Luke Heikkila gives vets chance to tell stories of deployments and struggles returning home
Twin Cities Public Television producer Luke Heikkila has spent several years telling the stories of Minnesota National Guard soldiers and their families through deployments to
and returns from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Stillwater native’s project started through a personal connection.
“My immediate family was affected by a Guard deployment. My brother-in-law was deployed,” he said. “I had a personal interest in my brother-in-law’s deployment. I wanted to shine a light on it and bring their stories to the public. I wanted to turn the focus to what it’s like to be on a deployment.”
Heikkila and tpt developed partnerships with the Minnesota National Guard, state Department of Veterans Affairs and health organizations to produce programs that increase understanding and support for soldiers and veterans and their families during and after deployments.
Heikkila has filmed and interviewed Guard members on deployments to Basra, Iraq, and Afghanistan. At home, he has produced programs looking at challenges veterans face returning to civilian life after deployments and the decisions families must make placing a loved one in one of the state’s Veterans Homes.
“For the second time in three years, tpt producer Luke Heikkila has personally traveled to a combat zone so that he could share with viewers the challenges, successes and sacrifice of our citizen-soldiers and their families,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, public affairs director for the Minnesota National Guard. “We sincerely appreciate tpt’s commitment to telling the stories of the men and women in the Minnesota National Guard.”
Heikkila said his recent tpt project, “Bridging War and Hope,” sent him to Afghanistan in April to follow 22 National Guard members who spent a year in the country working with farmers to improve production and expand marketing of their products.
“I’m really in awe of these Guard members,” he said. “They live in austere conditions. The bases are really small. I’m impressed by the poise they operate with. They wake up every morning, they get breakfast like we do, they go to work like we do.”
The difference, Heikkila adds, is the Guard members face constant threats when they’re working. And while Heikkila does not gloss over those dangers, he said he hopes viewers will connect with the soldiers he followed and the Afghans the troops helped.
“I want to show viewers what Afghans look like. I want to pull away the shroud,” he said. “By showing viewers the eyes of Afghans, I would show viewers what Afghans see.”
Heikkila also wants to show how the Minnesota Guard troops used their agricultural experience to help Afghan farmers and their families improve both their subsistance and cash crops. He added that troops showed farmers the proper time to prune apricot trees, how to trellis grapes for a raisin crop and how to plant kitchen gardens.
“The Guard members I was with had a lot of interactions with Afghan people,” he said. “They did a lot of hands-on things like working with an Afghan girl’s school to establish a kitchen garden at their school. It was small things to help people. It’s soldiers helping other people, the Afghans. It’s Minnesotans with agricultural knowledge going to Afghanistan and helping Afghans.”
“ ‘Bridging War and Hope’ is a one-of-a-kind look into a very unique mission that will bring enduring economic stability to the people of Afghanistan,” Olson said.
But Heikkila said when the troops’ deployment ends and they return home, it’s some of the soldiers themselves who need help.
“Most definitely there’s an adjustment process to go through,” he said. “For nine months, 10 months, the soldier does not have a family to tend to. They wore the same uniform each day. They’re with the same people every day. It’s a new normal they experience when they get home. Their life at home is more complicated than their life as a soldier.”
One challenge facing many returning troops and younger veterans is finding a job, according to Heikkila.
“The next project I’m working on is veteran employment,” he said. “Veteran unemployment is higher than civilian unemployment.”
One reason for that, Heikkila said, is a veteran’s military training and experience.
“A veteran’s training is a very specific training that’s very difficult to translate to a civilian job,” he aid. “There’s so much uncertainty for a soldier when they’re deployed that it adds to the stress. They come home and they’re adjusting to civilian life and having to look for work. You’ve got Iraq vets who are still jobless.”
Heikkila said he wants to start work on that project in the near future.
“I’m fundraising for that right now. I’d like to get started on that soon,” he said.
Heikkila believes that once veterans tell their stories, people will better understand the challenges soldiers face in a war zone and at home.
“Veterans have stories they can share,” he said. “A World War II veteran will get that 100-yard stare and then starts talking. I’m not there, the camera is not there, the audio technician is not there. That’s really powerful.”
Grew up in Afton and now lives in Roseville with his wife and their two children.
1994 Stillwater Area High School graduate. “I was in the first graduating class from the new high school,” he said.
Graduated from the University of Minnesota-Morris with a degree in mass communication. His emphasis was on mass media with a focus on video production.