In the fall of 2018, Bill Kirner, a Marine Corps veteran with two tours to Afghanistan, was worried he may become a suicide statistic. His life was stuck in a seemingly endless downward spiral: his father had died from cancer just one year earlier; he hated his job, leaving him without a sense of purpose in life; his marriage was hanging by a thread. Bill had lost several friends to suicide since leaving the military—he knew that he needed to seek help before the weight of his situation pushed him to his breaking point.
The United States started its campaign against the Global War on Terror following the attacks of September 11, 2001, which led to armed conflicts across the Middle East and costing an estimated $6.4 trillion and a minimum of 800,000 lives lost directly from war-related violence. More than 7,000 American service members have died in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in nearly two decades of war. However, this number is dwarfed by the number of men and women in America’s veteran population, including a minimum of 60,000 veterans who died by suicide between 2008 and 2017.
Bill and his wife, Ashley, agreed that the best course of action was a nine-week PTSD residential program at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Coatesville, PA. While in treatment, Bill worked with mental health specialists to understand his traumas and the toll they took on his life. They also discussed how to live with his PTSD, knowing full well that some symptoms may never go away.
In the documentary "Back From The Brink," we see Bill at a major low point in his life, but we also see him change as he builds himself back up and repairs his relationship with Ashley. At the end of the film, the two of them explain that things have gotten significantly better, but the road ahead is going to be a long one. One year later, Bill says he and Ashley are doing well: He has a steady job and a healthy outlook on life.
“I’ve started to reconnect with a lot of people in life,’’ he explains. “I’m fostering a lot of old relationships, making a lot of new relationships. The biggest thing for me is I’m being my genuine self, being honest with how I’m feeling and what I’m feeling in life with the people around me. That honesty is creating a positive energy for me.”
Bill believes that honesty and positivity is his key to happiness. He says that his marriage is in the best place it has ever been, primarily because he and Ashley continue to communicate well, sharing their thoughts and feelings instead of bottling them up. Bill no longer sees a therapist, but he still utilizes a lot of what he learned in treatment in his everyday life.
“Ever since I got out of treatment, I have practiced mindfulness: how I’m feeling, why I’m feeling, and what is going on around me. I’m not saying it’s the answer to PTSD recovery, but I think mindfulness is a big part of it,” he said. “There are still times where I’ll feel stressed or something, moments in time where I feel moments of regret, but it’s something that I’m mindful of and I don’t fester in it like I used to.”
When Bill screened "Back From The Brink" for the first time, he said he watched himself change over the course of the film. In the beginning of the film, Bill looks despondent and disheartened: he appears to be physically exhausted, bags lingering under his eyes; his voice shares his story in a monotone and pessimistic tone. By the end of the film, Bill could be caught cracking a joke or two. A smile was often painted on his face and his voice took on a sprightlier tone. He hopes that sharing his story with other veterans struggling with mental health issues would encourage them to seek treatment as well.
In September 2019, shortly after production for "Back From The Brink" came to a close, Bill and Ashley fled west to Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks for a much-needed vacation. The immense, overwhelming size of the Grand Canyon had Bill spellbound. While he and Ashley were hiking in and out of the canyon, Bill couldn’t help but feel small, insignificant in a sense, but not in a bad way. He had an epiphany of sorts as he realized that his problems, in the grand scheme of things, are inconsequential.
“I worry about the littlest things—there are so many significant things in the world and I’m a speck,” Bill explained. “Why should I worry about anything within reason? Everything is just a bump in the road. If I’m breathing, I can find something to laugh at. If I’m making money, I can live.”