Once a Marine
by J. Tobias Beard
How a Charlottesville veteran is using film to tell the story of a soldier’s transition to civilian life
Printed in C-VILLE 9/17/13
When Stephen Canty watched his little brother leave on his first deployment as a Marine in the fall of 2011, he recognized the grin on Joe’s face as the same one he had worn himself three years earlier. They’d all been grinning then, the guys in 1st battalion, 6th Marines, Charlie Company, excited to be Marines and eager as hell to see combat.
But after eight months in Helmand Province, the excitement waned, and by the time their second deployment came around, the grins were all gone. Before he left, Joe spent most of his time on his parents’ couch, sleeping or stuffing his face with popcorn, so the brothers never really got around to talking about Afghanistan or war. Watching him get on the bus at Camp Lejeune, Canty felt like a parent watching a child head off to college. He knew his little brother was going to go through the same things he did and that they would change him forever, but he also knew that telling him was pointless. War isn’t something you can understand if you haven’t experienced it. It was his brother’s time to grin. His time to lose it would come soon enough.
There’s no shortage of stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by now we all think we know how they go. Our government sends young men overseas to do things that are difficult to justify strategically and morally, and hard to live with afterwards. When they have trouble after they come back, we call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and say, “Thank you for your service.” Later, after a few beers, we may pop the question we’ve been dying to ask: “Have you ever killed anyone?” What we really mean is, “What’s going to happen to me when I die?” Because the biggest thing that separates us from them is that they were given permission to kill people and, in a funny kind of way, permission to die. If you’ve stared death in the eyes, then you must have some stories to tell, and we want them to tell us those stories, because we know one day we’ll have to face death unprepared, and we’re scared shitless.
Being a Marine was the most powerful and important experience of Stephen Canty’s life. Over a beer at Miller’s he told me stories of death, plenty of them, but he also told me a story about sleeping in a burned out house in Garmsir that was next to a field of fragrant purple flowers, and how at night when he was guarding the desert their scent would fill the air. And about the time he and Chuck were driving to Kandahar, their Humvee flying over the sand dunes with AC/DC playing loud over their headsets. It was a cool 80 degrees, and they would be home soon, so they passed cigarettes back and forth and were filled with joy.
“It’s the most despicable stuff, and the most amazing stuff,” Canty said. “Some of those moments, I’ll just remember for the rest of my life, like ‘That was so cool.’ It’s an adventure. It’s like Huckleberry Finn. Cause really, you are just kids. And you think that you’ve got these grand ideas of what this trip is gonna be like, and then you find out that, hey, combat really sucks.”
It’s impossible to communicate what it’s like being a Marine to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, and yet that’s exactly what Canty’s trying to do. He took up photography during his second deployment in Afghanistan as a way to remember his experiences. Later, after he got home, he got his hands on a camera that could shoot movies and promptly fell in love with the idea of using film to tell stories.
The men of Charlie Company have stories, about the war and what came after the war, of failed marriages and failed jobs, of drinking and drugging and trying to forget, of bad backs and bad knees, high anxiety and low testosterone, ringing ears and crushing loneliness. But these aren’t stories they can tell to most of the people in their lives, not to their wives, or girlfriends, or their parents, and not their co-workers, or their shrink, if they have one. And they certainly can’t tell them to you when they meet you at a bar and you buy them a beer and thank them for whatever service you think they’ve rendered. But they can tell a fellow Marine.
And so Canty is making a documentary called Once a Marine, and he’s devoting everything he has to doing it, because he knows that his friends can’t heal if they never tell their stories, and that we can’t help them if we never listen.
“You’ll see [their eyes] brimming with tears,” Canty said, reflecting on looking at fellow combat veterans through a viewfinder. “But they’re kind of used to dealing with that and hiding it. It’s kind of like a storm that passes really quickly. And I’m kind of the same way, it’s like there’s a lot of things that I really haven’t thought about for years, and this brings it up, and I’ll tear up, or whatever. And it doesn’t even need to be sad. It’s a cleansing type feeling, and it kinda comes and goes throughout the interview.”
