A Side Trip To Afghanistan

Taking a breather after sweeping for mines in an Afghan village.

 It’s been a while between postings – some unexpected writing assignments came up, and there was also a week in San Francisco. I’m still planning on getting to Asheville, North Carolina ASAP to talk to musicians, recording magnates and other purveyors of roots music, but until then here’s a heads-up on a film about another subject this blog has taken up, military deployment.

 “Where Soldiers Come From,” a new film about deployment and its consequences, airs Nov. 10 at 9 p.m.on PBS. It will stream Nov. 11-Dec. 11 at http://www.pbs.org/pov/wheresoldierscomefrom. Readers who enjoyed my Wall Street Journal piece, “While My Son Serves” (scroll down a bit; you’ll find it), will likely find this POV presentation worthy of your time.

It follows the deployment of a National Guard unit from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Afghanistan, then back home again. The project was four years in the making and is fast paced yet thorough. Those with family members who have deployed will see a lot of their own experiences here, while those who haven’t will get a clear-eyed view of how deployment affects families.

Director Heather Courtney, who is from the same hometown (Hancock) as several of the soldiers,  says the film “is about the people who fight our wars and the communities and families they come from.  Many Americans, whatever their politics or feelings about war, are very far removed from theIraq and Afghanistan wars because they don’t know anyone personally who has served in them as a soldier. I hope that my film will help viewers get to know these young men and their families, feel compassion for them and see a bit of themselves in the people on the screen.”

The film is entirely respectful of the soldiers and their families, though no one will mistake this for a military recruiting film – or an anti-war film, either. For my money, it’s a straight-ahead, non-dramatic look at a group of young men – ranging from late teens to early 20s – and their families and friends making the best of an often hard situation.  

The soldiers signed up during lean times; the military gave them work, a $20,000 signing bonus, a promise of an underwritten education and, for some, a purpose in life.  Plus, they were young and looking for adventure, or at least looking to get out of Michigan. They found plenty of thrills, though we are eventually reminded that adventure can wear you down, and definitely change your perspective.

Courtney takes us through the early days of training, a time when soldiers wonder if they’ll really go overseas, and, if they do, if some of them won’t make it back home. We see the fateful day the deployment orders come through, then scenes from a farewell party: plenty of booze and stiff upper lips. Then they’re off.

The soldiers are fairly carefree as they go about their job: detonating Improvised Explosive Devices along Afghan roadways. Their banter is light and wide-ranging: “I don’t want to kill anyone,” says one soldier, while a pal chirps in on another universal subject: “Have you had sex yet?” Many conversations in the film, one should add, are undertaken in language my soldier son calls an “incredible mosaic of obscenity.”

Then – Boom! – a bomb goes off and things get serious very quickly. If you’ve never seen footage of an IED detonating, there is plenty of that here. Some attacks result in wounds, though Courtney spares us the gore.

Courtney also keeps the families in focusing, reminding viewers that when one family member is deployed, the entire family is deployed. Parents will definitely associate with a father who tells of continuously fearing that “knock on the door” from a Pentagon representative bearing bad news. A girlfriend says there’s “lots of depression. Life is very different.” We see families communicating via Skype, conversations that are deeply heartfelt but sometimes awkward; a combination of joy, relief, and trying to come up with small talk. 

Back in Afghanistan, the stress begins taking its toll.

In their barracks, soldiers talk about having a hard time sleeping. One develops ulcers and adult asthma. A shift in attitude appears universal.

“I hate everybody here,” one soldier says. “I’m a racist American now because of this war.” Other soldiers have become somewhat disillusioned. The people of Afghanistan, one says, are “stricken with a burden that seems unfixable. What is the point in all this? Who am I fighting this war for?”  There is talk of suffering “too many concussions” from being “blown up too many times.”

Yet there is also a high level of compassion, even for their adversaries. One soldier sympathizes with the people who are trying to kill him, suggesting that if he were a native he might be doing the same thing. After a cache of explosives is found near a home,  concerns are raised about what will happen to the family now that the man of the house is  being arrested and taken away. One soldier asks what anyone would do if a Taliban insurgent ordered us to either shoot at convoys and  hide explosives — or see our children killed by the Taliban. As for the children, they “are unbelievable. They never stop smiling.”

Finally, it’s time to come home. “It’s just like being pregnant,” says one mother. “It’s on you mind every day until they get back.” When they do, life is decidely different. Getting back into the swing of civilian life can be very difficult – finding a job, restarting relationships – especially when some soldiers suffer from post traumatic stress disorder or a brain injury. One lapses into fits of extreme anger.  The hidden toll of war, we are reminded, can last far longer than the deployment itself.

This is a film worth watching, for military and non-military families alike. Many thanks to Cathy Fisher of POV for sending it along. On a personal note, our family appreciates the concerns and prayers sent aloft on behalf of “Sarge,” whom we expect to reappear in Virginia sometime in December or January. And here at Veteran’s Day, we are especially thankful for the service and safe return of  soldiers we know, including Ben, Josh, Ralph, Mike, Smitty and Chip. We are proud to call you our friends.

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About Dave Shiflett

Dave Shiflett is a writer -- former critic for Bloomberg News and a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other publications -- and author of several books, including one with Donald Trump ("The America We Deserve"). He also writes and performs music and has released four CDs -- "Time Goes Rushing By" (Floor Creak); "Songs for Aging Cynics" (The Karma Farmers); "Afternoon Lamentations" (Dave Shiflett and Friends) and "From the First Time" (Dave Shiflett and Friends).
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One Response to A Side Trip To Afghanistan

  1. Michael says:

    …Finally… Substance…., in a film and music world of non talent and celebrities…May your light continue to shine…..great story telling……

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