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A Voice for Veterans: Author and documentarian Stephen O’Shea raises awareness for veteran suicide

  By Katie James ’20 When Stephen O’Shea started researching the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at Texas A&M University eight years ago, he had no idea the journey it would take him on. A Ph.D., a book, and a documentary later, O’Shea has become a voice for veterans, telling their stories to bridge the gap […]


By Katie James ’20

When Stephen O’Shea started researching the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at Texas A&M University eight years ago, he had no idea the journey it would take him on. A Ph.D., a book, and a documentary later, O’Shea has become a voice for veterans, telling their stories to bridge the gap between civilian assumptions about veterans and their lived, human experiences.

A civilian himself, O’Shea does not have any strong ties to the military on a personal level. But he became deeply invested in the challenges veterans face when he helped Texas A&M professor Marian Eide as an undergraduate with research that eventually resulted in her book After Combat: True War Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan. After graduating with an English degree, he spent a year working odd jobs to support his trip around the country interviewing U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Those interviews became the basis for his book From the Land of Genesis, a collection of short stories, available Nov. 17 from Unsolicited Press.

“A lot of authors tackle the sensationalist aspects; it makes you think vets are dangerous,” says O’Shea. “But a lot of my stories focus on the day-to-day issues. This could be a guy you went to high school with or a guy you work with: normal people. As a civilian, my role is to meet veterans halfway and tell their story, humanize vets, and address the issue of PTSD, which is just a physiological response to being under immense stress for a long time and isn’t unique to the military.”

The characters and places in the stories are fiction, but all references to war are taken directly from the more than 25 interviews O’Shea conducted before going to Scotland to get his doctorate degree in creative writing. While working on his research and writing, O’Shea posted snippets and stories to his blog, which caught the attention of former classmate and veteran Taylor Grieger.

Grieger was a Navy rescue swimmer in the military. Though he had never seen combat, he struggled with the thought of returning to civilian life. The content he read on O’Shea’s blog surprised him with its relatability, so he reached out to his high school friend.

“Taylor would have 12-hour days of rescuing people — it required constant adrenaline to keep going,” says O’Shea. “He jumped out of helicopters to rescue people lost at sea and went on disaster relief missions. It was incredibly traumatizing even though he’d never been in combat, so he was nervous about transitioning out of the military.”

After reconnecting, O’Shea went to visit Grieger in Guam and conducted more interviews with military personnel. There, they hatched a plan to sail the world together.

Setting Sail
“Taylor had always dreamed of going on a sailing expedition, and I thought it sounded cool,” says O’Shea. “The book was the catalyst for the sailing trip. My research inspired the ambition to document Taylor’s experience. It was meant to be a case study on Taylor’s out-processing as his odyssey.”

The two-man team refurbished a 50-year-old boat and set off from Pensacola, Florida, in September 2017. They took turns filming one another and uploading the footage to their Skeleton Crew Sailing YouTube channel, but the goal was always to turn the material into a documentary.

“We filmed to show Taylor’s journey, and it gave him a purpose and a drive,” says O’Shea. “The boat was constantly breaking down, so as the journey progressed, it worked as an exercise for his body and gave him an opportunity to release adrenaline and cortisol.”

Raising Awareness
As their plans grew, the trip morphed from a personal journey to an awareness-raising campaign about the epidemic of veteran suicide. According to a study on the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ website, non-combat veterans commit suicide at a higher rate than combat veterans. Even though this study was published in 2014, it hasn’t received enough public attention. O’Shea and Grieger wanted to change that.

“Hearing about other people going through the same thing is huge,” says O’Shea. “We chose to sail around Cape Horn because it’s the Mount Everest of sailing. If you’re going to do something to draw attention to an issue, you don’t want to just sail around the world. There are trade winds that make that pretty easy. But this route is called the sailor’s graveyard. We battled currents, headwinds, pirates — it was an uphill battle the entire time.”

Non-combat veterans are not screened for mental health issues like combat veterans are when they are discharged from the military, explains O’Shea. In either case, veterans don’t have a lot of support finding their footing in civilian life, as Grieger discovered.

“There needs to be a program for veterans leaving the military,” says O’Shea. “We have boot camp for entering but no equivalent for leaving, just bureaucratic nonsense. They’re starting over from scratch. That wears on a lot of guys.”

Like so many others, Grieger found the lack of structure, triviality, and isolation of leaving the military crushing. The day-to-day troubles of life — paying taxes, figuring out housing, and deciding what to do with his time — seemed purposeless compared to the honor that was promised to him upon entering the military. Sailing provided a way to focus his energy in a healthy way.

Hell or High Seas
It took Skeleton Crew Sailing until January 2019 to complete the voyage, including a three-month stay in Chile when winter storms made it impossible to sail. About halfway through the trip, they gained a producer — Fresh Fly — and another crew member: John Rose, a Navy rescue swimmer who lived in Guam with Grieger and had been following the trip on YouTube. He had nothing else lined up after being discharged from the military, so he decided to join the cause. At the outset of the trip, both Rose and Grieger experienced suicidal thoughts and struggled with PTSD, but they bonded over the journey and their shared experiences.

The documentary, Hell or High Seas, was recently completed, and now the team is shopping it to film festivals and distributors for public viewing. Robert Irvine, a celebrity chef who was in the Royal Navy, recently came on as the executive producer to help promote the project.

“Hopefully this film is unique and different enough to spark people’s interest,” says O’Shea. He believes that veteran suicide is an issue that isn’t just going to go away on its own. “Because we live in a democracy,” he says, “it’s our responsibility as civilians, as the general public, to approach and to address this issue.”

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published here by INSITE Magazine. Watch more inspirational College of Liberal Arts stories  by visiting the College of Liberal Arts YouTube channel.