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Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center
FHCC veterans appear in "Clown Vets"
By Jayna Legg, Public Affairs Specialist
Monday, April 29, 2019One recent wintery day, some may have seen actual clowns walking the halls of the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, and others may have even donned their own red noses and relaxed into smiles.
It wasn’t the first time the visitors wearing the clown costumes interacted with patients and staff at the FHCC. In fact, for some of the clowns, it was a homecoming of sorts. They were veterans, returning to the place where they received treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other serious mental health conditions brought on by their combat service.
The veteran clowns had a specific purpose for their trip – to screen “Clown Vets,” a new documentary about their experiences “clowning” at the FHCC, and in orphanages and hospitals in Michigan and Guatemala, with world renowned Dr. Patch Adams and his Gesundheit! Institute. The institute was founded by Adams, the real man behind the 1998 Robin Williams movie “Patch Adams.” In recent years, Adams has enlisted veterans to join his clown ranks, with the idea that “friendship medicine” can help veterans get close to other people as part of their therapy and recovery from health issues such as PTSD.
“FHCC was the spring board for this whole idea,” said veteran Roger Flanigan, who walked over for the December showing from “Bldg. 7,” where he was a current patient in the PTSD residential treatment program.
Flanigan was joined by Mike O’Connor, a former tank commander; Ken Vaughan, a Marine Vietnam Veteran; Russ Nehmer, an Army veteran; Cliff Kilbourne, who was a medic in Vietnam; Michael Tuffelmire, Army veteran who served in Iraq, and Dr. Mark Kane, a Michigan psychologist who works with the Gesundheit! Institute.
All the veterans appear in “Clown Vets.” Kane has been referring Michigan veterans to the FHCC’s PTSD treatment program “for years. This is where it all started,” he said.
Kane’s outlandish outfit was made up of an oversized patchwork coat over a boldly tie-dyed jumpsuit. Flanigan wore a pink tutu. Nehmer was adorned in baggy patchwork pants. Big sunglasses, crazy hats and red noses rounded out the clowns’ costumes, and some carried stuffed animals and noisy toys.
“It’s wonderful to see these guys come alive,” Kane said, referring to both the veterans and the people they reach through clowning.
The showing at Lovell FHCC was limited to veterans in the PTSD program because “Clown Vets” is making the rounds on the awards circuit and in the running to be shown at some film festivals. It already was shown at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, Calif. in early March.
Getting picked up by film festivals is a step toward a public release and funding for the non-profit Gesundheit! Institute, “to promote ongoing clown trips,” Kane said. “We hope to go to third world countries and stress disorders treatment units anywhere, at any hospital.”
Kane gives a lot of the credit for FHCC’s role in the documentary, and its relationship with Patch and Gesundheit! Institute, to Dr. Anthony Peterson, who heads Mental Health Special Emphasis Programs at FHCC. Peterson, as well as FHCC Director Dr. Robert Buckley and Deputy Director and Commanding Officer Capt. Gregory Thier, attended the December showing and met some of the documentary’s veteran actors.
"This is amazing,” Peterson said, as he put on his own red nose and spoke to the group. “The work we do here is really, really serious. Not every approach works for everyone. We have to step outside our comfort zone and change lives.”
Operation Enduring Freedom/Iraqi Freedom veteran Eric Goodwin was another person who walked over from FHCC’s PTSD residential treatment program to watch the documentary. He had one intention – to join up. “I’m going to sign up to clown,” said the Everett, Mich. resident. “It seems like something I want to do, make people laugh. I’ve always been a clown.”
Goodwin served as a military policeman. He praised FHCC’s PTSD program. “It’s giving me the tools to help me back home. I’m not so isolated all the time. It helps with my anger.”
The hour-long documentary was submitted to 25 film festivals worldwide. Patch Adams was presented with the Kaiser Permanente Thrive Award at Cinequest. “The goal is to get as much traffic and leverage as we can so we can market it to a bigger production company, so we can become financially stable,” Kane said.