There is a stigma placed on military veterans who have returned from service. Either too much attention is paid because of their experience, or too much attention is paid because of how that experience affected them. Either way, they want to be treated just like everyone else.
That, according to lifelong Morristown resident Jimmy Gervasio, who served in the Marines from 1999 to 2004. About two years after he returned from service, "I had a panic attack at dinner, it was the first one ever," the 31-year-old said. "I had to leave the restaurant."
Over the next two years, Gervasio noticed other changes, from unprovoked irritability to drug and alcohol abuse. His father suggested he see a doctor.
The diagnosis: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
PTSD affects about 1 in 30 adults in the United States every year, according to the National institute of Mental Health. The risk is much higher in veterans of war.
Gervasio saw the signs in his father, a Vietnam veteran, and in a friend and fellow marine, who taught Gervasio to play guitar while overseas.
When his friend was institutionalized due to mental illness stemming from PTSD, Gervasio put the guitar away and didn't play for years.
Earlier this year, while working at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Wildwood, Gervasio saw a booth promoting a new reality TV program called Bands of Brothers.
The program's tagline: We rock for those who serve.
"It's a benefit for PTSD, a battle of the bands-type thing," Gervasio said. "I knew it was a great cause."
Co-Creator Lou Faiola asked Gervasio if he played any instruments.
"Once I saw this it gave me a reason to pick the guitar back up," Gervasio said.
Premiering online Thursday evening at BandsofBrothers.org, the program will follow Gervasio and 11 other military veterans as they form bands and prepare—with the guidance of such music industry greats as Kasim Sulton, Mark Rivera and Anton Fig, best-known as the drummer for The Late Show with David Letterman—for a concert in November at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, which will stream live on the site.
Co-Creator Steve Holtzman, a television and film production veteran, said the idea for Bands of Brothers came through conversations with Faiola, who operates a School of Rock franchise in Cherry Hill, attended by Holtzman's children.
"Lou said there is a huge problem with vets coming home with PTSD. It turned me on to what was going on," he said. "You see kids go through a transformative process [in School of Rock.] There's something here about this journey that's a positive thing.
"My feeling was, let's do a positive reality show about vets going through a similar journey. That was the genesis," Holtzman said.
Participants in Bands of Brothers' inaugural season hail from the Northeast, as far west as Pittsburgh, as north as New York State, as south as D.C.
Holtzman, whose credits include such reality programs as Long Island Princesses and a Jerseylicious spinoff called Glam Fairy said, "it's nice to use my reality TV powers for good instead of evil."
Should the program prove successful, Holtzman said he hoped to expand its potential participant pool nationwide.
As Bands of Brothers is non-profit and online, the producer said, "we don't have to worry about ratings. Our mission is to save lives.
"There's something like 18 vets a day commiting suicide," he said. "If we can stop one of those, mission accomplished."
The experience already has proven positive for Gervasio.
"This is really awesome," he said. "The PTSD stigma is something that affected me if not more at least as much as the disorder itself."
PTSD and its stigma has resulted in a loss of friendships and relationships, he said. "Once I heard they were going to do this, that the point was to de-stigmatize PTSD, I was on board 100 percent," Gervasio said.
While the friend who taught him guitar has improved since his first diagnosis, he is not out of the woods. "He has his problems, but he's doing a lot better," Gervasio said.
Today, instead of associating the guitar with a friend's plight, and his own negative experiences, Bands of Brothers "has turned my guitar playing back into something positive," Gervasio said.
"Bands of Brothers is a great thing," he said. "If people watch it, they will see vets interacting with vets and with other people. De-stigmatization is very important."
New episodes of Bands of Brothers premiere every Thursday from Sept. 13 through Nov. 15, with a live concert to follow the conclusion of the season. For more information, visit the website.