Film brings attention to life of veterans


G-Jun Yam

Iraq veteren, Blake Leitch, a veteren being featured in Operation: Route 66


A father-son duo celebrated Veteran’s Day this year by previewing a feature-length film they produced about the issues American soldiers face when they return.

Professional photographers Kurt Gerber and his son, Nick Gerber, showed their nearly-complete film “Operation Route 66” on Nov. 11 at Ovation Chicago, 2324 W. Fulton Ave.

The two said they began working on the project in 2011 and followed the legendary cross-country highway in 2012, meeting veterans and recording their stories along the way.

“We decided to do a story about America,” Kurt Gerber said. “The original story was going to be just about a father and son traveling on Route 66.”

He said after seeing numerous headlines about veterans dying of suicide, they decided to focus their travels on meeting veterans.

“Our original thought was [to] create a photo book with some text of their stories,” Kurt Gerber said. “But it became apparent it would be more of a movie project.”

The opening scene of the film shows the pair traveling on motorcycles up a long stretch of two-lane highway, surrounded by nothing but open land. The film uses animated maps and iconic visuals of Route 66 to introduce segments in different cities, each featuring a different veteran’s story.

The first veteran featured in the film, Blake Leitch, served seven years in the army. He recalls joining the military in 1999, when a recruitment officer told his mother he would be playing laser tag with his friends because there was “nothing going on” that would require deployment of troops.

That plan changed on 9/11.

“I thought I was ready for anything that hit me—until it hit the fan,” Leitch said in the film.

Leitch was deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He describes in the film losing 15 members of his unit in the war.

“You don’t have time to feel things,” he said.”You just have to do your job.”

In an interview at the screening, Leitch said he still struggles with survivor’s guilt and suffers from nightmares, headaches and back pain nearly 10 years after discharge. 

“I’ve come back to society and had to become a citizen, which is impossible,” Leitch said. “Thanksgiving is a day that I dread every year because I lost my medic on that day.”

The struggles Leitch faces are similar to those described by other veterans in the film. Many speak of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and an underperforming Veterans Affairs system.

“Operation Route 66” focuses not only on how soldiers struggle after returning home but also how they cope and heal.

In the film, Amber Stone, who spent six years as an army medic, said, “You have to be proactive in your healing process. You have to be open to exploring different avenues of healing.” For Stone, that means writing. Today, she is a member of Warrior Writers, a group that helps veterans heal through artistic expression.

While the Gerbers said the film is not yet finished, Nick Gerber said it is nearing completion.

He said he hopes the film will bring awareness to the issues facing America’s veterans. His father echoed that sentiment.

“What a beautiful place America is,” Kurt Gerber said. “It’s a beautiful place because these people safeguard it for us.”