On October 26th, I had the opportunity to attend the premiere of National Geographic’s new mini-series “The Long Road Home.” Based on the 2007 book by Emmy Award-winning ABC White House correspondent Martha Raddatz, the book chronicles the point in time when Sadr City moved from being a throw away deployment to one of the most dangerous and brutal places for American soldiers to serve. The mini-series focuses on April 4, 2004 – Palm Sunday – and the events that have led to its renaming in certain circles as “Black Sunday.”
After a reception, all of the guests filed into the auditorium at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, DC. As individuals took their seats, the vibe in the room was one of excitement. People had spotted members of the cast in the room and they were anxious to see the full 90-minute first episode. After a short introduction by Courteney Monroe, CEO of National Geographic Global Networks and wife of a “former Marine” (her words, Marines!), followed by a few words by Martha Raddatz, the lights dimmed and the first images flashed on the screen. The series opens with a graphic and brutal scene inside the ill-equipped medical tent at Camp War Eagle. The sight sent a jolt through the viewers and the feeling in the room shifted. Excitement was replaced by gravity and awe and an intense focus – the series most definitely had our attention. Once it was sure we were paying attention, it eased up on the tension, shifting back in time to the moment the members of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division boarded buses at Ft. Hood on their way to their deployment.
The camera focuses on the intimate moments between family members – husband and wife, father and children, mother and son, siblings – that accompany the last moments before your service member departs on what, at best, is an entire year of absence, of distance, of lost moments, of worry, and what, at worst, is the last moment your life will ever be like it is, unchanged by gaping holes in unit formations, widowhood, and survivors’ guilt. I have experienced both sides of that tradition. In 2006, as an Air Force intelligence officer, I deployed to Afghanistan. As a single individual, saying goodbye to my family meant flying from my duty station in California to Florida. I remember telling my mother not to watch the news, because I wouldn’t have the time to call her every time they reported an explosion and I knew she wouldn’t remember the difference between Kandahar and Kabul. I remember holding any anxiety inside, trying not to let them see it. I remember my mother texting me after I headed to the airport that my sister had collapsed on the floor, sobbing that it might be the last time she would ever see her sister alive. Three years later, this time as a new Army wife, I would drive my then husband to Ft. Benning for a year-long deployment to Kuwait. Even with my experience in the military, and even knowing it was “just” Kuwait, that year was sheer torment. The Long Road Home captures both sides of this coin beautifully.
I think it does a particularly good job with the families, specifically the portrayal of the children – an aspect that I think has been ignored or poorly handled in a number of other productions. For me, one of the most agonizing moments in those ninety minutes is when one of the young children screams, “I hope you never come back!” Another moment that stands out is when one of the wives receives a call from her husband in the middle of church. I know that feeling, how you will interrupt anything – grocery shopping, a doctor’s appointment, a shower – for a few precious moments of your service member’s voice. Despite changes in the composition of military families and the advances in social media, the experiences of the families left behind have not changed much since they were captured in previous films, such as the Vietnam-era “We Were Soldiers,” and the focus on what they are experiencing at home only serves to highlight even more the violence their loved ones experience downrange.
Throughout the first episode, the story moves between the soldiers in country and the families at home. It is told in pieces, with the lens focused on the story of first one soldier and his family and then another. In the first episode, you meet Lieutenant Aguero, played by E.J. Bonilla, and Lieutenant Colonel Gary Volesky, played by Michael Kelly. Kelly was in the audience and, during the Q&A after the showing, said that he initially wasn’t going to be involved in the production, as the timing didn’t work for his family. But after reading the first four episodes in quick succession and Googling Volesky, Kelly was relieved when he showed his wife a video of Volesky and she said, “You gotta play that guy.”
Overall, the portrayals of soldiers in the film come across as genuine and authentic. This is largely attributable to the involvement of Aaron Fowler and Eric Bourquin, veterans of 1st Cav and technical experts involved in the making of the series. They took turns on the set, answering the questions of the cast and crew – including a request by Kelly to explain how to get in and out of a Humvee in full battle rattle (they made him practice it) – and ensuring that the details were correct. While scenes may have been dramatized or pieces and people moved around, Aaron said, “the core of the story is telling the truth” and that the set, which was built entirely on Ft. Hood, was “so realistic…except for the smell.” Additionally, all of the vehicles (except the ones that were destroyed during filming) were provided by the Army and most of the extras are Active Duty personnel or veterans.
All that authenticity combined to push a single theme – the complete unpreparedness of the soldiers for what was coming. Echoes of “Blackhawk Down” are woven into the scenes – not literally, but if you’ve seen that movie, you’ll feel it - that same knowing, that same agitation as you watch those last moments of innocence, as you identify the gaps, such as the lack of armor, that will make such a difference later. As the tempo picked up and the average Joe banter was replaced by the sound of gunfire, what air was left was quickly sucked from the room and you could feel the tension rising among the audience members. While the larger moments – the first soldier getting wounded, the first word reaching the women at home as they come out of church – gripped me, it was the smaller details – the sweat beading on the cheek of a soldier not even old enough to shave, the quick narrowing of the eyes by the Sergeant that shows he doubts what he’s just been told, tiny brown letters spelling out a blood type on a helmet – that had the greatest impact.
As I sat there watching, I felt this strange disconnect – part of me immersed in the story and the other immersed in my own memories. The men in the film were wearing my uniform, the same one I wore to Afghanistan and to Saudi for the start of the war in Iraq. Looking at those desert uniforms on that gigantic screen, I could feel again the press of that uniform against my skin and the weight of my steel-toed boots. I could feel my arm shoving my cover into my cargo pocket, a movement I haven’t made in ten years. But their experiences on April 4, 2004, could not have been further from what I was doing that day – an Air Force first lieutenant ninety days into a new assignment in Germany, likely enjoying schnitzel while the men of 1st Cav were bleeding on the streets of Sadr City. The two juxtaposition mixed inside me in an odd combination of camaraderie and guilt. I cannot change where I was on “Black Sunday.” Out of the service now, I will never bear the scars that the men of 1st Cav bear. But I can bear witness to their story. I can recognize their sacrifice. I can experience, at least for ninety minutes an episode, the gravity of what they endured. And I can encourage others to do the same.
The series, which launches November 7th, is comprised of eight episodes. And, if you can handle the intensity, I recommend you watch them all. I certainly intend to.
You can find clips of the series here.
You can find more about Martha Raddatz here.
And find reviews of her book here.