In 2010, Justin Roberts was a newly minted Army chaplain and “very green” when he reported for duty with a crack battalion of the 101st Airborne Division.
“I showed up with my helmet cover on backwards,” he said. “I had a lot to learn.”
And learn he did—first about the appalling rate of suicides afflicting military members, then about bravery and sacrifice during a deployment with the Screaming Eagles that year to Afghanistan. The unit lost 18 soldiers killed in action and 200 earned Purple Hearts.
Upon the unit’s return a year later, Roberts said he learned another hard lesson: that churches don’t do nearly enough to minister to physically, emotionally and spiritually wounded soldiers and their families.
“You would think churches would be number one in being part of the answer, but I think they are simply unaware there is a problem at this point,” said Roberts.
So Roberts filmed and directed “No Greater Love,” a feature-length documentary using combat footage he shot while in Afghanistan along with post-deployment interviews of troops and their families.
The film shares the realities of war as experienced by the soldiers who served in Kunar Province, one of the most mountainous and treacherous parts of Afghanistan. The realities of losing loved ones to combat death, suicide or PTSD is also presented.
“These are a group of people struggling to reconnect with society,” said Roberts, now a civilian filmmaker.
“This film is to help raise awareness.”
‘That’s just crazy’
It’s already accomplished that in film circles since its first viewing in September.
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The film has earned several honors, including Best Documentary and the Mass Impact Award at the Boston Film Festival, where it premiered. It claimed Best of Show and Best Documentary at the Lake Charles Film Festival and Best Military Film at the San Diego Film Festival, among others.
And it also drew the attention and passion of Laura Fong, assistant professor and journalist-in-residence at Mercer’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.
Fong eventually became a producer for the film after meeting a soldier at a military hospital. He had been part of Roberts’ unit. She then connected with the chaplain while he was still on deployment.
The unique vision Roberts brings to the subject—as both a filmmaker and a member of the unit being documented—provides the film with an original perspective and message, Fong said.
“That’s just crazy,” she said of the notion of a serving chaplain carrying a camera into combat. “That’s not what chaplains typically do.”
She couldn’t say no when Roberts asked for help producing the film.
As a photo journalist, Fong said she’s been documenting the lives and struggles of military members, veterans and their families for a decade. No Greater Love is right up there with the most moving accounts of war and its aftermath that she’s seen.
“It’s just so profound,” she said of the film she co-produced.
‘A critical thing’
Roberts said his lessons have also been profound.
Just before leaving for Afghanistan, Roberts said he asked a trusted first sergeant how he should conduct his ministry overseas. The non-commissioned officer, who didn’t particularly care for chaplains, advised him to stay near the action and to accompany each platoon on at least one patrol.
Roberts said he was able to ask that question, and get valuable advice, because he had gotten to know the man during months of responding to suicides or attempted suicides.
That relationship in turn helped him form relationships with other soldiers, which gave him a chance to intervene positively in their lives on deployment and back home.
“So connecting wasn’t a nice thing, it was a critical thing,” he said. “It saves lives.”
And it’s those kinds of connections military members, veterans and their families need from churches now, he said.
But it’s been a difficult undertaking at times, Roberts said.
“My encounter with the church when I got back has been strained because I keep on encountering pastors who are not intentionally reaching out to veterans,” said Roberts, who was raised Southern Baptist and attended Dallas Theological Seminary before entering the Army.
Some congregations are afraid to take on such ministries for fear that the difficulties working with combat veterans and the families can be overwhelming.
But those congregations could learn about faith from those served in military related ministries.
“I saw people with mixed relationships with God be willing to die for one another,” he said. “I have never seen that in the church.”
Now Roberts is hoping that his film, with a late-summer target release in theaters, will convince churches to embrace those ministries.
“We could head off thousands of deaths (from suicide) and millions of issues,” he said.
Roberts said he is working with Cru Military, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, to form a relational ministry structure that churches can plug into.
By the time the film hits theaters, viewers will see a number during the credits to which they can text donations.
The idea is that seeing the emotional and physical price soldiers and their families pay to wage war will open pocketbooks and inspire ministry, he said.
“The great irony is that the one people group in our country who are in desperate need of help from the church and ministry, they are not a target for ministry,” Roberts said. “It’s not on the agenda.” (BNG)