By Matthew Heineman
One of the biggest surprises in our newly released documentary “ESCAPE FIRE: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare” is the storyline about how US military medicine is trying alternative treatments like yoga, meditation, and acupuncture for managing pain and reducing injured soldiers’ reliance on addictive pharmaceutical drugs.
We follow a young combat veteran Sgt. Robert Yates, a self-professed “hillbilly” who is addicted to painkillers after being injured in Afghanistan. He undergoes an amazing transformation over the course of the film by turning to these alternative treatments. As with the rest of America, treatment of pain and PTSD in injured soldiers is based almost entirely on throwing pills at the problems, which unfortunately often leads to addiction and even deadly overdoses or suicide.
The greatest challenge for my co-director Susan Froemke and me was getting access from the US military to film this compelling story. Not surprisingly, the Department of Defense is wary of cameras and filmmakers.
During our research stage, we found out about a novel clinical study to test whether administering acupuncture for pain relief could reduce drug use by injured soldiers on a military Medivac plane from the Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany back to the US. We spent nearly a year trying to get permission to film aboard the plane. We were getting down to the wire. It was less than two weeks before the transatlantic flight, and we were nervous that we were going to miss the opportunity. Finally, just before Christmas in 2010, we got the final signoff from the US Army and the US Air Force, and I headed to Germany with our DP Wolfgang Held and soundman Peter Miller.
Shooting aboard the C-17 Air Force Medivac plane was definitely an exhilarating, moving experience. We got some of our most gripping footage on the flight and met Sgt. Yates just before we boarded the plane. During the flight, he was so heavily overmedicated with painkillers that he fell out of his cot—a dramatic moment we managed to capture on film (despite a public relations officer who tried to stop us by jumping in front of our camera).
Over the next few months, we gained Sgt. Yates’ trust and followed him as he attempted to wean himself off a deadly cocktail of drugs through the help of an innovative program at Walter Reed Medical Center. We had to fight, negotiate, and plead to get permission to film there as well. But luckily we managed to do so and were able to shoot highly personal moments of Sgt. Yates during his transformation through low-cost, high-touch alternative approaches (meditation, acupuncture, therapy, etc.).
In the edit room, the story of Sgt. Yates’ battle to recovery became the narrative backbone of the film. He’s one of those great verite characters documentary filmmakers pray for. His story began as a sad one, but through his courage and perseverance, he has inspired audiences all across the country. After countless screenings, we are still moved viscerally by him. And, ultimately, his story shows what happens when we open up our minds to something different—a lesson that we hope the US healthcare system can learn from.
Matthew Heineman is the director/producer (with Emmy Award-winner and Oscar Nominee Susan Froemke) of ESCAPE FIRE: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare. The documentary, which is being released by Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate, is currently showing in select theatres, on iTunes, and via Video on Demand.