- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2016

GI Film Festival co-found Laura Law-Millett wanted to program films that not only showed the heroism of American service members, but also ones that did not have the “stereotypical” tragic finale.

“Our films don’t end with a gunshot to the head [and] fade to black,” Ms. Law-Millett, herself an Army veteran, said. “Our films don’t shy away from the horror of wars or issues facing veterans, but they all end with hope and inspiration.”

Beginning May 21, Ms. Law-Millett and her husband, Brandon Millett, will enjoin Hollywood and Washington for the 10th iteration of the film festival they founded in 2007. For nine days the 2016 GI Film Festival — known this year as GI Film Festival X — will showcase dozens of movies that celebrate America’s heroes as well as shine a spotlight on issues that continue bedeviling the armed forces community.

“Ten years ago Laura and I [discussed] a steady stream of films that were coming out of Hollywood that were portraying American service members in a very harsh and negative light,” Mr. Millett, a public relations expert, said. He cited such texts as “Redacted,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Stop-Loss” and “Home of the Brave” among a spate of Tinseltown product that seemed to portray wounded warriors in a solely negative light.

Laura knew that these character portrayals bore no resemblance to anyone that she ever knew in the military,” Mr. Millett said of his spouse, a West Point graduate who specialized in Army intelligence during her service. “And I had spent my career as a media strategist helping companies large and small to overcome negative publicity and to take control of their narrative in the press.

“So we both felt that this was an image problem that needed to be addressed, because the consequences of not addressing it were so significant to our country.”

Hollywood has listened, with such studio films as “American Sniper,” “Lone Survivor,” “Unbroken,” “Fury” and others now showing the life-affirming sides of the military community — while not shying away from their ongoing problems.

A highlight of this year’s GI Film Festival will be a 30th anniversary screening of the ‘80s classic “Top Gun,” which made a superstar of then-24-year-old Tom Cruise, on May 25. 

Additionally, a special advance showing of “X-Men: Apocalypse” will be held May 26 for wounded warriors. The evening will be hosted by former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, himself an Army veteran.

And as he has done for years, actor Gary Sinise will perform at Howard Theatre Saturday for veterans and their families with his Lt. Dan Band, named for his iconic legless veteran in 1994’s “Forrest Gump.”

“Along with Gary Sinise, who preceded even us, we’re at the tip of the spear in this effort to reform the image of service members in Hollywood,” Mr. Millett said. “And just like the military unit that adjusts its strategy on the ground to adjust to changing circumstances, we’re changing our strategy too.”

Ms. Law-Millett added that the couple’s expanded mission for GI Film Festival X involves not only preserving military stories in film and other media, but also to “bridge the civilian/military gap.”

“We do that by creating a public understanding of what our veterans and their families go through every day in their lives,” she said of both their time overseas and when they return home.

Long after the shots have silenced at the front, veterans face such difficulties as PTSD, marital woes, substance abuse, joblessness and homelessness. Far too many are lost to suicide.

“All these complex issues have many tools to help them solve these problems,” she said. “And we’re able to showcase some of those tools through film and television programming.”

Mr. Millett said that the gap between Hollywood and the armed forces has also been slowly disappearing. He pointed to a particular incident at the fest a few years back in which a big-shot producer — he neglected to name which one — came to GI Film Fest saddled with what Mr. Millett described as “an attitude.”

“He did not want to be there, but he had to come because there was a DVD release for his film, so the studio sent him,” Mr. Millett said of the less-than-pleased West Coast player.

Mr. Millett sent the suit with a chip on his shoulder to meet with members of the Wounded Warriors network, which he described as a method of instant outlook adjustment.

“If you ever want to destroy anyone’s bad attitude — including my own — just go talk to a Wounded Warrior,” Mr. Millett said.

In fact, that’s precisely what happened. In Mr. Millett’s telling, the snooty Hollywood executive

changed his tune by morning, declaring he would do whatever he could from then on to help the veterans community.

“The ice began to melt,” Mr. Millett said.

Studio and independent films will be screened from across all genres, both narrative and documentary, dealing with every conflict from the Civil War to the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Millett and Ms. Law-Millett remain proud that several films they “found” were thereafter picked up for distribution.

Yet more work needs to be done.

“I think one of the biggest barriers to veterans transitioning home and being reintegrated in society is the fact that there’s a public out there that doesn’t understand what our soldiers, sailors and Marines go through on a daily basis,” the veteran Ms. Law-Millett said, citing a quote from former Joint Chiefs Chairman Navy Adm. Mike Mullen that “I fear [the public does] not understand the full burden that we carry and the price we pay when we return from battle.”

“We try to bridge that civilian/military divide by shining a spotlight on incredible films that share the stories of service and sacrifice,” she said. “We host high-wattage events that bring key stakeholders from Hollywood and the military together in the same room. We bring real heroes into the theaters so that civilians who come to see their stories can actually meet people who serve in the military.

“And some of these civilians may want to help the military but they don’t know how. So we offer that opportunity.”

For the full lineup of this year’s films and events, go to GIFilmFestival.com. Tweet to @gifilm with the hashtag #GIFFX.

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