As the war in Iraq rages on, now into its fourth year, thousands of American men and women now find themselves veterans of that war; in particular combat veterans are now facing some of the same issues that veterans of earlier wars have strugged with and are still struggling with a generation or more later.
Dan Lohaus’s film “When I Came Home” — which won its category at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and will be shown at Rutgers University Friday through Sunday, February 23 to 25 as part of the New Jersey Film Festival — focuses on the plight of veterans of the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts who are homeless upon returning from frightening and haunting combat situations.
“When I Came Home” is full of outrage and raw emotion, an exploration of how veterans in this country are disposable commodities. The movie explores the lives of many veterans, including a Vietnam vet who lives under a Los Angeles freeway, a bearded Jersey Shore resident, and a female Navy veteran of the Iraq conflict. But the central character is former Pfc. Herold Noel, a 20-something African American whose resemblance to rapper Snoop Dogg is comically strong. Noel is an intelligent, troubled, conflicted man who served as a fuel truck driver during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was discharged from the Army two years later.
In the movie, Noel, married and the father of four children, is seen living in his car, and most of the film’s story is told from the point of view of the veteran driving around the city looking for housing, work, and services. At the time the movie was being made, his wife was living with their youngest child with a relative, and his three older children were living with his mother in Florida.
Like many veterans of many armed conflicts, Noel is haunted by the violence and carnage he witnessed in combat. A sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Noel alternates between rage, defiance, humor, and despair as he relates anecdotes about his time in Iraq. Though the Veterans Administration confirmed a diagnosis of PTSD and gave him medication — but he was unable to find suitable housing and spent many of his waking hours driving his car around New York.
Despite his diagnosis, Noel went through what amounts to a bureaucratic hell trying to receive disability benefits from the VA. It was only after Noel, with the help of a retired young Army officer who now works as an advocate for veterans, was profiled in the New York media in 2005 that help from the government grudgingly came.
Director Dan Lohaus, 31, got his social conscience early on. He grew up in Columbia, MD, in affluent circumstances, his father a doctor, his mother a physical therapist. He says this background made him acutely conscious of how fortunate he was, and how unfortunate others were.
He became interested in homeless advocacy when he moved to Boston to attend Boston University. “I got involved a lot with student volunteering, because when I moved to the big city, I could not believe how many homeless people were there,” he says. “It always made me mad. I could never understand how in this country we could allow people to live in the streets.”
After attending BU for a couple of years, Lohaus dropped out and moved to New York. He continued to work with homeless advocacy groups and attended the School of Visual Arts, from which he received a BFA in film and video in 1999. “I knew I wanted to make documentaries, and the school gave me what I needed so I could go out and do what I wanted to do. I was pretty determined to make a feature-length documentary.”
His first job in the industry was as an assistant editor on the film “On The Ropes,” which profiled prizefighters in Brooklyn, won the Special Jury Prize at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, and was nominated for an Oscar the following year. “It was great to look at everyone, all in their 20s and 30s, and see that they had projects that they were passionate about, and they stuck with them for years, and that is how they got there. I am passionate about making this film about homeless vets, so I will stick with it for years.”
Lohaus began working on the film in 2003. At the time, he says the idea of the movie was to concentrate on the thousands of homeless veterans, primarily from the Vietnam era, who lived on America’s streets. “One-third of our homeless are veterans,” Lohaus says. “It keeps happening over and over again, and I thought we needed to take a look at this problem. I thought that if I didn’t do something to help them, to call attention to their situation, the problem would go away because 10 years from now, they would all be dead. They would all have died on the streets.”
His father helped in crucial ways later in the production process. After noticing that his son had been working on the film for more than three years, the older Lohaus decided to step in financially late in 2005. “It’s not that I had asked him,” Lohaus says. “He had noticed that I had been spending so much time on this film, and he asked if I needed help.” Allan Lohaus helped his son find the right people to edit the project, and as a result is listed in the credits as executive producer.
The film’s ending was, at least for Noel, a fairly happy one. He now has an apartment in the Bronx, where he lives with his wife and youngest child, and spends much of his time speaking out for the rights of homeless veterans. “He’s doing well,” Lohaus says. “He is able to support himself with the money he is getting from the VA, and he does a lot of advocacy. He’d like to make sure that what happened to him doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
“When I Came Home,” Friday through Sunday, February 23 to 25, 7 p.m., New Jersey Film Festival, Scott Hall 123, College Avenue, New Brunswick. $7. www.njfilmfest.com or 732-932-8482.