A screen capture from “I Was There” of the flag-draped casket at Mohawk Valley Funerals and Cremations.

by Dave Warner

Little Falls has been home to some filming in recent days, and it’s not just a one-minute spot in a major motion film. A short documentary or narrative piece directed by Nic Phelps called “I Was There” is a powerful short film about Veteran’s Suicide and some of the most powerful imagery in the film was shot right here in Little Falls.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released findings from its most recent analysis of Veteran suicide data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

This report yielded several important insights:

  • Suicide rates increased for both Veterans and non-Veterans, underscoring the fact that suicide is a national public health concern that affects people everywhere.
  • The average number of Veterans who died by suicide each day remained unchanged at 20.
  • The suicide rate increased faster among Veterans who had not recently used Veterans Health Administration health care than among those who had.

These and many other statistics were of grave concern to Phelps, a 14 1/2 year medically retired Air Force veteran himself, who has had two of his close friends commit suicide.

“I’ve been a photographer for 24 years and this film was one of the projects I decided to do for a class I’m taking. Many of the films that have been done have alluded to the Veteran doing it, but you never see the aftermath…you never see what actually happens after,” said Phelps.

“You don’t see how it impacts one single person who was close to them trying to help that Veteran. I was just trying to show what you don’t see anywhere,” he said.

Dan Enea was involved in donating his facility for part of the filming. “I got to know Dan from the Warrior Retreat we did over the summer and all of the work he is doing to support Veterans. We were working on storyboards for the video and I asked if he could get access to a flag-draped coffin and he said ‘Are you kidding me?'”

Phelps stated that there were several things that were edited out of the film during the creative process…key phrases that could alert anyone to the problems a Veteran might be facing. “People use non-verbal mannerisms that would show that the person is maybe thinking about it,” he said.

He tells a story about how he was at the American Legion getting a couple of drinks with his friend and how the bartender really wasn’t that good. “When the bill came, my buddy, Dave grabbed the bill and tipped $30 on a $15 bill and said that the bartender needed it more than I do,” stated Phelps.

He found out that little key phrases like that are tips that might point to a problem. His buddies from Iraq are now asking him to do more videos like this. For instance a prequel “showing other people and how they go through this stuff,” said Phelps.

“I went through the thought process myself (about suicide). A lot of people have, but most won’t admit it. The film shows that others are going through it…there is a brotherhood of Veterans out there that are willing to help,” stated Phelps.

Phelps is also part of a group that tries to help other Veterans called 22Kill. It provides traditional and non-traditional therapies for service members and their families. Their focus is on empowerment and helping individuals find a sense of purpose after service. This includes all services: Military, Police, Fire, and EMS.

“If people don’t want to talk to the VA or go that route, they can talk to other Veterans or people who support Veterans and we can direct them to the proper help, depending on where they are in the country,” stated Phelps. “The people who wear a black ring on their trigger finger are part of that group. That’s why you see that on my finger in several of the clips from the film.”

“Suicide remains a top clinical priority,” said Acting VA Secretary Mr. Peter O’Rourke. “One life lost to suicide is one too many. Suicide is a serious public health concern in the Veteran population and across all communities nationwide.”

Suicide is a complex issue and is influenced by a multitude of intersecting factors that can increase or decrease suicide risk. The VA Suicide Prevention Program’s public health approach addresses the risk factors associated with suicidal behavior — such as a prior suicide attempt, stressful life events, or the availability of lethal means — while promoting the protective factors that can offset risk — such as positive coping skills, feeling connected to other people and access to mental health care.

Phelps is going to relax for a bit, but he’s thinking about the next film and how he would do it. “Maybe in January I’ll start working on it and do a little bit more,” said Phelps.

You can find out more about the photographer and filmmaker by visiting https://www.facebook.com/nic.phelps

Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a Veteran in crisis, should call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year at 800-273-8255 and press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, or send a text message to 838255.

You can learn more about VA’s suicide-prevention resources and programs at www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/.


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