When Canty first had the idea of making a film to document his friends’ experiences as they adjusted to civilian life, no one would agree to talk, but finally he got his buddy Mehmedovic to come down to Charlottesville, and his willingness seemed to loosen the other guys up. This past summer Canty got four more interviews done, driving up to New York for one, and down to North Carolina for another, but it took all of his savings. He has a list of people he wants to interview, from New York to Florida, and maybe even as far away as Alaska, and now people are getting in touch with him, saying, hey man, when are you gonna come talk to me?
Canty usually starts with easy questions about boot camp, before moving on to anything really heavy. It takes about 15 minutes for them to get warmed up, but by the 30-minute mark the conversation has usually started getting pretty honest.
I tried to throw my marriage away a few years ago. Because, between the government shoving pills down my throat, and having absolutely no emotions whatsoever, to not knowing what I wanted out of life, or what I wanted to do with life, or even living life period. Or what I was gonna do next, or what I was gonna do before or after whatever. Without her, absolutely, right now, what I’ve noticed, the past nine years, what it’s really come to, is that without her I wouldn’t … I think about it more like, how do I sit here and look at 10 guys who are looking at me thinking, “Hey, you’re gonna lead us through this patrol,” and here I am sittin’ here thinkin’, “What would I do without my wife?” It’s hard to swallow, you know?
Here I am, trying to hold the kid down, trying to hold him still so I can wipe [his] butt, you know, but then in my mind, I’m also thinking, ‘Wow, this is just like trying to hold someone down who’s squirming, who’s bleeding, and you’re trying to pack the wound.’
And that’s an image that I can’t get out of my head … The image of someone dying as you look them in the eyes is nightmarish. It’s something no one should ever see. But the fact that it still haunts me shows that there’s something beyond military affiliation, there’s something beyond whether or not this person’s trying to kill you, or trying to kill your friends, there’s something on a human level that [tells you] that as a member of the animal kingdom, you probably shouldn’t be killing your own species.
Canty has read a lot of stories about veterans and seen a lot of documentaries too. What he hasn’t seen is the level of candor he’s getting from his friends.
“I think they’re being as fully honest with me as they are with themselves,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff that, even in myself that I haven’t come to terms with or processed, and I think that they’re kind of on the same page. Some of them are further along in that progress than others.”
Part of being honest for a Marine is talking about the fact that you loved being in war and hated it all at once. Loved what it did to you, despite the danger. Like how being in an ambush made Canty feel incredibly alive, as if his body had been plugged into a socket and shot up with electricity.
“Even now, thinking about it, I can feel it. When I think about combat, when I think about this stuff, my heart starts to beat faster, and I feel this … I feel … I awaken. … And that only really happens with [combat], and with film. That’s how I know [film] is my calling,” he said.
With his a wild mop of blonde hair, aviator Ray-Bans, and intermittent stubble, Canty looks like a handsomer Mitch Hedberg. It’s easier to picture him in the crowd at Bonnaroo than it is to imagine him in the middle of a firefight. His apartment in Downtown Charlottesville is messy, as one would expect for a 24-year-old guy living alone. There’s a flat screen TV, a Playstation, a bike, and framed Star Wars screen prints on the wall. There’s also a living room full of tripods, lights, and mic stands, and a computer in a dark bedroom where an editing program runs practically 24/7.
He presses play and there are his friends—guys who have long hair now, and faces that are hard and haunted—on screen laughing, their hair cut high and tight and their cheeks baby-face full, and pouring beer down each others throats. Then there’s footage of the aftermath, a tiny room filled with sleeping Marines almost buried under empty beer cans. It’s a scene that plays out every weekend at every college in America, except that here, no matter how much they drink, the room will be completely spotless by Monday morning, guaranteed. And there’s an underlying sense that for these 19-year-olds, drinking isn’t about fitting in, it’s about hanging on.
Footage like this is just as important to Canty as combat footage, maybe more so, because he feels like it shows a side of Marine life most people never see, the goofy, human side, just hanging out with your friends and having fun. To most civilians, the Marine Corps is all about fighting, but Marines understand their identity in terms of friendship.
