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TILLMAN TUESDAY: 2016 Tillman Scholar Robert Ham Uses Combat Experiences in Film Production

Pat Tillman Foundation Communications   |   By Jill Walsh, Communications Manager   |   August 23, 2016
Robert Ham
2016 Tillman Scholar Robert Ham is a three-time DOD Military Videographer of the Year (2009, 2012, 2013)

Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week we have the pleasure of introducing you to the first Tillman Scholar from the class of 2016 to be featured in the Tillman Tuesday. U.S. Army veteran Robert Ham is currently working towards his Masters in Film Production at the University of Southern California while also developing a short film that he’ll be turning into a feature film called ‘The Interpreter’.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO JOIN THE SERVICE AND WHAT WAS YOUR ROLE DURING THAT TIME?

“I joined the military initially because we were a country at war and I wanted to serve. I was also inspired by my Step-father-in-law who was serving in Iraq. Also on top of that I wanted to ultimately be a film director and felt that I needed more life experience under my belt if I wanted people to listen and watch the stories I would share. When I joined I was a combat documentarian/videographer and I did that the whole time I was serving with the Army.”

DURING YOUR DEPLOYMENT TO AFGHANISTAN, WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF THAT MAYBE YOU DIDN’T REALIZE BEFORE?

“We as humans don’t really know how resilient we are until we go through some tough situations. I had left my wife and infant son to go to a combat zone for a year and like many of my fellow soldiers that is probably the hardest thing we’ll ever do (not only the leaving part but what we’ll see in combat). After going through that experience I knew I could pretty much get through anything life would throw at me.”

HOW DID YOU REACH THE DECISION TO SEPARATE FROM THE ACTIVE DUTY SIDE BUT STAY IN THE RESERVES?

“I loved the Army, what it did for me and how it made me feel about myself, however I always knew it was just a stage and I wanted to return to Hollywood and pursue directing again. Because I loved the Army I felt keeping one foot in, so to speak, would help me transition back to the civilian world, that and it has good health care for my family.”

HAVING TRAVELED TO MORE THAN A DOZEN COUNTRIES, WHICH WAS YOUR FAVORITE AND WHY?

“I loved India because I found the people to be friendly and wonderful people. I loved Australia and New Zealand as well because they are some of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been too but again the people are wonderful. Sri Lanka was an interesting country because it has been torn apart by war and it was fascinating to see how a country attempts to come back from a 30-year civil war. I also had a wonderful time in Taiwan, there is a deep history there and the people were amazingly gracious.”

WHY DO YOU FEEL STORYTELLING IS SO IMPORTANT?

“Since the beginning of time humans have been telling stories, from the epic of Gilgamesh to Homer and Moses to Mohammed to Buddha to Jesus to movies. This is how we share values and connect with people. Without stories we wouldn’t even know how to live, each time a person is born we’d have to start all over again but with stories we’re able to learn how to live and pass on what we find important to the next generation.”

OF ALL THE STORIES YOU’VE DOCUMENTED, WHICH STANDS OUT TO YOU THE MOST?

“There’s a lot of stories I’ve told that still move me and it’s not really because of anything I did but because the people who allowed me to share their stories that had a deep impact on me. I think my favorite story is about a combat hospital in Afghanistan that I spent a lot of time with in. I met so many amazing people and saw some pretty horrible things. I finished my documentary while I was in Afghanistan and actually had a showing where the whole hospital came out. Throughout the whole film it was just silent. When it concluded no one said anything for about 30 seconds (which felt like an eternity) then they clapped and cheered. Afterwards two of the young nurses came to me with tears in their eyes and said something to the effect of ‘now our parents will understand what we do here and why it’s so important.’ That experience is exactly why I love story telling.”

WOULD YOU PLEASE GIVE US A LITTLE INSIGHT AS TO WHAT YOUR SHORT FILM ‘THE INTERPRETER’ IS BASED OFF AND WHERE YOU CAME UP WITH THE IDEA TO MAKE THAT YOUR FOCUS.

“I became very close with my interpreter while I was in Afghanistan. We went on missions together, were in mortar attacks together and spent a lot of time working on my videos (he would help me translate them for an Afghan audience). During our time there in 2009 we had submitted his packet for a visa. After I came home I received an email from him in 2012 that he had submitted a second packet in 2010 and was still waiting (he had started working for the Army around 2005 or 2006). He told me how afraid he was for his life and his family’s life. I then started writing members of congress and senators and started pushing to get him to the states. I thought a film would help do that as well. The good news is that Saifullah and his whole family (wife and 3 children) finally made it to the states several months ago and I flew out and met him in San Antonio where he still lives. We are still working on the film now so we can raise more awareness for this cause.”

LIVING IN THE ATMOSPHERE OF HOLLYWOOD AND THE FILM INDUSTRY, WHO DO YOU ADMIRE OR ASPIRE TO BE LIKE AS FAR AS YOUR CAREER GOES?

“There are a few filmmakers that I really love. The filmmaker I always tell people is Oliver Stone. I know I know he’s a little crazy sometimes and I definitely don’t agree with him on a lot of things but he was a combat vet with two tours to Vietnam, he was also a Purple Heart recipient and with that experience he carved his own path. He made some very good, some bad and always controversial movies but he was able to capture the zeitgeist of the time and make movies that people still talk about. He also had a very strong voice on the Vietnam War with three different movies Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth. You may disagree with him, and I do sometimes but you can’t deny he had a very strong and compelling voice. I also love Christopher Nolen, Spielberg, and Ridley Scott.”

WHAT IS YOUR IDEAL DREAM JOB?

“My ideal dream job is to direct a major motion picture about the Afghanistan War.”

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON HOW HOLLOYWOOD PORTRAYS WAR THROUGH MOVIES LIKE ‘AMERICAN SNIPER’, ‘ZERO DARK THIRTY’, ‘LONE SURVIVOR’, AS FAR AS ACCURACY AND HOW HOLLYWOOD PORTRAYS IT VS. REALITY?

“I think each of these movies has an interesting perspective on war. Some of them are more accurate than others and from a cinema standpoint are extremely well done and I have enjoyed them. I really don’t think we’ve seen a movie that really shows the complexity, humanity, heroism and gruesomeness of our modern wars. All of these movies have been about our ‘elite’ service members from Navy SEALs to CIA officers, but the majority of the men and women fighting on the front lines are regular everyday people that signed up to do a job and found themselves in crazy situations – those are the stories I’m interested in mostly.”

WHAT DOES BEING PART OF THE TILLMAN SCHOLAR COMMUNITY MEAN TO YOU AND WHAT HAS IT ENABLED YOU THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE HAD?

“I am extremely humbled to be a part of the Tillman community and feel like I am unworthy of such a high honor. Some of the people I met during the Pat Tillman Leadership Summit are absolutely extraordinary and have already done some amazing things. The biggest thing that being a Tillman Scholar affords me is to leave the best film school (and the most expensive school) in the world with zero debt. This puts me at a great advantage when I graduate and also makes my wife really happy. Secondly being a Tillman Scholar has introduced me to an amazing community of people that I’m hoping will lead to long lasting friendships.”

HOW DO YOU PLAN TO CARRY FORWARD PAT’S LEGACY THROUGH SERVICE IN THE COMMUNITY?

“Pat was a selfless warrior, a loving husband, a great friend and a bad ass football player and I’m hoping that I can make movies that will share stories like other men/women of Pat’s caliber. This all comes back to stories right? We share Pat’s story because it moves us and pushes us to be better people. I hope that I can tell stories that will help people do just that and if I can touch one person through film making I hope Pat would be proud.”

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