Two weeks ago I received an email from someone requesting my opinion about a documentary that would be airing on PBS for Veterans Day. I had serious misgivings about my qualifications. I am not a movie critic.
I’m a military spouse, and a temporary one at that. I may have grown up a Navy brat and married an active duty Navy man, but I’ve been a reservist spouse most recently. For years I’ve been totally removed from the daily sacrifice that active duty families experience. I thought about the sacrifices associated with my freedom approximately four times a year: The Fourth of July, Veterans Day, Election Day, and Memorial Day.
Then, in September 2010, my husband was mobilized to the Middle East and was gone for a little over a year. After that, I thought about those sacrifices more. An awful lot more.
Still, I hardly felt qualified to give my opinion about a military documentary. I agreed to watch it, but not to write anything specific. My husband and I sat down after the kids went to bed and watched it together. Parts of it were hard to watch.
“Where Soldiers Come From” is the kind of story where you can’t quite figure out what’s going on. It’s uncomfortable. You want to hear a narrator explain the significance of the equipment, the location or the mission, but you aren’t given that luxury. Slowly I started to realize that the film kept me right where the boys in the film were: lost, muddling through, and making it up as they went along.
“The boys” are a group of young friends in rural Michigan who sign up for the Army National Guard to keep from getting bored, to earn some extra cash, to follow in family footsteps, and to hang out with their childhood friends. The announcement that they will be deployed to Afghanistan right before Christmas isn’t totally unexpected. Yet it’s clearly dumbfounding to both the soldiers and their families.
Unlike some other Middle East war documentaries I’ve seen, this one isn’t about a particular base or battle or machine or even a specific failure or success. It’s just about people. It’s about expectations, change, and choice. But mostly, it’s about what the sacrifice looks like after they all come home.
“Where Soldiers Come From” isn’t a glamorous patriotic tale about our best and brightest young adults intentionally signing up to serve their great country in an effort to defend the freedoms and liberties of their Nation. In fact, it’s more about a group of disillusioned, out of work, undereducated young men who aren’t particularly sacrificial when making the decision to serve. They seem to be in it for all the wrong reasons. But over the course of a deployment they encounter foreign people they’ve never conceived of, they face the very real possibility of death and the potentially worse fate of permanent injury, they feel the effects of prolonged isolation in a foreign land without the bulk of the very freedoms they’re fighting to protect, and they succumb to severe depression and sleeplessness when they internalize all these struggles. As you watch them grow, they become the strangest of heroes. They become young American patriots who strive to justify their sacrifices by leaning on the choices they made long before they understood what would be asked of them, while simultaneously feeling embittered by a sacrifice that they don’t ultimately understand. And neither do their proud friends and families back home.
It’s a profound dichotomy to watch as it develops. Nobody saves a life. Nobody sees the results of an accomplished mission and feels satisfied. Nobody comes home and feels like a hero. Nobody comes home and concludes that the sacrifice is over. The effects of war continue long after they come home.
After the film was over, I asked my husband some questions about his deployment and heard for the first time about a rocket strike that occurred the first night he arrived in Bagram, Afghanistan. I listened intently, almost holding my breath, pretending not to be shocked. I thought about the young inexperienced boys in the film, about my husband’s significant training and maturity advantages, and about how none of it mattered: those rocket strikes were obviously indiscriminate. But in coming to that realization, I was left knowing that the sacrifice of war isn’t found in the events that actually occur. Rather, it’s found in the willingness to step in harm’s way, whether you are informed and mature about the consequences or not. My husband didn’t come home with a purple heart. But he was willing to come home with one. Everyone I know who ever deployed was willing to come home with one. And for that act alone, they are my heroes. They are my heroes over and over again.
If you’d like to catch a glimpse inside the lives of several young men as they make that choice to become heroes for the first time, you can watch “Where Soldiers Come From” on Thursday, November 10, 2011 on PBS at 9pm. It will also be streaming live from November 11 – December 11 at www.pbs.org/pov/wheresoldierscomefrom
Last year on Veterans Day I was focused on the sacrifices borne by those who have lost their lives in foreign lands protecting our freedoms. That’s easy to understand because by definition a Veteran is someone who has served in an overseas conflict. But this year, I’ll be thinking of something completely different. Instead, I’ll be thankful to the survivors who continue to protect our freedoms, and the families and supporters who allow them to keep doing it – even though they already know first-hand what the sacrifice looks like.
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I know you’re all waiting patiently for the final installment of our homecoming story. Parts One and Two seem to have been written so long ago. It’s been a difficult to find the time to write due to the typical transitions associated with a servicemember’s return home. However, I’m happy to report that Part Three will make its appearance here on Veterans Day, and that my regular writing schedule is set to resume in the following weeks.
Thanks for giving me the time I needed to regroup and welcome my husband home. I miss you, and I miss writing, and there’s nothing that could keep me away from you for very long. ~ Lori