Before serving in the Army and Army National Guard, Gina Hill’s husband was a playful, fun-loving guy. Always “the life of party,” she said.
After, Army Staff Sgt. Allen Hill was somber, hyper-vigilant and a spectator to his own life.
“He was very withdrawn and constantly isolating himself,” Gina Hill, Ottawa, said. “He had constant migraines, seizures for a while, and dissociative episodes which were from his PTSD. Obviously, this changed our relationship and his relationships in general dramatically. We were all constantly focused on his needs and health.”
Gina Hill is one of five women featured in “The Weight of Honor,” screening at 5:25 p.m. today as part of the 17th Annual Kansas International Film Festival at the Glenwood Arts Theater, 3707 W. 95th St., Overland Park. The documentary follows the women over the course of five years and their journeys serving as caregivers for their loved ones who, as service members, were catastrophically injured physically and/or mentally in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Allen Hill served 19 years in the military that took him all over the world, including two tours to Iraq. He was medically retired in May 2010.
“Allen was the gunner on a truck doing convoy security when his truck was hit by an IED on [Nov. 21, 2007],” Gina said. “He suffered a traumatic brain injury, a collapsed lung and began having seizures on the site of the blast. He was then medically evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany, before being transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center where we remained for four months.”
Gina and Allen met online and were married in 2002. Gina grew up in Ottawa and has lived here almost her entire life, while Allen moved to town about 16 years ago, but has also been away during deployments and hospitalizations. They have two sons, Makale, 21, who attends Ottawa University, and Dreyson, 14, a freshman at Ottawa High School. Allen also has a son of the same first name who lives in Texas.
Director Stephanie Seldin Howard, an Omaha, Nebraska, native who now lives in Santa Clarita, California, said the premise for “The Weight of Honor” came from a non-profit event her friend was hosting where veterans spoke to junior high students. Rather than recounting their experiences in war, the veterans talked about what it was like to be “different” when they returned, which resonated with the students, Howard said.
“A couple weeks after, I was talking to [my friend], and I said, ‘I see there’s a story here, but I feel like I don’t have much to contribute to it because these stories are already being told,’ and she said, ‘Well, no one’s saying anything about the caregivers of the families, especially the mothers and the wives,’” Howard said.
Their first shoot for the film took place in Ottawa with Gina and Allen Hill, Howard said. She and her crew also filmed in Atchison, telling the story of Luana Schneider, a caretaker for her son, Army Staff Sgt. Scott Stephenson. Stephenson was the victim of severe burns, in addition to having to have his leg amputated after his military vehicle hit an IED.
They also shot the documentary in the Kansas City area, as well as Washington D.C. and Southern California.
“The film, it’s really [caregivers’] stories and how their lives changed so drastically when their loved ones were injured so horribly and what they’ve had to do themselves and for their families, and especially for their service members, to cope and help them get better, get well, to the point where hopefully, things are a little better, knowing that things will never be the same,” Howard said.
She said the Hills’ story is one of “invisible wounds.”
“They talked to us a lot about how their lives have changed, what’s happened with them, and it’s interesting because some of the other wounded that we interviewed also have PTSD, but I wanted to speak with a family where that was the main injury,” Howard said.
The experience of caregiving is different for every person, but at the beginning it was a very lonely place to be, Gina Hill said. Try as they might, her close friends and family couldn’t understand, and the only other caregivers she knew were through online sources.
“People normally expect that someday they may be a caregiver for a parent or possibly a spouse, but the wars created a whole new group of very young caregivers that were thrown into caring for their spouse while also caring for young families,” Gina Hill said. “It is often like being a single mom, but not really single, but then adding the care of your spouse on top of it who often times, take[s] much more care than your young children.”
In a way, she added, she lost her partner who was supposed to help her raise their family.
“Instead, through no fault or choice of his own, the full responsibility fell on me,” she said. “Then, add in the battle of fighting for care and benefits, it really is quite overwhelming. It really is hard to put it into words. I compare it to childbirth.....everyone tells you how hard it is, but also how rewarding. However, you cannot really understand it until you go through it.”
Civilians have “no idea” that these families are struggling with caregiving, the director said.
“This is an undertold story. I wanted to bring that to the civilian audience,” Howard said. “Even more importantly, these are very brave and courageous woman. They’re inspiring, they have remarkable things to say, and I think the audience will leave there thinking, ‘These are really interesting and inspiring women, maybe I can take that into my own life, too, and let that be an inspiration for me,’ as well as starting the dialogue of what’s going on in this country as far as caregiving goes.”
But despite all the hardships, this month is the 10-year anniversary of Allen’s “alive day,” Gina Hill said.
“I am proud to say that because of his hard work and the support we have all received from family, friends, and our community, we are in a very good place,” she said. “Allen is very involved in his own life and has great relationships with our boys, myself and our family and friends. Allen is returning to school next semester at Ottawa University to continue [a] degree in [information technology].”
To find out more about the documentary, order the film or host a screening, visit www.theweightofhonormovie.com. “The Weight of Honor” can be downloaded or purchased on iTunes, Amazon Video, VUDU and more. The film will be licensed for universities and schools to use for educational purposes.
The film can also be discovered on social media by visiting: Twitter, @CoreIssueFilms; Instagram, @coreissuefilms; and on Facebook by searching “The Weight of Honor Documentary.”