While Brandon Demchak was serving in the United States Army in Iraq, an improvised explosive device detonated and killed two of his fellow soldiers.
After returning stateside, suicide claimed six more of his friends.
For Demchak, that gruesome statistic was the launching pad for an important project: a short film based off his own experiences and the experiences of his friends in dealing with post-military life, especially their struggles with PTSD, depression and alcohol and drug abuse.
"You see a lot of war movies; you see a lot of stuff about the war heroes," he said. "But what about those guys who are back home, drinking themselves to death, sitting alone, feeling abandoned. Something should be there for them."
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His film — called "Firecracker" — could be just that once he and the production crew make enough via their crowdfunding campaign to produce it.
Demchak, 31, was born and raised on the Central Coast. He moved to Arroyo Grande as a teenager; attended Nipomo High School and Righetti High School. At 21, he decided to join the military.
"It was more like I didn't have a direction — I wouldn't say lost, just unfocused is probably the best way to put it," he said. "It felt like the right thing to do. Step up, and it was my way of becoming an adult. And I definitely got that."
Haiti, then Iraq
Demchak was first deployed with the 82nd Airborne to Haiti for five months following the 2010 earthquake. He said he arrived there mere hours after the devastating 7.0 magnitude quake hit and saw first-hand the massive damage and loss of life.
"I think that's really what started to change the way I saw things," he said.
A year later, he was sent to Iraq, where he worked for the battalion commander and went on missions almost every day. Then one day an IED exploded, killing his two friends (one immediately, one later from the injuries).
That's when the noise in his head began, Demchak said — a constant noise that needed to be drowned out.
He was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder in 2014.
"By the time I got out, I was already — it wasn't great, you know?" he said. "I was using anything and everything I could to quiet the noise."
But in early 2017, Demchak finally got help and began to realize that film — something he had long thought was "something other people do" — could be his calling.
"When I was finally able to clear my head, I was finally ready to be like, 'Oh, I can help people through this,' " he said.
After graduating from Santa Monica College, Demchak transferred to Loyola Marymount University, where he is currently a student, to study film.
It was here that Demchak came up with the idea to make a film about the veteran experience.
"Firecracker" is set on the Fourth of July, and follows the day through the eyes of two veterans: one who has been in treatment for several years and is helping others cope with their trauma; the other on what he doesn't know is his last day drinking.
"It's really just based off of me and a bunch of my other friends," Demchak said. "The common theme is the noise in their head. It's hard to turn it down."
The film is in pre-production right now, while he and the crew wait to launch a campaign on the film-specific crowdfunding website, Seed&Spark.
Through that campaign — expected to launch next week — Demchak said he hopes to raise at least $15,000 to produce the movie (though more would of course be appreciated, he said). Once the movie is made, he said he hopes to show it at film festivals around the country, possibly even including the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.
"My friends and family both would probably kill me if I just kept it down here (in Southern California)," he said, laughing.
Besides film festival success, Demchak said his ultimate goal is to help give a voice to a largely ignored segment of the population.
"I'm one of the success stories," he said. "I'm grateful that it's me, but there are so many out there that are still struggling and forgotten about. Some people don't even realize we are still in Iraq.
"I just want people to realize there are soldiers coming back every day from there — and they aren't the same young men and women that went over there."
For more information on Demchak's work, or to stay updated on the crowfunding campaign, visit https://www.brandondemchak.com/.