By Eric Brandner

Her in-laws staffed the registration table. Cousins acted as ushers.

And slowly, it started to work.

Laura Law-Millett said she and her husband, Brandon Millett, didn’t like the way veterans were being portrayed on the screen. So in 2007, they launched the GI Film Festival.

Former Army officer Laura Law-Millett co-founded the GI Film Festival with her husband, Brandon Millett. | Photo credit USO photo

“A lot of the films that were coming out in Hollywood, whenever they had a military character, they showed the military member as a drug dealer, a rapist or a murderer,” Law-Millett said. “It frustrated me because it didn’t reflect the people I served [with].”

Entering its 10th year, the GI Film Festival is now a major event on the Washington, D.C., arts calendar. Held each May, the weeklong festival screens dozens of films—including many premieres—while giving out 13 awards in categories including feature film, short film and documentary.

“Our first year, we really thought we were just going to be in a high school auditorium,” she said. “We were surprised the festival resonated with so many people.”

Law-Millett, who grew up in an Army family, earned a bachelor’s in systems engineering and English literature from the U.S. Military Academy. She served 14 years as an intelligence officer in the Army and Army Reserve before transitioning out in 2008.

She says she understands the need for filmmakers to seek out extraordinary plots—she and her husband started a production company on the heels of their success with the festival—but she sees the numerous military characters portrayed as being a danger to themselves (and the society they swore to protect) as a distortion of reality.

“People who haven’t served [will] see these films and think everybody who serves is suffering,” she said. “I don’t want to minimize the people who are suffering and they definitely need to get help. But I think that’s … one of the disconnects. There’s so many stories that you can share about people who’ve served in the military. It’s not just suffering.”

While she sees progress, the stereotype persists. It’s even popped up in her own home.

“One of my daughter’s friends came up to me … and said ‘Oh, you were in the military? I had no idea. You’re so nice,’” Law-Millett said, laughing. “And I thought ‘Oh my.’ We have a lot of work to do if her impression of military people are people who aren’t nice.”

Now in its 10th year, the GI Film Festival screens dozens of films and gives out awards in 13 categories. | Photo credit GI Film Festival photo by Vithaya Phongsavan

‘Stories that could move people’

Robert Aaron Ham wants to tell these stories, too. But his road to the GI Film Festival was more straightforward than Millett’s. His entry into the Army was part patriotism and part thirst to find great stories.

“One thing that I knew that I was lacking that I really wanted was life experience,” he said. “Experiences that would give me stories that people would want to sit and watch for an hour and a half or two hours. Stories that could inspire people and move people.’”

After college, Ham hung around movie sets, picked up jobs as a freelance editor and was even an extra in the movie “Flags of Our Fathers.” He enlisted in 2007, after being promised he’d be a combat videographer, and later deployed to Afghanistan for 13 months to film the war and everything around it. Several Pacific tours later, Ham left the Army as a two-time Emmy Award winner—he took home statues for both historical and military documentaries in 2013—and three-time military videographer of the year (2009, 2012 and 2013).

“I was never able to capture what I wanted to capture in combat,” Ham said. “When the mortars are coming in or the bullets are flying, you are either firing back or behind a bunker. … That was one of the reasons why I’ve been compelled to come back to Hollywood because I feel like you can put the camera where you want it, where in combat, you can’t. You just shoot and hope you get something good. Sometimes you do, but most times you don’t.”

“Frank Comes Home,” a short film by Army veteran and two-time Emmy Award winner Robert Aaron Ham, pictured, was an official selection at the 2015 GI Film Festival.

Ham is using his GI Bill benefits to earn a master’s in film at the University of Southern California. His short film, “Frank Comes Home,” was made for a class at USC and was an official 2015 GI Film Festival selection.

In the film, Ham explores the family and career issues legendary director Frank Capra faced upon returning from his World War II service, where he produced the Why We Fight series that sought to drive recruiting.

“What I learned about these filmmakers I think was the best part of it for me,” Ham said. “Frank Capra had this amazing patriotism for his country. … And a lot of his films reflected hope and nostalgia of the past and hope for the future. And there was still a little darkness in there as well. I think a lot of that came from his perspective on the war.

“I definitely did want to parallel [Capra’s story with issues facing troops today]. A soldier is a soldier. And a soldier coming back from World War II, coming back from Korea, Vietnam and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there’s a lot of similarities.”

‘I really credit my success to my military background’

While Law-Millett is battling perceptions on-screen, her actions off it are reinforcing something the military preaches but civilian employers don’t always pick up. The adaptability the military teaches service members eventually positions them to be uniquely resourceful members of America’s workforce.

Neither West Point nor her 14 years in the Army directly taught her the business of fostering, making and distributing movies. But when Law-Millett and her husband decided to follow their passion and start the festival, her Army training kicked in.

“I really credit my success to my military background,” she said. “How to run an organization. How to get logistics moving.”

The festival’s 10th anniversary coincides with its push for expansion. The organization plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign late this year in an attempt to hire a full-time staff. That staff will work not only to increase distribution of GI Film Festival entries, but produce original scripts that tell military stories.

The organization will also continue to push to get more veterans in the film and television industry. Law-Millett noted that since the GI Film Festival began, the SAG-AFTRA actor’s union has started a veterans division, the nonprofit Got Your 6 was established and has pushed for a more accurate portrayal of service members in film. Additionally, the nonprofit Veterans in Film and Television was created by a pair of Iraq vets to be a resource for former service members in the industry to connect and for studios to find and hire them.

“[At the festival] I meet so many people who’ve never met people who’ve served,” Law-Millett said. “And that’s why I feel like what we do at the festival is so important because we really try to bridge that gap between civilians and the military.”

—Eric Brandner is the USO’s director of story development. This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.

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