Tuesday, December 7, 2010

'Restrepo' gives unvarnished look at war in Afghanistan

By Marion Tucker-Honeycutt

Mark your calendars: Monday, Nov. 29, 9-11 p.m., National Geographic will be airing the much-acclaimed documentary, "Restrepo," the war movie of one platoon filmed by embeds Sebastian Junger, (author of "The Perfect Storm") and Tim Hetherington, a photojournalist from Great Britain.

Junger and Hetherington spent a total of one year embedded with the now renowned platoon, 2nd-503rd, Battle Co., of the 173rd Airborne, on their 15-month deployment in "The Valley of Death," the Korengal Valley in the Kunar Province of northeastern Afghanistan.

"Restrepo," a raw, unvarnished, as-it-happens film, is a no-holds-barred, no Hollywood stars, no political agenda, no "brass" input, movie that puts the audience "boots on the ground" with our soldiers who do the heavy lifting. The movie won the top award, the Grand Jury Prize, at the Sundance Film festival in January, was shown in select theaters across the country this summer and fall, picking up many more prizes, and has just made the cut for the short list at the Academy Awards.

Sgt. Michael T. Cunningham, of Battle Co., grew up in Morrill and Belfast, attending area schools. In the movie, he has what his "brothers" call the funniest scene, in keeping with his upbeat personality. Cunningham kept a low profile during filming, as he knew, unlike most of the company, that he would be going back to Afghanistan for another deployment. Face and name recognition is not a good thing to provide the enemy. (Cunningham just returned to his home base in Italy after that second deployment.)

The cameras did catch him sleeping, however, and came up from behind him while he was manning a machine gun placement, looking off into the valley. He has a cheery conversation with the cameraman where he jokes about one thing that keeps him going — a ranch back in Texas (his grandfather's) where it's peaceful.
Battle Company was isolated on a rocky perch high up on a mountainside overlooking the six-mile-long, Taliban-infested Korengal Valley, a two-hour mountain hike with full gear from the nearest KOP. They were sent out to establish a fire base between the Taliban and the rest of military. They would be "the point of the spear."

The Taliban was not happy. The Americans came under immediate fire. They would pickax all night to build cover and be engaged in firefights almost every day. (They would "engage" in more than 1,000 firefights in that 15 months.) They named their little perch Restrepo, after one of their buddies, Juan Restrepo, one of the first killed in the Valley.

They would be ambushed on patrols and engaged in some of the heaviest battles of the war, losing many of their men. So isolated was the fire base, they had no running water, no power, no hot food, no showers, no computers — as Junger described it: "We were, essentially, on Mars."

Battle Company, a handful of men out of the 70,000 soldiers in country, were to go through 20 percent of the fighting. They began to be noticed. Admiral Mike Mullen himself, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted on going there to present a round of medals in person — one of them to Cunningham. ABC's "Nightline" did a documentary on them, Vanity Fair did two features and the New York Times Magazine did a cover story on them. They were on CNN and MSNBC.

And then Junger and Hetherington wrote and directed the movie, using their film footage. Their theme was simply to show what war is like for the soldier on the ground, as it happens. No script, no plot, no theme. Just war as it is, from firefight to firefight, from isolation, deprivation, boredom to raw emotions and losses that most of us will never know.

Junger's book, "War," that corresponds to the movie, hit the shelves an instant best seller in May. Hetherington's book of photos, "Infidel," is now out. (The soldiers could often hear the Taliban soldiers, on their radios, referring to them as the "infidels," so they adopted the name.)

National Geographic bought both the film and broadcast rights. The airing Monday night will include the movie and a followup: "Where Are They Now," as well as piece on Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, 1st Platoon, who was just awarded the first Medal of Honor for a living soldier since the Vietnam War. He earned it during one of the fiercest battles in the valley, "Rock Avalanche" (featured in the ABC documentary and available on YouTube and DVD). He is, as America is seeing, an example of the stuff of which these soldiers are made. Be proud, America.

Thank you for your service, Battle Company, and welcome home. (Those still serving in the unit are now at their home base in Vicenza, Italy.) National Geographic's DVD is available for pre-order on Amazon and will be released soon.

Article first appeared in the Village Soup Republican Journal, November 24, 2010

Marion Tucker-Honeycutt is a resident of Morrill. Sgt. Michael Cunningham is her grandson.