Today’s generation of veterans find themselves existing within a unique social dynamic. Among ourselves, veterans often operate like a pack of wolves, supporting one another against external threats while often tearing each other apart internally. Outside the ranks of the initiated, the public at large also sees veterans in a sort of dichotomy of opposition: assuming each of us are either cold-blooded killers, or so troubled by our experiences that we’re worthy of pity rather than fear.
All of it–the support, the infighting, the public trying to decide if we’re the troubled vet from “Rambo: First Blood” or the killing machine from “Rambo: First Blood Part Two” as we sit in our booth at Applebee’s–it’s all more mental projection than reality. So much of the conflict that arises between the perception of modern veterans and who we truly are boils down to one simple misunderstanding: the idea that being a veteran and being a regular person are somehow mutually exclusive.
Enter the guys from Article 15 and Ranger Up. Chances are good that you’re already familiar with their work. Hell, based on demographics, being a SOFREP subscriber means you probably have some of their shirts tucked away in your drawer right now, but making clothing isn’t all they do. For years now, Mat Best, Nick Palmisciano, Jarred Taylor, Vincent Vargas and the rest of the guys at Article 15 and Ranger Up have been producing content on platforms like YouTube that shows a different perspective on what a veteran is and what they can be. They don’t trade their machismo for sensitivity, nor do they try to convince you that they’re the toughest operators to ever don a Kevlar. Instead, they approach the veteran experience in much the same way most of us approached field ops while we were still in uniform: with a healthy level of sarcasm and an abundance of dick jokes. That mentality has led to professional successes that helped them achieve a level of notoriety among veterans, and eventually, to being able to crowd fund their own zombie film – made by veterans for veterans.
2016’s “Range 15” was a commercial success, in many ways, because it felt real. No, not the zombies or the guy with his junk stuck in a blow-up doll (spoilers, they were in love all along), but the dynamic between the ensemble cast was true to our own experiences as veterans. As we sensed danger looming just over the next berm, felt the desperate tug of our families and old lives on our hearts, we met both with the kind of third grade humor you can’t help but chuckle at, even when it’s been a day or two since you last ate. “Range 15” brought that same humor to the screen, and did so realistically because the guys doing it had been there too.
“It all goes back to when we sat down and said, ‘we’re gonna do this.’” Jarred Taylor explained. “So, we had to find the one situation where we could tell the same jokes we really would, without making it political. We had to ask ourselves who we could kill without anyone caring?”
Over the years, American action movies have featured a number of disposable villains: the Russians were heavy favorites in the ’80s, generic “terrorists” became prominent even before the attacks on September 11, 2001, but there was one potential enemy everyone agreed would be universally fun to watch die: zombies.
From there, they got to work writing the film and then fundraising through an Indiegogo campaign in May of 2015. They hoped to raise a modest budget of $325,000 to add to the $250,000 they had already secured to make their movie a reality–they would go on to raise over a million dollars instead.
Once the money was raised, however, the real challenge still laid ahead. Despite having experience in smaller productions, no one involved in “Range 15” had any experience actually making a movie, and the trials and tribulations that followed proved to be interesting, dramatic, and in many ways, downright motivating–so much so that their new documentary film, “Not a War Story,” chronicles the adventure that was filming their crowd-funded, veteran oriented, gross-out humor zombie flick.
The combination of veteran YouTube stars like Mat Best, legitimate Hollywood legends like William Shatner and a laundry list of genuine American heroes, like Medal of Honor recipients Leroy Petry and Clint Romesha, made “Range 15” something unlike anything to have ever hit theaters before. It’s over the top comedy combined with subtle hints of the actor’s genuine heroism made for a movie that felt like the kind of conversation you had nine hours into a 24-hour post, but it wasn’t easy bringing the lighter side of the veteran mind to the screen.
“Hollywood was an impediment to getting this movie off the ground,” Nick Palmisciano explained. “There’s an entire industry surrounding just trying to screw you out of money when you’re making a movie. No one cared that we were veterans.”
One scene in “Not a War Story” shows exactly what Palmisciano means, when an unnamed person halts production to blackmail the crew over stepping on a deserted road during filming without bringing the proper permits to be on the street.
“But the best thing about this entire experience was watching the veteran community come together selflessly to accomplish the impossible. We tend to get so wrapped up in negativity, especially us vets, and this movie gave us all a chance to remember who we really are.”
For Palmisciano and Taylor, making a movie may have been unlike anything they’d ever done before, but in a way that’s exactly what their military experiences had prepared them to do. Palmisciano relayed a story about trying to get the power back on and patch holes in the roof of a house during one of his deployments, so a local family could continue with their wedding after U.S. air strikes had damaged the venue.
“When catastrophe ensues, we step up and solve the problem,” Palmisciano recounted from both his experiences as an infantry officer and as an actor/producer trying to make a film with a group of veterans.
Throughout the documentary that sense of mitigating catastrophe is palpable, as things go wrong, budgets begin to strain and the long hours begin to take their toll on the team, but it’s through those challenges that another facet of the veteran mindset emerges. These guys aren’t just about big guns and dick jokes, like all members of the United States military they’re about getting the job done, on time and on target.
“It was stressful because of managing the responsibilities of being a lead actor and also a producer, but it was mostly stressful because we couldn’t fuck this up,” Taylor explained. The funding that they received from individual veterans that believed in them wasn’t just the life blood of the picture, it served as motivation to do right by the community that supported them, a community they were a part of.
Hollywood may make a fair number of military and veteran oriented movies, but they all tend to share the common thread that veterans are somehow more damaged by their experiences in uniform rather than being fulfilled. Friendship and comradery is often depicted as a means to cope, rather than the part you miss the most once your days in the service are done. Struggles with PTSD, depression and veteran suicide are real, tragic, and widespread, but per the current Hollywood molds in use, they seem to make up the entirety of the veteran experience.
“Range 15” did the opposite, but even if cheesy one-liners, zombie combat, and guns and cleavage in a continued competition over size and screen time aren’t for you, “Not a War Story” should be. It’s not a documentary about zombies, guns, boobs or even the 80 veterans that came together to make the film into a reality. It’s a documentary about what’s possible when we veterans set our sights on an objective and put our differences aside. It’s a film about what we can do, and who we can be.
“Not a War Story” is arguably an even more important film that than the movie it chronicles making, because it offers a rare glimpse into one of the most chronically misunderstood groups of people in our nation today. It reminds us all that veterans are just people that once raised their hands and swore an oath to do something great. The experiences that follow making that promise can break us down, tear away at our self-worth and in some cases leave us struggling to go on, but “Not a War Story” shows us that it’s never too late to stand up straight and make a commitment to be great all over again.
It’s not the uniform that binds us, it’s the commitment we make to one another and ourselves, and “Not a War Story” is a tribute to that commitment.
“Not a War Story” is available now. Download it on iTunes here.
Images courtesy of Ranger Up and Article 15.