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‘Happy New Year’ tackles the war on veterans

My father thought no one cared.

Because of that, he seldom talked about serving in the Navy during the Korean War. Growing up, I knew vaguely he had been overseas. That’s only because when I complained about the cold, he would tell me I didn’t even know what winter was. Korea was cold. Arkansas? Not so bad. As my curiosity grew around this untold family history, my mother told me that dad had served on a hospital ship and saw unmentionable horrors.

Later in life, as my dad became ill with diabetes and heart failure, he attended the local VA hospital. Snippets of his military past emerged and so did post-traumatic stress disorder, which he had hidden for decades. He never got the proper help that he needed, and many psychiatrists told me that it had been too long since Korea for him to have PTSD. They were wrong. As his life came to a close, he told me about some of the incidents on the USS Repose, and it wasn’t a pretty story. Sadly, he carried most of his secrets to the grave.

Friday night in New York, on Pearl Harbor Day, the movie “Happy New Year” opens. Directed by K. Lorrel Manning and starring Michael Cuomo, the movie tells the story of a group of veterans from various wars who find friendship while fighting to redefine their lives as they struggle to overcome PTSD.

It’s dark, depressing and candid, but it’s a story that needs to be told.

Michael Cuomo as war-torn Marine Staff Sgt. Cole Lewis in “Happy New Year.”

For Manning and Cuomo, this movie isn’t just another film project. Manning also wrote the movie, and both men served as producers. They have worked for more than a year to have “Happy New Year” open commercially. When Hollywood wouldn’t listen, they took the movie, which Manning originally wrote as a one-act play based on Nina Berman’s book “Purple Hearts Back From Iraq,” to veterans groups, indie film festivals, anyone who would watch it.

“With less than 1 percent of the U.S. population fighting this war, I think it is all too easy for those not directly impacted to turn a blind eye, especially if there’s any sort of political polarization,” Cuomo says. “Whether you agree or disagree with the war efforts, there are men and women who are sacrificing their lives for our personal freedoms and, as a nation, it is our duty to make sure they are cared for properly. This has been our mission ever since the original off-Broadway production and it remains our focus, especially as the media reports higher numbers of post-war trauma and veteran suicides often a result of untreated or misdiagnosed post-war trauma.”

Some studies have documented that nearly one-in-five combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from post-traumatic stress; and at least 18 veterans commit suicide daily.

Michael Cuomo, Roger Waters and K. Lorrel Manning attend a benefit for veterans.

Cuomo and Manning have now made it their mission to help veterans. As a result of their unlikely path, they have met amazing people, Cuomo says, who are working with veterans. Cuomo says that he and Manning were moved recently when they met British musician Roger Waters, a member of Pink Floyd, at a Stand Up For Heroes Benefit for the Bob Woodruff Foundation. Waters performed “Wish You Were Here,” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and “A River to Cross” with a band of wounded combat veterans from Music Corps, a music training program for wounded vets at Walter Reed. Waters has endorsed “Happy New Year” and says the film moved him.

They have met other people less famous than Waters who are also aiding suffering veterans, but Cuomo says there is a post-war fatigue looming in America. Few people want to talk about the wars or the health issues facing the men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many people just forget they even exist. It’s easy. There is no official Pearl Harbor Day to commemorate their recent brave battles. They, like my dad, are expected to return home, find a job, get on with their lives and mask their pain. But their wounds – seen and unseen – are likely to affect their families, and our society, for decades to come.

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker

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