BY NATHAN PAYNE
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A long road landed Billy Heck in the small film booth perched at the rear of the State Theatre in downtown Traverse City.
"There's a lot of steps in this film booth to make everything run right," said Heck, the State Theatre's projectionist, as he pushed a button to check the alignment of the next film on the screen.
He peeked through a window in the front of the booth to see the screen, while someone's voice crackled on his handheld radio.
"Julie to Billy," the woman said. "The house is empty."
Heck's face reflected in the thick glass next to the theater's hulking digital projector. He smiled. He might not have recognized that face just a few months ago. He saw a confident man who takes pride in his work.
All Heck needed was a chance, an opportunity, to get his life moving in the right direction.
Three months ago, the Iraq war veteran worked the night shift at Home Depot loading trucks and going nowhere fast. Heck, 28, was doing everything he could to make ends meet for his family. He worked hard, but it was not the career he once envisioned.
He didn't whine, or look for sympathy. He did his job, followed orders, earned a paycheck.
Then, in May, just two days after buying a house with his wife of two years, the same day the couple learned they would soon be parents of twins, he received a phone call. It was Michael Moore, founder of the Traverse City Film Festival. The call changed Heck's life.
Moore offered the Manton native a job as a full-time projectionist, the first such position under the Film Festival's new policy to hire and train military veterans.
"One of the most difficult things for our troops when they return to civilian life is finding employment," Moore said during a March press conference when he announced the policy. "We need to do whatever we can to make life good for people who are returning to Traverse City."
Heck earned an Army discharge in 2007 after a piece of shrapnel from a mortar round sliced into his right ear. The "one in a million" shot destroyed the inside of the right ear of a man who enlisted in the Air Force when he was 17. It ended what he intended to be a 30-year career serving his country.
He wasn't ready to be done with his service, but the Army doesn't have room for soldiers with disabilities.
"Really, I was perfect for the military," Heck said. "If it's got to be done, that's what I do. I ruled the world back then. Then, you go to war and everything changes."
He served an enlistment with the Air Force, then re-enlisted with the Army. He was deployed with a unit in Fallujah and Ramadi during the most hard-fought battles of the war. Heck, an Army Specialist at the time, was in line for a promotion to sergeant. But, a split second and a small piece of metal derailed his plans.
The stout, athletic man tried to take the curve ball in stride. He picked up a job with a Traverse City plumbing company and tried to manage his post-traumatic stress disorder with support from his family.
Then, in 2008, he was laid off. In 2009, Heck began to lose feeling in the right side of his face, lost his equilibrium and underwent emergency surgery to remove a piece of shrapnel that remained lodged in the side of his head.
"I was depressed," he said. "I have a great family. They pulled me through it. The last six months of 2009, I was pretty well done for. My twin brother dragged me along."
Heck previously had done some video editing and had volunteered at the State Theatre, but he had no clue what it took to run a projector, let alone with the precision demanded by the Film Festival. But Moore and others took a chance on him.
Joe Perkette, veteran projectionist at the theater, spent the past few months schooling Heck on the inner workings of the small booth.
On Friday, during the thick of the Film Festival, Heck swapped films and prepared for the next screening. The man who peered back at him in the glass was a man he hadn't seen in some time.
This guy had some confidence. And a future.