“I feel closer to some of these guys then I do my own brother,” Canty said. “And I understand that he feels closer to the guys that he was in with than his own brother. It’s just this bond that’s been built through being able to depend on each other for your life, but it’s also been built just through literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week of sitting next to this guy, getting mad at him. You can argue and you know you’ll get over it 20 minutes later.”
Despite that bond, Canty noticed that after they got out, the guys from his unit barely spoke to each other beyond the occasional comment on Facebook. He asked his friend Repsher about it, and Rep said that they all believe that everybody else is doing better than they are, and nobody wants to bother the other guys with their personal problems.
So what he wants to do now is hit the road with his best friend Doss to visit as many people as he can, filming the whole time, the idea being that the journey and the process are as much a part of the film as everything else. It’s important that Doss is involved, even though he knows jack shit about making movies, because the movie Canty’s making is about transitions. After he got out of the Marines, Doss spent three years hooked on heroin. He’s clean now, has been for over 130 days, and Canty hopes that working on the movie will give him something to do other than dope.
Interviewing his friends is both really comfortable, and and at the same time really weird.
“It feels good for me. I know that I feel like I’m on a very important story, I always say that it’s the only time in my life where I’m doing something that matters. And these guys have thanked me, they’ve texted me afterwards, ‘Thank you.’ There’s always a hug goodbye, ‘Thanks man, I’m glad I saw you.’ I think it’s both helpful and healing, but it’s kind of like this melancholy feeling [as well.] Like yoga, or therapy, or something. It feels good, but you also feel kind of tired.”
Vietnam is often referred to as “The Television War,” coming as it did right when TVs were first spreading into most American homes, but the soldiers in Vietnam were also the first generation to grow up raised on war films. “I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by 17 years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good,” wrote war correspondent Michael Herr in his mega-classic book Dispatches. “We’d all seen too many movies, stayed too long in Television City, years of media glut had made certain connections difficult.”
What will they say, then, about war in our time, in the age of digital photography and the Internet? Soldiers in Afghanistan have cameras on everything, and YouTube is full of illicit helmet cam footage of combat, and what they call mot videos, “mot” being short for motivational, which mostly feature marines blasting the shit out of God-knows-what to the machine gun rhythms of heavy metal.
One of the first things I wanted to ask Canty was what he thought of every war movie ever made, and right away he told me that Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan were his two favorite movies until he saw Platoon. Platoon, he said, was now his favorite war movie. As a professional journalist, I’m trained to keep my face composed, but for the next 20 minutes I didn’t hear a thing he said as I raged internally. Platoon? Platoon! What about Apocalypse Now, you little twerp!
Exactly seven days later he e-mailed me to say that he’d just watched Apocalypse Now for the first time (He hadn’t even seen it!), and that it was a great movie, a really great movie, but that he still thought Platoon was the most realistic war film. It made me realize we grew up in different generations, with different ideas about war.
The first trailer Canty made for Once a Marine is hard to forget, although that’s mostly because his subject matter is so powerful. He resists the temptation to let his filmmaking overshadow his material. His skill is even more impressive given the fact that, as he puts it, he grew up in the “cultural vacuum” of Louisa. He’s working hard to catch up, however, and so he borrowed a stack of classic documentaries from my collection.
Stephen Canty was born in Richmond, the middle child of three boys, and grew up in Louisa. He didn’t have any artistic aspirations when he was young, but even then he liked to film things and play around with the footage on the computer, adding slow motion and music. He even made a short movie for a school project once, but it never occurred to him that he could do it for a living.
He didn’t know what he wanted to do for a living. A self described “angsty” kid, what he did know was that the path he saw his classmates heading down, the right path he kept being told, wasn’t for him.
“I was intelligent. I went to Governor’s School, but to me, the idea that I’m supposed to know what I want to do at 17 years old, and I’m picking it now, and I’m picking the school now, and I’m gonna start wearing the [college] hoodie, and then I’m gonna go to the school and get the white picket fence and the BMW and the wife … to me, all that was disgusting.”
And then he read the book Generation Kill, by Evan Wright, which chronicles the adventures of a bunch of young Marines, hopped up on videogames and heavy metal, racing their Humvees into Iraq in 2003. These, he thought, are the kind of guys I want to be around.
