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If it helps other vets, 'we've succeeded'
"It got pretty in-depth," Mr. Kipper said later. Kipper, who once repaired tracked vehicles in the Marine Corps, is now a field service technician for a rental company. "I felt like I was putting myself out there for everybody to see, but the whole thing for me is, if it helps another struggling veteran feel as if he's not alone, then we've succeeded in this."
When Kipper's deployment to Iraq and time with the Marine Corps ended, the transition from worrying about killer roadside bombs to picking up his role as husband didn't go well at first.
Little things bothered him, and he turned to alcohol to soothe the anxiety he says he felt all the time. Kipper recalls going with his wife to reactivate his cellphone after his return and practically jumping one of the store's employees when he was peppered with questions.
"Rock bottom, for me, was watching my marriage go to shambles, just everything around me, wanting to drink all the time, feeling as if I couldn't accomplish anything," Kipper recalls.
But in those dark days, his daughter, then still a baby, gave him hope and inspired him to put his life back together.
For the documentary, Van Winkle, Kipper, and Mr. Paxson visited a tattoo parlor on the outskirts of Philadelphia, where Paxson had a "battlefield cross" added to his forearm. The artwork memorializes Brad Harper, a friend killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2005.
The battlefield cross is commonly used at memorial services in the field, in which a rifle with bayonet attached is pushed into the ground, with the boots of the dead soldier placed in front and the soldier's helmet placed on top. Paxson had the tattoo artist add Harper's name to a black-and-white drawing, and then sat for nearly three hours, camera rolling, while it was etched into his arm.
Picking up their lives or starting anew
The three men have quietly reassembled their lives. Kipper got divorced but now has a close relationship with a woman and enjoys raising his 6-year-old daughter, Callie, in Chesapeake, Va. Paxson works in helicopter assembly and repair outside Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife and two boys.
Van Winkle has taken a different road since leaving the Marine Corps in 2004. After submitting a piece to a literary magazine about his experiences in war, he was contacted by an agent. The result was "Soft Spots: A Marine's Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," published by St. Martin's Press last year. He has since earned a master's degree in creative writing and now teaches creative writing at a community college outside Phoenix.
He hopes the movie has an impact on veterans who have gone through the same adjustment as he and his friends.
A lot of what happens in war is unpredictable, says Van Winkle. "You're just in the wrong place at the wrong time and you get shot. We've seen stuff happen to people, and there isn't any reason that it wasn't us."