Filmmakers raise funds to share Iraq War veteran's story in 'Thunder Road'
Sgt. Brad Link left the Army three years ago, but it never left him.
Link, 31, of the North Side is haunted by two tours of duty in Iraq. He barely sleeps, and the shut-eye he gets is filled with nightmares of the firefight that killed his three buddies. In those dreams he sees his friends being shot. Sometimes he is the enemy shooting at them.
He has found salvation by helping to make “Thunder Road,” a movie based in large part on his war experiences. The filmmakers will be at the Irish Centre of Pittsburgh, 6886 Forward Ave., at 7 a.m. Saturday while on a nationwide money-raising campaign for the production.
Unemployed, he is disabled by his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury; a rocket-propelled genade blew him out of a Humvee.
“I'm doing it for the men and women who need help for PTSD. I'm doing it for the men and women who will need help for PTSD,” Link said.
He still wears a crisp, military haircut. Forearms tattooed with a sun to remind him of the heat of Iraq and a biblical adage extolling the virtue of service bulge through his olive drab T-shirt.
Disdainful of the spotlight, he has to be prodded to show his Purple Heart but is eager to share pictures of his dead friends when they were alive and the dog tags he removed from two of them.
“This whole project has been pretty good therapy for him,” said his father, Tom Link, 56, of Lower Burrell. “A lot of these guys won't go for therapy. There's a stigma attached to it.”
“Thunder Road” is the brainchild of Steven Grayhm, star, producer and writer of the film. He became interested in veterans' issues as a boy. His grandfather was an American prisoner of war in Germany during World War II.
After the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan began, Grayhm decided to write a script about the trauma that veterans endure. He spent years researching the wars and their aftermath with the military, veterans, their families and doctors. During the course of his research, he heard about Link.
The two hit it off. Aided by a bottle of Jim Beam, Link recounted for Grayhm the firefight of June 4, 2008, in Hegnah, Iraq.
“The first night we spoke, we must have spoken until 3 or 4 in the morning,” Grayhm said. “I felt that we were buddies in another life.”
Telling the story again to a reporter, Link clasped his hands, cleared his throat and sighed.
His squad was searching houses in the village when it entered a seemingly empty home. A team led by his best friend entered a sheep's pen and was ambushed. Link returned fire from an abandoned house.
“After watching them get shot up and killed, you wish you had done more,” he said, noting that his best friend was an only child. “I wish it would have been me. My mom has two daughters. She would have had two other kids to hold onto.”
As many as 20 percent of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA reports that about 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
Link copes with headaches from his brain injury, and the PTSD makes driving difficult. He wonders whether litter could hide a roadside bomb, whether passers-by on an overpass might drop a grenade onto his car and whether a traffic jam might make him vulnerable to an attack.
Even the Fourth of July is not as fun anymore.
“I'll shut my deck door, put on a movie and blast it so I don't have to hear the fireworks,” he said.
Grayhm and co-stars and producers Charlie Bewley and Matt Dallas met with Hollywood executives who wanted to make an action film with A-list actors. So Grayhm and his partners passed. They want to include the action but focus on Link's difficult transition back to civilian life.
So they are touring the country to drum up money on kickstarter.com, a website that raises money through mass appeals. Their goal is $750,000 by Sept. 12. As of Sunday, they had $134,158 in pledges. Filming is scheduled to begin in Michigan on Sept. 12.
Grayhm said 85 percent of the character he will portray, Calvin Cole, is based on Link.
“It's Brad's story,” Grayhm said. “He is a true American hero, and we don't have enough of them.”
Bill Zlatos is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7828 or firstname.lastname@example.org.