His grandfather had been a Marine in the Pacific during WWII, his dad flew C-130s in the Coast Guard, and his mom was in the Navy, but even so, his family wasn’t especially patriotic and nobody pushed the military on him. “Don’t do it,” his grandfather said, “you’re too goddamn smart,” which only made him want to join more.
Halfway through his senior year of high school he told his mom he was joining the Marines. She cried, but she signed the papers, and in August of 2006 he drove down to Fort Lee, the angry, liberal punk rock of Anti-Flag and Strike Anywhere blasting the whole way. I, Stephen Canty, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies.
He started boot camp in February of 2007, and was done in May, just in time to graduate with his class. He walked with them up to the podium, held out his hand with them to receive his diploma, but he wasn’t like them anymore. Other parents, teachers, they told him he was throwing his future away. “Fuck you,” he thought. He was 17, and he was a Marine.
Like most teenagers, Canty was an idealist. The Marine Corps told him he was going to fight terrorists, and he believed them. He remembers telling his mom that he was willing to die if it meant that one kid in Iraq could have a better life. But like a lot of young men, he was also motivated by something more primal.
“I wanted to do something I couldn’t do anywhere else. I wanted to see if I was tough enough to do that stuff. I wanted to just know deep down inside that I was capable of going to combat and fighting, and honestly, it really broke down to just, I want someone to try and kill me and me to kill them.”
One year later, he was sitting in a truck, riding through the dusty poppy fields of Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Within a week of getting out of the military, Canty enrolled at PVCC with the hope of transferring. He got accepted at both William & Mary and UVA, and chose UVA. As a third year transfer there was a lot of pressure to decide what he was going to do with his life. His parents wanted him to get a business degree, but even if he’d wanted to, the business school didn’t accept transfer students.
He’d been filming everything he could, reading books on moviemaking, and watching how-to-videos on YouTube. He’d also been talking to some of his buddies from Charlie Company, and kicking around the idea of making a documentary about their shared experiences coming home from war. That, and drinking beer, smoking pot, and trying to figure out how to date again.
Using a bunch of war footage that friends had sent him, he edited together a seven minute short film and put it up on YouTube. Way more than mere war-porn, it’s a slice of Marine life; goofing off, dancing, playing with Afghan kids, shooting guns, and getting shot, all set to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” and the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.” It’s clearly made by someone who sees the world with more than just a soldier’s eye.
Perusing the UVA course catalogue, he saw the Media Studies program and decided that it was exactly what he wanted to do. But again, the course wasn’t open to transfer students. He appealed to the head of the department, but the answer was still no.
College was being paid for by the GI Bill, and it would only cover two more years. If he couldn’t use those two years to study something that mattered to him, why bother? As he walked away from the administration building towards his car, he told himself that he couldn’t just be a college drop out and do nothing. He had to get serious about filmmaking.
On the computer, Canty’s friend Zell talks about his dreams. His first year back he would have these weird dreams every night where he was going out on patrols that he knows he never went on.
“I don’t really ever dream,” Canty says, “but when I do …”
“Yeah. I mean, the other night … I was with Kruger [back in Afghanistan] when Kruger got shot, and before they put morphine in him, he was dying. He was gonna die. And I was, like, sitting there yelling, yelling ‘Kruger!’ yelling in his face. And there’s this weird look in somebody’s eyes when they’re about to die, like you see something in them fading away from you as if they were going underwater … and I have dreams where, like, just people I know, I’ll see that look in their face.”
There’s a pause.
“I think about it all the time,” Zell says. “All the time. You don’t ask for it. I think about the day Smitty and Angus got killed constantly.”
No place like home
Charlie Company’s first taste of war hadn’t been that bad, not as wars go, anyway. They’d entered the town of Garmsir on April 28 with heavy air support to relieve the outnumbered British troops, and they’d pretty much kicked the Taliban’s ass. When they were done, it was like a vacation.
