Alive Day Memories

When I mentioned that I was reviewing military related films and documentaries for this week’s blog posts, my husband suggested I should watch one that he’d recently seen on HBO. He said it was good, but that it would probably make me cry. He was right about it being good and he was almost right about it making me cry.

Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq is a 2007 collaboration between HBO and the late James Gandolfini. It was inspired by a 2004 visit Gandolfini made to Iraq, followed by a visit to Walter Reed. In an interview with HBO, Gandolfini revealed that he believed that Americans didn’t know enough about why our men and women were fighting in Iraq or what they were fighting when they came home. He decided he needed to give voice to the injured and ill, provide them a chance to be heard.

The result is a genuine and raw interview with 10 veterans, Marines and Soldiers. Through a combination of graphic (really, graphic) pictures, home movies, imbedded humvee cameras, and insurgent videos, they outline the events of their “Alive Day” and what its impact has been on their lives. 1Lt Dawn Halfaker talks about her emphatic refusal to use a “claw” and wonders if she can be a good mother despite only having one arm. Pvt Dexter Pitts wonders if one day he will be able to forget all the Iraqi voices without having to take pills. Others wonder if people can or will love them or if they can still love and respect themselves if they can no longer be warriors, if they can no longer meet the warrior standards they are so used to using as the measure of their value?

I think what Alive Day highlighted most for me is that, as a nation, we were unprepared for this new kind of war. In previous wars, we sent off our most young and vital men, because they were mostly men, with the knowledge that they might not return, that they would be lost to us forever, that we would be left with only memories and a tombstone. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been different. Despite the enemy’s use of the one of the most horrific and catastrophic of weapons, the improvised explosive device, men and women who would have died in previous wars are living. What would have been the date on their tombstone is, instead, their “Alive Day.”

Maybe we weren’t truly prepared for caskets at Dover – how can anyone actually be prepared for the death of a loved one? – but we definitely weren’t prepared for the alternative. We weren’t prepared for the missing limbs and the brain injuries and the surgeries in the double digits. We weren’t prepared for men like Sgt Eddie Ryan, USMC, age 22, to go from cracking people up in the barracks with his “crazy legs” dance to a wheelchair and acrylic and titanium plates in his head.

Those who went weren’t prepared for it either. Men and women who join the military are generally passionate, determined, active, fit, “go” people. That’s why we send them, rather than the weak, the cowardly, or the lazy, to meet the enemy. And they are willing to give their lives if asked – I know, because I was– but none of them really thought about how they would handle going from an individual with all your limbs and faculties to being grateful to have at least one hand, so you can clean and wash yourself, as Sgt Bryan Anderson, USA, now a triple amputee, is. I think it is one of the reasons they struggle so much to accept the injuries and illnesses the war has left them with.

But that’s just my interpretation of Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq. Watch it and tell me what you think. You can find out more about the film, and see the HBO interview with Gandolfini I referenced, here.

© 2014, Sarah Maples. All rights reserved.

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