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Philly film team helps a Texas sailor fulfill a mission to help other veterans conquer post-traumatic stress

Texas college buddies Taylor Grieger and Stephen O’Shea lived “Hell or High Seas,” but a Philly filmmaking team helped them complete their mission of hope for struggling military veterans.

The crew of 'The Ole Lady' (left to right): Taylor Grieger, Stephen O'Shea, and John Rose. Grieger and Rose are U.S. Navy veterans, and O'Shea writes frequently about veterans' issues. This photo was taken in Valdivia, Chile, from where they sailed south and then around Cape Horn, in 2018.
The crew of 'The Ole Lady' (left to right): Taylor Grieger, Stephen O'Shea, and John Rose. Grieger and Rose are U.S. Navy veterans, and O'Shea writes frequently about veterans' issues. This photo was taken in Valdivia, Chile, from where they sailed south and then around Cape Horn, in 2018.Read moreFresh Fly

Navy veteran Taylor Grieger set sail from Pensacola, Fla., for Cape Horn in September 2017 on a 36-foot sloop he bought for $20,000 and fixed up by following video tutorials on YouTube.

The captain and his first mate, Stephen J. O’Shea, a far more accomplished writer than sailor, were prepared to document their journey of 10,000 nautical miles with digital cameras, drones, and an Instagram account cheekily named @skeletoncrewsailing. They intended to inspire veterans struggling with PTSD, help prevent suicides among them, and increase awareness of these issues.

But Grieger and O’Shea weren’t prepared for the capricious weather, mechanical breakdowns, emotional storms — including a drunken fistfight — or money woes that together came close to scuttling both their sloop, named “The Ole Lady,” and their mission.

And neither of the young Texans could have foreseen that a director, producer, editor, and other Philadelphia film professionals would help them complete the journey and showcase their story in a stirring new documentary, Hell or High Seas.

“Your courage and your passion and your commitment have brought out the best in everyone,” the director Glenn Holsten told Grieger and O’Shea during a screening event at the Kimmel Center on Veterans Day.

Said Grieger, sharing the stage with Holsten, O’Shea, and executive producer Robert Irvine: “My biggest thing for this film … and Stephen and I talked about it a lot … was being real.

“If we were going to make something to reach veterans, it would have to be no-holds-barred. That was the goal,” said Grieger, 29, whose description of his attempt at death by suicide is one of the film’s most powerful moments. As a Navy rescue swimmer, he said, pulling dead bodies from the water was not uncommon — but more often, no rescues or recovery of bodies were possible.

The film that Holsten (his husband is Inquirer arts writer Peter Dobrin) made with producer Chayne Gregg and the creatives at Fresh Fly, Gregg’s multimedia production company, is streaming online and will have a New York theatrical release starting Nov. 26 at Cinema Village in Manhattan.

Running a brisk 90 minutes, Hell or High Seas follows The Ole Lady through the Gulf of Mexico, the Panama Canal, and along South America’s Pacific coast. It offers a visceral sense of what it’s like to inhabit and navigate a tiny, fragile craft for weeks on end through a world of water that can be beautiful but can turn beastly with little warning.

The film’s scenic stretches and occasional edge-of-your-seat sequences are punctuated by a number of strikingly personal conversations about the challenges of the endeavor, and about veterans who have suffered unseen and unheard. This is particularly true after John Rose, a Navy vet and Grieger buddy who was then having a hard time adjusting to civilian life, joined the crew for the latter portions of the adventure.

The film suggests how inadequately the military prepares service members for the transition that follows discharge from what has become a way of life.

So do the incidents of veteran deaths by suicide that make headlines with heartbreaking regularity, like that of Air Force veteran Kenneth Santiago, 31, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Nov. 9. Or the 15 to 16 others that occur on a typical day.

Like the voyage, the film is intended to offer comfort for struggling vets. It also calls attention to the fact that some veterans who may seem to have adjusted well to life out of uniform may simply be keeping their pain secret.

“This film serves a larger purpose,” said Gregg. “It’s bigger than ourselves.”

Fresh Fly came to the project after Holsten got a phone call from O’Shea’s aunt, Jeanne Marie Shanahan.

A marketing executive who lives in Hoboken, N.J., is involved in the indie film business, and helped fund some of Holsten’s previous documentaries on subjects related to mental health, Shanahan “suggested I take a look at the videos Stephen and Taylor were making” during the voyage, the director said.

“I sent Glenn a ton of videos I thought were really good,” said Shanahan, who also helped underwrite the cost of the video gear the sloop carried around Cape Horn.

“My aunt had been a huge proponent of what we were trying to do, and while we talked to other production companies, Fresh Fly was ideal,” said O’Shea. “Glenn’s background in [the subject of] mental health was perfect for the story we were trying to tell.”

Said Shanahan: “I really believed in the project, I believed in Stephen, and I [believed in] the concept of what this film could do for awareness about PTSD. I believe in making connections and always connect people if there is a connection to be made.”

The connection was made at an opportune time: In July 2018, the sloop was docked in the Chilean port of Valdivia, a.k.a. the Doorway to Patagonia. Grieger and O’Shea had flown home to attract media attention to their journey and raise money to pay for at least $15,000 in repairs to The OIe Lady.

They had been compelled to put their cherished voyage on a hiatus that ended up being five months long.

But the hundreds of hours of video footage “were a treasure chest,” said Holsten.

Added film editor Vic Carreno: “I was blown away by the fact that this was just two and, eventually, three guys who did not have any previous filmmaking experience who took it upon themselves to [shoot the footage] because of the cause.”

“The visuals were gorgeous. But what we all gravitated to were the more intimate moments,” Carreno said. “That’s what the heart of the story is — being able to share your struggle with others who have gone through the same kind of struggles. And I believe the fact there was no external film crew [on board] allowed those moments to come out.”

Meanwhile, Shanahan also provided $10,000 so Holsten and a crew could film in Patagonia, said O’Shea. “Jeannie was a huge proponent of what we were trying to do.”

The shoot along the waterways and waterfalls, and on the cliffs and glaciers, of this otherworldly place provide Hell or High Seas with images that hint at transcendence or, perhaps, redemption from pain.

For the first time in nearly two decades, the rate of deaths by suicide among veterans has decreased, according to the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. The statistics for 2018 and 2019 were issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in September of this year. Nevertheless, the report also found that younger veterans continue to die by suicide at substantially higher rates than their civilian peers.

Separately, After Kabul, a national survey released earlier this month by the nonpartisan advocacy group Veterans and Citizens Initiative, found that a substantial proportion of veterans generally, and veterans of Afghanistan particularly, feel they are living in a country they no longer recognize. And while Americans generally have become familiar with the concept of post-traumatic stress, the fact that non-combat veterans can suffer this physiological and psychological condition is less widely understood.

O’Shea writes frequently about veterans’ issues. “Outdoor Therapy for Veterans,” his recent post on a Texas A & M University website, suggests that holistic, action-oriented programs — such as the sort of “adventure therapy” exemplified by group sailing, rock-climbing, wilderness hikes, or other outdoor recreational activities — can benefit those struggling with post-traumatic stress.

Now married and living outside Houston with his wife and their 15-month-old daughter, Grieger works part-time for the American Odysseus Sailing Foundation. The nonprofit takes small groups of veterans and their families on sailing trips.

“The film is more than what I hoped for,” he said during an interview. “I didn’t think our finished product would look anything like this.

“At some screenings, even Vietnam and World War II vets come up and say they’ve lived with this kind of pain for decades and never told anybody,” said Grieger. “I’m glad this film lets them know they’re not alone.”