They’d been told to pack for seven to 10 days, but the operation ended up stretching for over four months, so nobody had any niceties like cots or iPods, which meant they spent a lot of the time sleeping in the dirt and talking about anything and everything. They bought food at local markets, and swam in the river when it got hot. Nobody died, they did what they came to do, and eight months after leaving home, it was time to go on leave.
At first, being back was all about relaxing and spending time with your family. No bills, no work, nothing to do but eat, hang out, sleep with your girlfriend, and drink beer.
But after a while, Canty started noticing that little things bothered him a lot more than they used to, things like traffic, waiting in line, or the way people were always on their cell phones. He didn’t like being in stores, all the people just milling around aimlessly, unable to make up their minds. He was shopping in WalMart one day, when he began feeling anxious and sweaty, like he couldn’t breathe.
“I have to get the fuck out of here,” he said.
He went out and sat in the car.
“What’s the matter?” his girlfriend said.
“I don’t know. I can’t be in there. All those people, and nobody knows what they want.”
About 15 days into his leave he started getting calls from some of the guys in Charlie Company.
“What’s up,” they’d ask.
“Not much,” he’d say. “You?”
“I’m gettin’ tired of this shit,” they’d say. “I think I’m heading back to base early.”
He drove back to Camp LeJeune, kind of glad to be back, and also kind of not. There was some administrative shit to do, but mostly they sat around barracks drinking and listening to rumors about where they were going next.
Word came that they were heading to a town called Marjah said to be the last Taliban stronghold in Helmand, and Canty knew the fighting would be worse than Garmsir. “Second round knockout,” everyone joked, meaning the second time out, someone’s probably going to die.
Angus was a sergeant and a squad leader, but was new to Charlie Company. Canty hadn’t hung out with him much, but Doss had bonded with him because Angus had family in Schenectady. Smitty, on the other hand, was a 19-year-old kid from New York, who everybody liked, even though he was truly new, what Marines called a “boot,” meaning they were fresh from boot camp, and had never seen any action.
Doss had been in a big firefight the day before, so Angus told him he didn’t have to go on patrol that day with Second Platoon. He was asleep in his tent, when a huge explosion woke him up, and he ran outside and saw everyone standing up on the berm. You could see far off the plume of smoke from two IEDs, and then the air was filled with the familiar whump whump of the med-evac helicopter as the names of the dead were called over the radio and everyone began to cry.
Doss was sent to relieve the guy on post four, which faced out over the open desert. The helicopter landed about 20 meters in front of him, and he watched a line of people move towards it, carrying Smitty and Angus in two black body bags.
“When I saw that, I can’t even describe it,” Doss said. “My fucking heart sank, my stomach sank, I felt like I was on a fucking roller coaster. And that instantly made me recognize my own mortality. I looked up to Angus. He was one of those dudes that you just kinda felt safe around. And he just got smoked like that.”
Auclair, the section leader they’d had for both deployments, was next to Angus, trying to save Smitty, when Angus got hit. Doss came back to the tent later and found Auclair sitting on his cot crying and trying to clean the blood from under his nails with baby wipes. There were pieces of intestine hanging from his helmet. Doss sat down across from him and handed him some wipes. He didn’t know what to say, and after a while he got up and left.
Auclair was never the same. Doss, whose cot was next to Auclair’s, heard him crying in his sleep, but remembers also that he became a better squad leader. He was braver after Smitty and Angus died. Brave verging on reckless.
“All of a sudden, everything changed,” said Canty. “You can’t just leap down and go like, ‘Aw, man, this sucks! I’m not playing anymore!’ This is it, this is, like, war now. That changed everything.”
It was only two months into the deployment, their second day of patrols. Charlie Company lost five guys that day, three wounded, two dead, and they hadn’t even entered Marjah yet.
Five months later they were home. Or, putting it another way, five months later they were scattered all over the U.S. in homes, still trying to understand the connection between Marjah and their jobs as commercial fishermen, delivery guys, cell phone reps.
“It got worse when I got back from Marjah. It got a lot worse,” Canty told me. “Cause people had died, and then you look around and you say,‘My friend died for this shit? For what?’ And nobody gives a fuck here, and nobody cares. … It’s like an anger or frustration, where it’s just like, dude, there’s a war going on and nobody seems to know, and it’s like such a big deal, like the war is such a big deal if you’ve experienced it. It’s just like, dude, people die in that shit, kids, fathers, brothers, sons, they’re all dying, and like, you’re watching Transformers 3.”
