On Wednesday, the Yale Veterans Association hosted a talk about what it means to be a veteran and the transition from being a soldier to a veteran.
New York Times filmmakers and reporters Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis joined the talk, moderated by New York Times national correspondent David Philipps and editor Jim Dao ’79, to discuss their documentary “Father Soldier Son.” The documentary followed the life and family of sergeant and father Brian Eisch from his deployment to Afghanistan in 2010 until 2019. The talk was hosted in celebration of Veterans Day.
“Oftentimes, stories focus on how one gets into the military or what one’s experiences are like in the military, but the process of leaving the military for most people in terms of their lives, it’s the most important,” YVA President Adrian Bonenberger ’02 said. “You spend 10 or 20 or sometimes 30 years in the military, and then you’ve got like an entire 40, 50 or 60 years of life after that. So we have to live that life.”
“Father Soldier Son,” which can be streamed on Netflix, got its origin from another NYT project, A Year at War, which followed the men and women of the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan for a year. The project aimed to capture the full experience of leaving family, deployment, combat and returning to the U.S. to resume a normal life.
Dao met Eisch in Kyrgyzstan during the project.
“Right away he talked about the hardships of leaving two sons behind as he went to a yearlong deployment and how tore up he was about that,” Dao said. “He captured so much of what we wanted to document — not just soldiers in combat, but also the very difficult emotional experience of leaving one’s family. We did everything we could to keep in touch with Brian over the coming months.”
Einhorn and Davis were present for much of the period of Eisch’s life captured in the documentary. Eisch was wounded in Afghanistan and underwent a leg amputation in 2014.
They also spent a significant amount of time with Eisch’s two sons, Isaac and Joey, as well as his girlfriend and later wife, Maria Eisch, and her son Jordan.
“I think Brian and his kids … found some meaning in sharing his story with us and that we were going to share it more broadly,” Einhorn said.
The documentary was not initially expected to become a full-length feature film, but “stuff kept happening,” Einhorn said.
Einhorn and Davis followed the family for nearly a decade to document the family’s lives and Brian’s transition from soldier to veteran. They documented intimate and heartbreaking moments, including the death of a family member and its aftermath.
“We had been so invested in their lives,” Davis said. “For the big moments, the small moments … we knew everyone in their community. There was such a strong sense of commitment already established.”
Because of this relationship, Davis believes they were better — ethically and otherwise — able to film the family’s lives.
The film highlighted the difficult transition from soldier to veteran for Eisch — a transition Bonenberger believes is a universal experience for veterans.
“I think the hope that most veterans have is that people with a strong identity as a soldier are able to find a positive place in life after,” Bonenberger said. “One of the things I’m most grateful for this documentary is that you showed that Brian had found that place.”
Bonenberger believes that this experience of transitioning from one role and identity to another is not unique to just soldiers, though. Yale students, he believes, also shift identities — they may face impostor syndrome when they graduate high school and enter college. And marriage, career changes and parenthood are additional times in life where one might struggle to find their identity, he added.
Dao echoed Bonenberger’s sentiments on the topic of identity.
“Brian was so ambitious about being a soldier, he wanted to be the best soldier he could be,” Dao said. “I think for him, you see how difficult it is for him to give up that identity after he leaves the Army.”
YVA, which sponsored the event along with the Yale Alumni Journalism Association and the Yale Alumni Shared Interest Groups, was founded in 2012. Today, it focuses on veteran advocacy issues at Yale, such as the Yellow Ribbon Program — which aims to improve financial support for veterans pursuing postsecondary education.
YVA also creates networks for veterans and engages the broader Yale community on issues that might interest a larger proportion of the student body. The Wednesday discussion of “Father Soldier Son” was one such event, which Bonenberger thinks was ideal to reach both veterans and nonveterans alike.
Because of the pandemic, Yale did not hold a ceremony in recognition of its veterans, though the University released a video with remarks from University President Peter Salovey, Marine and Eli Whitney student Allegra Pankratz ’22 and University Chaplain Sharon Kugler.
“In these turbulent times, I am more grateful than ever for all those who work to strengthen the fabric of our University, of our country, and of communities around the globe,” Salovey said.
Yale students have fought in every U.S. war.
Sharla Moody | firstname.lastname@example.org