Fort Bliss, the place, played a role in my past. After my parents divorced when I was five, my mother joined the Army in order to be able to pay the bills. After basic, she was stationed at Ft. Bliss as a personnelist. Initially, my brother and I stayed elsewhere – first with what would turn out to be an awful family and then with my grandparents – until we could join her in El Paso. I don’t remember much from that time – a little Spanish learned in Kindergarten, the introduction of the man that would become my stepfather – but the thing that stands out the most is being bundled off incredibly early in the morning, still in PJs, to the babysitter’s house, so mom could make it to morning PT. It’s a scene that has played out in the lives of many military children and one that was portrayed perfectly in Fort Bliss the movie.
The movie, winner of the GI Film Festival’s “Best Narrative Feature” award, centers around Staff Sergeant Maggie Swann, played by Michelle Monaghan, an Army medic and mother to five year old Paul. While it starts in Afghanistan and flashes a few times back to the combat zone, the movie was filmed on location in Fort Bliss and a majority of the movie takes place there, focusing on what happens between deployments. It shines a light on the difficulty of transitioning – not just for the servicemember, but for the family members; the disappointments that come with landing back on US soil, only to find things changed and not how you expected them to be; and how the path to steady state can be bumpy and, just when you think you’ve gotten it figured out, the military can knock it loose again.
While the movie does touch on topics such as sexual assault, mental health issues, and the civilian-military divide, it doesn’t belabor them. Instead, it presents a much more realistic, day-to-day, emotional picture of the balance between soldier and caregiver, service and self. It presents the unvarnished truth of the hard choices that Swann has to make for herself, her unit, and her son. Choices similar to the ones my mother had to make – first turning down a chance to attend the Defense Language Institute (where I, ironically, would end up during my military career) because it meant too much time away from me and my brother and, finally, deciding to the leave the Army – and which so many other military women have had to face.
When I first saw the previews for the movie a few months ago, my comment was that it looked like someone was finally getting it right when it came to women who serve. I’d have to say my initial assessment was correct. While Swann’s military story wasn’t my exact story, it had aspects that I could relate to or experiences I’d had. Overall, I found Swann’s character to be believable – the actress said in an interview that she spent a lot of time hanging out with female soldiers at Bliss and it shows; the movie to be intense; and many of the scenes – like the sex and a few of the interactions with Swann’s fellow soldiers, to have a very raw, gripping quality. I appreciated the nuance – nothing is neat and tidy, easy, or whitewashed. While non-fiction works, such as Tanya Biank’s Undaunted or Dr. Heidi Kraft’s Rule Number Two, have done an excellent job portraying women servicemembers, so far, Fort Bliss is the best fictional attempt to do so that I’ve seen.
If you haven’t seen Fort Bliss, check it out. You can get a preview here and you can find the full thing on your preferred viewing method (I watched mine On Demand).
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