Sisters in Service: Seeing the Big Picture
By Michelle Bridges, VALOR Forge Publications Manager
In 2017 VALOR produced a series of stories about “healing the warrior.” We explored factors that too often affect service members who are “lost, defeated or broken” in body, soul, mind or spirit. This is how I met Summer Anderson Thatcher. She delved into the warrior’s spiritual side in “Kindred Spirits.” At the time, she was documenting how the state of Utah was addressing our high suicide rate. Thatcher came to find she herself was in need of help. Read or listen to her story.
Mental Health: A Personal Journey with PTSD
Thatcher built her identity, career and lifestyle by getting “real tough.” Thatcher was “full on, all in, all the time” in attitude and practice.
She enlisted n the Navy in 2000 and was assigned to an aircraft carrier as a photographer. She was accepted into the Department of Defense’s program for advanced broadcast journalism and documentary arts and became a top-flight videographer. Stationed at Combat Camera Pacific in California, she wasn’t on a ship anymore. She became what is affectionately called a “desert sailor.”
A series of incidents interrupted her deployment plans: sickness forced her to pull out of one to Iraq; a second to Africa also was scrapped. Feelings of failure for not being combat-ready and watching someone else do her job, were hard to accept. “Survivor’s guilt” crept in.
Eventually, Thatcher made it to the sandbox as a combat cameraman. She had to battle just to do her job. Women weren’t allowed on the front lines at the time, but to earn trust she accepted “fluffy” assignments; faced harassment for being Navy embedded with an Army unit; and literally, carried more weight with her firearms, personal armor plus camera gear. But true to form, she fought to find the right stories, develop relationships, and invest in soldiers to the point where they became authentic with her. Infantry learned to trust her to be thoughtful and compassionate about the stories she told about them. Soon they were asking her to go out on front-line missions.
It was here she stumbled upon the close-up, hard-hitting stories that earned her Navy Videographer of the Year for 2007, taking first place in both field production and combat documentary. It also brought her face-to-face with demons that she denied and buried deep down. For the next 15 years, Thatcher applied her “balls to the wall” approach to fight the scars it left.
Returning to Utah, she immersed herself in the suicide prevention community advocating for awareness; supporting her husband, State Senator Thatcher in in his work to pass legislation to provide mental health resources for first responders and veterans; all while filming nearly 300 hours for a personal documentary.
When it came time to edit the film, Thatcher said something snapped. She knew enough about mental health to realize she wasn’t okay. She was terrified to be alone. “Things got real personal, real fast,” she said. The hard-charging attitude that worked as a teenager, throughout the military and her life wasn’t working anymore. In fact, it was working against her. “I found I couldn’t edit. My mind was as blank as the screen. I began asking who am I without my art, without film?”
“My healing is ongoing, it’s fluid. I’m learning to feel my feels, slow down, radically accept things I cannot change and recognize my identity is not wrapped up in what I do. I’m in a different space, not a bad space, just different.” —Summer Anderson Thatcher
Thatcher stresses that over time she had forgotten something very important: “As a videographer or photographer, in order to capture the great shot, to film the best story, you have to become ‘it.’ Similar to method acting, in method filmmaking one absorbs the subject matter and becomes one with it.” Thatcher learned that with mental trauma this process is unavoidable — one can’t unsee what has been seen, they can’t unexperience what has been experienced. They can decide to view it differently, but the experience is still there. “I understand this concept,” she said. “It has psychological validity.”
This explains why movies and photography are so powerful. If done truly skillful, artful and captures what the photographer and subject intended, their truth will connect with people and their emotions. One may watch a film and say they don’t know why, but it speaks to them. “As the photographer you see everything within the frame but are also aware of everything going on outside the frame and know that it contributes to everything within; therefore you are part of the scene,” said Thatcher. “You can’t separate that process. No filmmaker can. That image becomes you.”
To find peace and to live, Thatcher needed another approach to life. For two years now, she has attended a therapy program where she is learning how to “feel my feels, slow down, radically accept things I cannot change and recognize my identity is not wrapped up in what I do.” She says she’s learning new skills to function in life and accepts that she can’t do it alone.
During COVID, Thatcher had a surprise come into her life — a son, she named Angus. “I don’t know if I was saved to bring him into the world, or if he came to save me,” she said. “I am in a different space than I was two years ago. Not a bad space, just different.”
She adds, “My healing is ongoing, it’s fluid.”
Michelle Bridges is the publications manager for VALOR Forge.
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