This year's Milwaukee Film Fest will feature the documentary Almost Sunrise, which chronicles the journey of two Milwaukee area natives as they struggle with deep emotional scars after tours of duty in Iraq.
Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson set off from the Milwaukee County War Memorial on October 30, 2013 to walk across the country.
“When Tom and I decided to make the trek, we very naively thought lets make our own documentary. We’ll show people the experiences,” Anderson explains.
But a different plan evolved.
A few months before their trek, Anderson met Michael Collins, a filmmaker. “Then [Collins] chanced upon our crowdsourcing – we needed to raise some funds to deal with the cost of the trek. He found this and said I know Anthony. So he called me and said, you probably don’t remember me, but this is something that I want to make a film about,” Anderson says.
Six hundred hours of footage later the film, Almost Sunrise, was born.
In the meantime, Voss and Anderson had profound personal issues to deal with.
Anderson deployed to Iraq in 2004 and again in 2007.
Anderson came home, while friends of his did not. To the outside world, Anderson might have seemed to be adjusting to post-deployment. “But inside (I was) struggling mightily. I would come home and sit in my basement for five or six, seven hours at a time. There was neutral and angry and that was it,” he says
When his daughter was born 4.5 years ago, Anderson says he felt a only fleeting sense of happiness. “I felt this feeling in my chest, it felt really foreign but it also felt familiar. It basically reminded me, there’s something here, there’s still something alive,” he says.
Yet, Anderson couldn’t break the cycle of shutting himself from recovery.
Finally, when fellow veteran Tom Voss suggested a cross country hike, Anderson laced up his boots. Anderson says walking day after day for five months, he simply couldn’t escape the memories he had tried so to stamp down deep.
“When you’re on your 23rd mile for that day and the thought enters your mind, why am I angry. You have no physically energy to resist that thought any more, so it’s sits with you. And all of a sudden there’s more and more and more insight. The walk broke down resistance," he says.
Fellow trekker Tom Voss says simply, he had to make the journey. “It was either that or I was going to kill myself. So it seemed like a choice that needed to be made at the time. Because I was at the edge and I didn’t really see a way out, and that was the only thing I could see,” he says.
In 2004 at the age of 21, Voss deployed to Iraq.
During his deployment, Voss’ platoon sergeant was killed in action, as were other squad leaders. Voss himself was hit by shrapnel during a fire fight.
When he returned home in 2005, Voss threw himself back into school, work and moved into his own apartment. He wanted to get back to normal, catch up with friends. “I felt I needed to fit in and I ended up crashing and burning essentially because I didn’t address any of the things that happened to me during my deployment,” Voss says.
Anderson and Voss had lots in common. They both served in the Infantry and were raised with a deep sense of service.
Voss says he drew his inspiration from his grandfather. “My grandfather was a World War II veteran, he was a Marine and fought on Iwo Jima, was awarded the Purple Heart Navy Cross and went on to serve as a judge In Waukesha county. So the driving force behind me wanting to be in the military was at a young age, it was kind of instilled in me that you serve,” he says.
They were nearly 1600 miles into their journey, when Anthony Anderson says he reached a turning point.
They hit Colorado and met a native American in a particularly magnificent sandstone canyon. “So as he lead us through this archway and all of a sudden we’re out in the open and we taking three or four steps to do this. It dawned on me this larger picture, this freedom, this happiness is really just a step or two away. Do you want to take those steps,” Anderson says.
At that moment, he started forgiving himself for surviving combat when others had not, and Anderson adds, there was more work to be done.
Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives, he says. “So we decided to turn it into an impact, an awareness campaign to really let everyone in the communities we were going to know about the needs of the veteran community, and by extension the families of veterans and their needs too,” Anderson adds.
So too, was Veterans Trek.
“We had veterans walking with us regularly on the original trek, and they would walk 5 miles, 20 miles. So we recognized there are people searching for this..and even in the days they were with us, they would contact us after the fact and tell us you have no idea how much this has helped,” Anderson says.
This summer, Veterans Trek formed a partnership with the US Forest Service, through which veterans will volunteer through such activities as mapping and maintaining trails.
Anderson credits Tom Voss for setting up the partnership and says it fulfills veterans deep desire to serve, in return offers them a healing dose of nature. “It’s like Tom says in the film, we like to distract ourselves with events, or substances, or whatever. Nature takes all that away – it’s you, it’s nature, it’s what you want be,” he says.
Last September, Tom Voss moved to Washington, D.C. where he serves as veteran liaison for Project Welcome Home Troops.
“I set up The Power of Breath Meditation workshops. So I travel around the country setting up workshops, doing introductory talks and teaching veterans, their families, and actually active duty military,” Voss says.
As for dealing with his own trauma, Voss says it’s probably something he’ll continue to work on the rest of his life, but practices including meditation, breathing and yoga help keep him centered.
“It’s a daily process. I still have bad days but they don’t affect me like they used to. If I had a bad day (in the past) it could take me out of commission for a week, it would take me a week to get back into life. So it’s a process, but it’s definitely been going up hill, getting better,” Voss says.
Service remains a core element of his life.
“It adds just such an amazing layer to life, when you can be of service to other people,” Voss says.
This piece was originally published September 1, 2016.