife, Jessica:

My job is primarily as a newspaper and magazine photographer, and I had done a series of stories with returning vets before I got involved with this film. So, I had a little bit of background as a civilian, as a journalist, in some of the issues we were going to be dealing with. Alex and I actually have a lot of similarities from our childhood. We both really like comic books. We both like what I would consider bad 1980s action movies. So, we had some shared interests there, and I think that helped at the beginning establish at least some rapport.

But the cycle of us establishing trust was set up through our recurring visits. We went out there a lot through the first two years of filming—a couple times a week. We’d show up all the time and just hang out. Yes, we would establish some time to do interviews, but a lot of it was really sort of a vérité experience where we would just show up and be like, ‘Well, whatever you’re doing today, we’re gonna tag along.’ And I think that’s the best way to approach a documentary project.

On Sutton’s post-traumatic stress and its impact on the film:

Even before we dove into Alex’s narrative, we had realized that his struggles were far more difficult and far more complex than we had known at the beginning, or could have possibly—you know even if we had been told, ‘Oh, he’s having a really hard time,’ there’s a big difference [between] being told one thing and watching it. And a lot of what our initial goal was to make this film about how great farming could be for veterans—and it really can be a great thing—but there also needs to be a support network. These are men and women who have spent years in the army that has its own self-contained support network. You’re around all these other people who are in some ways just like you. You have people to fall back on.

Alex comes back and he has the best of intentions. He received a grant to start his farm, but there’s not a support network there. And I think one thing we wanted to explore in the film is just how hard it is to be a farmer and especially how hard it is to be a farmer when you’re dealing with a lot of the issues that Alex is and a lot of other men and women are who are coming out of the military are.

On watching Alex slowly lose his ability to run the farm due to his condition:

So, we would show up and notice that there were fewer animals and we knew he had some problems with predators. And we had also known that he was having a harder time getting out of bed, and there’s only so much that Jessica can do on her own. I mean she is a powerhouse in so many ways, but there’s only so much that one person can do. It was hard seeing the farm degrade, slow down, because we knew how important it was to Alex and how he had really staked a lot of his healing on his abilities to find a new way, you know, a new purpose—raising animals as his new goal in life.

To see the hiccups in that and the sort of back steps…it was hard to see as someone who appreciated a farm, but also hard to see its effect on Alex. He was already having a hard time, and that wasn’t helping. But that is some of the reality of farming. It is really hard and also, the reality for a lot of folks dealing with post-traumatic stress. The healing process is very non-linear. You can have these great periods, but then things can really step backwards. There is no sort of, ‘You take these medicines and you get better,’ like healing from a leg injury or something. Learning about that while watching Alex go through it was difficult at times.

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Farmer/Veteran will premiere nationally on Monday at 10:00 p.m. on PBS’s Independent Lens.

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