“At first I had this feeling,” Doss said. “I was like, ‘I’m done with this.’ I was so happy to be done, and alive, and out of the Marines.”
His first day back Doss bought a keg and had a party. “Yo, motherfuckers,” he said. “I’m home.” But the motherfuckers barely noticed as they sat against the wall nodding off, heads lolling, pinned eyes rolled back. While he was gone the scene had changed, everyone was into heroin now, and it wasn’t long before he joined them.
In Afghanistan, Doss said, his mind was always filled with the law of averages: “You have to go on foot patrols every day, and you get in a firefight almost every day, and it’s just like, ‘I can’t do this every day and not get hit, I’m gonna get hit.’ And that just wears on you. It just wears on you. Booby traps everywhere. Everything is boobytrapped, so you never know where to step, and that wears on you. There’s so much stress, and you’re just so, like adrenaline fueled, and so on the edge of death, and you just don’t care, you’re just like, ‘Fuck it.’ And then you come home and you just have to, like, stop.”
He couldn’t stop thinking about Smitty and Angus, and all the other guys who died in Marjah. And Marines kept dying. Tooker in a motorcycle crash, and Schiano when he wrecked his car going well over 100 mph. Ryan and Grosso both killed themselves. Several of Doss’ friends from home died as well, some in random accidents, some from overdoses.
He tried going to community college, but dropped out after five months. He was uncomfortable around all those people, everybody asking him stupid questions, like “How loudly did they yell at you in boot camp?” But when he tried to talk about anything that actually mattered, like Smitty and Angus, the conversation quickly got awkward. But he thought about that stuff all the time, and not being able to talk about it sucked. Thank God for heroin.
“The first time I ever did it I was stressed out,” Doss said. “I had been thinking about Smitty a lot, and I was at my boy’s house, he’s in prison now actually, and he was doing it, and I sniffed some of it, and I just went into a peaceful fucking bliss. All my problems were fucking solved, and I just felt amazing.”
Heroin distanced him from people as much or more than his war experience did. After getting out, Canty kept calling him up to talk about this crazy idea he had to make a documentary, but after a while, Doss stopped calling him back. When they’d talk, guys from Charlie Company would ask each other, “You heard from Doss?” The answer was always no.
Doss called Canty from rehab in the late summer of 2011. By then, Canty had been steadily buying camera equipment and learning how to make movies, and the documentary didn’t seem so crazy anymore. Canty urged him to come down and help. Doss was really excited, but when he got out, he went silent again, and Canty knew he was back on dope.
Canty continually returns to the idea that the movie can save Doss. He talks about him almost as much as he does about himself, and although it may not be what a Marine, or a 24-year-old, wants to hear, the way he speaks about his friend is beautiful and touching.
Doss is clean now, and committed to working on the movie. The idea makes him laugh. “He says my official title is producer, but I don’t know the first thing about that. I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing.”
He knows Canty thinks of the movie as a way to save him.
“It means a lot to me. I fuckin’ really appreciate it.” He laughs. “That’s my boy!”
When he thinks about war, getting shot at, and shooting at people, Canty doesn’t think he was ever afraid. Maybe, he thinks, that’s what’s wrong with me, that I’m not afraid of the things I’m supposed to be afraid of.
“Once you overcome your fear of death,” Canty said. “What kind of person are you? Are you that numb to living and dying? And then it’s like, how am I expected to come back and have a normal life and feel, like, love, and feel, like, a lot of these emotions that I’ve kind of shoved in as a survival mechanism to kind of hide all of that or just not feel it, just numb yourself to everything, numb yourself to losing a friend, numb yourself to losing friends after you get out, not talk about it, avoid it, smoke weed when you start feeling anything, just kind of be numb. But once you’re numb for a certain period of time it’s kind of like, if you let your arm stay asleep, eventually it will hurt.”
So he’s waking up, to make a movie about coming home from war, and he wants us to wake up too.