Once a Marine: How a Charlottesville veteran is telling the story of a soldier’s transition to civilian life

Stephen Canty. Photo: Jackson Smith Stephen Canty. Photo: Jackson Smith

When Stephen Canty watched his little brother leave on his first deployment as a Marine in the fall of 2011, he recognized the grin on Joe’s face as the same one he had worn himself three years earlier. They’d all been grinning then, the guys in 1st battalion, 6th Marines, Charlie Company, excited to be Marines and eager as hell to see combat.

But after eight months in Helmand Province, the excitement waned, and by the time their second deployment came around, the grins were all gone. Before he left, Joe spent most of his time on his parents’ couch, sleeping or stuffing his face with popcorn, so the brothers never really got around to talking about Afghanistan or war. Watching him get on the bus at Camp Lejeune, Canty felt like a parent watching a child head off to college. He knew his little brother was going to go through the same things he did and that they would change him forever, but he also knew that telling him was pointless. War isn’t something you can understand if you haven’t experienced it. It was his brother’s time to grin. His time to lose it would come soon enough.

Stephen Canty pictured as a 17-year-old high school senior (left) and again as a 19-year-old Marine deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photos: Courtesy Stephen Canty
Stephen Canty pictured as a 17-year-old high school senior (left) and again as a 19-year-old Marine deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photos: Courtesy Stephen Canty

There’s no shortage of stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by now we all think we know how they go. Our government sends young men overseas to do things that are difficult to justify strategically and morally, and hard to live with afterwards. When they have trouble after they come back, we call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and say, “Thank you for your service.” Later, after a few beers, we may pop the question we’ve been dying to ask: “Have you ever killed anyone?” What we really mean is, “What’s going to happen to me when I die?” Because the biggest thing that separates us from them is that they were given permission to kill people and, in a funny kind of way, permission to die. If you’ve stared death in the eyes, then you must have some stories to tell, and we want them to tell us those stories, because we know one day we’ll have to face death unprepared, and we’re scared shitless.

Being a Marine was the most powerful and important experience of Stephen Canty’s life. Over a beer at Miller’s he told me stories of death, plenty of them, but he also told me a story about sleeping in a burned out house in Garmsir that was next to a field of fragrant purple flowers, and how at night when he was guarding the desert their scent would fill the air. And about the time he and Chuck were driving to Kandahar, their Humvee flying over the sand dunes with AC/DC playing loud over their headsets. It was a cool 80 degrees, and they would be home soon, so they passed cigarettes back and forth and were filled with joy.

“It’s the most despicable stuff, and the most amazing stuff,” Canty said. “Some of those moments, I’ll just remember for the rest of my life, like ‘That was so cool.’ It’s an adventure. It’s like Huckleberry Finn. Cause really, you are just kids. And you think that you’ve got these grand ideas of what this trip is gonna be like, and then you find out that, hey, combat really sucks.”

It’s impossible to communicate what it’s like being a Marine to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, and yet that’s exactly what Canty’s trying to do. He took up photography during his second deployment in Afghanistan as a way to remember his experiences. Later, after he got home, he got his hands on a camera that could shoot movies and promptly fell in love with the idea of using film to tell stories.

The men of Charlie Company have stories, about the war and what came after the war, of failed marriages and failed jobs, of drinking and drugging and trying to forget, of bad backs and bad knees, high anxiety and low testosterone, ringing ears and crushing loneliness. But these aren’t stories they can tell to most of the people in their lives, not to their wives, or girlfriends, or their parents, and not their co-workers, or their shrink, if they have one. And they certainly can’t tell them to you when they meet you at a bar and you buy them a beer and thank them for whatever service you think they’ve rendered. But they can tell a fellow Marine.

And so Canty is making a documentary called Once a Marine, and he’s devoting everything he has to doing it, because he knows that his friends can’t heal if they never tell their stories, and that we can’t help them if we never listen.

Darren Doss, Canty’s best friend and the producer of Once a Marine, shows off his track marks and tattoos after an interview session in July. Photo: Stephen Canty
Darren Doss, Canty’s best friend and the producer of Once a Marine, shows off his track marks and tattoos after an interview session in July. Photo: Stephen Canty


“You’ll see [their eyes] brimming with tears,” Canty said, reflecting on looking at fellow combat veterans through a viewfinder. “But they’re kind of used to dealing with that and hiding it. It’s kind of like a storm that passes really quickly. And I’m kind of the same way, it’s like there’s a lot of things that I really haven’t thought about for years, and this brings it up, and I’ll tear up, or whatever. And it doesn’t even need to be sad. It’s a cleansing type feeling, and it kinda comes and goes throughout the interview.”

When Canty first had the idea of making a film to document his friends’ experiences as they adjusted to civilian life, no one would agree to talk, but finally he got his buddy Mehmedovic to come down to Charlottesville, and his willingness seemed to loosen the other guys up. This past summer Canty got four more interviews done, driving up to New York for one, and down to North Carolina for another, but it took all of his savings. He has a list of people he wants to interview, from New York  to Florida, and maybe even as far away as Alaska, and now people are getting in touch with him, saying, hey man, when are you gonna come talk to me?

Canty usually starts with easy questions about boot camp, before moving on to anything really heavy. It takes about 15 minutes for them to get warmed up, but by the 30-minute mark the conversation has usually started getting pretty honest.

“I tried to throw my marriage away a few years ago. Because, between the government shoving pills down my throat, and having absolutely no emotions whatsoever, to not knowing what I wanted out of life, or what I wanted to do with life, or even living life period. Or what I was gonna do next, or what I was gonna do before or after whatever. Without her, absolutely, right now, what I’ve noticed, the past nine years, what it’s really come to, is that without her I wouldn’t … I think about it more like, how do I sit here and look at 10 guys who are looking at me thinking, ‘Hey, you’re gonna lead us through this patrol,’ and here I am sittin’ here thinkin’, what would I do without my wife. It’s hard to swallow, you know?”

“Here I am, trying to hold the kid down, trying to hold him still so I can wipe [his] butt, you know, but then in my mind, I’m also thinking, ‘Wow, this is just like trying to hold someone down who’s squirming, who’s bleeding, and you’re trying to pack the wound.’”

“And that’s an image that I can’t get out of my head … The image of someone dying as you look them in the eyes is nightmarish. It’s something no one should ever see. But the fact that it still haunts me shows that there’s something beyond military affiliation, there’s something beyond whether or not this person’s trying to kill you, or trying to kill your friends, there’s something on a human level that [tells you] that as a member of the animal kingdom, you probably shouldn’t be killing your own species.”

Canty has read a lot of stories about veterans and seen a lot of documentaries too. What he hasn’t seen is the level of candor he’s getting from his friends.

“I think they’re being as fully honest with me as they are with themselves,” he said.  “There’s a lot of stuff that, even in myself that I haven’t come to terms with or processed, and I think that they’re kind of on the same page. Some of them are further along in that progress than others.”

Watch the Kickstarter presentation for Once a Marine below…

Part of being honest for a Marine is talking about the fact that you loved being in war and hated it all at once. Loved what it did to you, despite the danger. Like how being in an ambush made Canty feel incredibly alive, as if his body had been plugged into a socket and shot up with electricity.

“Even now, thinking about it, I can feel it. When I think about combat, when I think about this stuff, my heart starts to beat faster, and I feel this … I feel … I awaken. … And that only really happens with [combat], and with film. That’s how I know [film] is my calling,” he said.

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