Film Shows ‘Hell’ of War, Recovery

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Part 1 of 4: That Transition Home

The DAV is launching a post-traumatic stress disorder awareness campaign in conjunction with the release of the documentary film Hell and Back Again.

From his embed with U.S. Marine Corps unit in Afghanistan, photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis reveals the devastating impact a Taliban machine-gun bullet has on the life of 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris.

The film seamlessly transitions from stunning war reportage to an intimate, moving portrait of Sgt. Harris’s personal struggle at home in North Carolina, where he confronts the physical and emotional difficulties of re-adjusting to civilian life with the love and support of his wife, Ashley. Masterfully contrasting the intensity of the frontline with the unsettling normalcy of home, Hell and Back Again lays bare the true cost of war.

DAV recently caught up with Dennis to learn more about the film and the Marine whose story makes it so intriguing.

DAV: How did this film get made?

Dennis: I was working as a photojournalist making still images mostly for Newsweek and the New York Times. I felt after several years of war that my images were not really having much impact anymore, so I knew I had to move into a new medium. I wanted to try filmmaking while still bringing the ethics of photojournalism. My goal was to convey as honestly as I can what is happening in front of me. So in July of 2009, I was with the Echo Company of the 2nd Marine Division during the largest combined helicopter/ground assaults since Vietnam. Four thousand Marines were being dropped into insurgent strongholds, and Echo Company was going the furthest out–18 kilometers. We were surrounded and attacked continuously from all sides, so my mind focused around this tiny pile of rubble that became known as “Machine Gun Hill.” After the first day, one Marine had been killed and a dozen had collapsed from heat exhaustion because almost all of us had run out of water. I immediately grasped how hard this conflict was because it was one of the direst situations I had been in. That was when Sgt. Nathan Harris passed me his flask of water and where I first met him. He is an exceptionally courageous leader, so I followed his platoon further into this stronghold.

DAV: So you didn’t realize until much later that he had been injured in Afghanistan.

Dennis: It was not until six months later when I was back in North Carolina for the homecoming of Echo Company and they were stepping off of buses to this very emotional homecoming union with their families. I realized that Sgt. Harris did not step off the bus. I asked where he was and one of the guys said he was hit two weeks before. He was medevac’d out and had undergone multiple surgeries. He had nearly bled to death and was in extreme pain. He invited me back up to his hometown in North Carolina where he introduced me to his wife, friends and his family. As a guy who was over there with him, I was readily accepted into this local community where he lived and where he was recovering. That is when the story became about coming home from war, and I realized the experience of war isn’t simply on the battlefield. It is also that transition home.

DAV: Early in the film there is a stunning sequence that started out in that Wal-Mart parking lot where it seems all the spaces are full and Sgt. Harris finds himself asking, “Is this what I fought to defend?”

Dennis: He has just come back from war and is talking about how frustrating it is just trying to find a parking spot. But he is also getting that feeling of realizing what it means to be this very small percentage –1 percent–of Americans serve in the military. They bear a large burden of this conflict along with their families. It is this small community that goes through this while the rest of the country is almost oblivious. It seems like they don’t even think about it or talk about it. The war in Afghanistan is an idea, an abstraction, far away, distinct, complex and does not affect their daily lives. It is quite hard to reconcile. He has lost close friends and is now at home shopping at Wal-Mart. People are not even thinking about what he has been through, and I think that is some of the struggle he is dealing with. It is difficult when you come from this world of life and death and every decision is critical, then you come back to a society where, first of all, no one can understand what you have just been through. Second, it seems like they don’t even care. They are all at the shopping mall.

Part 2 of 4: A Little Bit Out of Control

DAV: In the beginning of the film, you have this massive operation and you show the ways that Afghanistan could be this epic, large-scale combat. Then you have this juxtaposed against his life back in the states and how reality of everyday life is such a burden to a combat veteran. Is this something you were intending to show?

Dennis: Absolutely. It is one of the things I had witnessed personally. When you get back, it all seems mundane and trivial. It’s bills, relationships, a regular job. It’s just all these things that don’t really compare to the mission and the sense of purpose of the team, the sense of belonging to this particular group. It is hard to come back to because it does seem like you are in kind of awe after you have been through something so epic. I think many do feel this, and many go back because of that reason.

DAV: But then, of course, you follow this up with this funny little scene with him and the Wal-Mart greeter. You really get a good view of his life outside the combat situations and you see what a funny type guy he is and what an engaged, perceptive human being he is. Is this the Sgt. Harris that you know?

Dennis: He is the most open and honest person I have ever met. He lays everything out on the table and hides nothing. He is completely open and honest. I think when I first embedded with his unit, there was some distrust between the Marines and me, an outside journalist. But after we went through some of these very difficult experiences, they learned to trust me, and I learned to trust them. All of us became part of that platoon. So when I came home and he knew that I had been through that same thing with him, he was willing to be completely open with me. I think I was able to get that kind of intimacy that any veteran is willing to share with each other. Usually, they get back and just kind of keep everything to themselves and they don’t talk about it with friends and family. Yet they are completely quick about talking about it, whether it is with a Wal-Mart greeter or a real estate agent or even the guy at the gas station. He would talk honestly about his experiences in Afghanistan with these folks.

That was just the type of guy he was—open, honest and loved and cared by those who were around him, and at the same time, aggressive and a warrior because that was his job as a Marine.

DAV: The “off switch” seems to be difficult to locate at times, and especially it’s even more ambiguous for him because he wants to go back sofor him than a more decisive, career-ending injury?

Dennis: Yes, he was trained from a young age to be a fighter. His father had always wanted to be a Marine but didn’t make it and even trained Nathan to be a Marine. So from a young age, he was trained to shoot, to fight. Nathan became a champion high school wrestler and enlisted in the Marine Corps as soon as he graduated from high school. He always kind of knew he was going to be a Marine and went into it with this kind belief about what war is. There is this romantic, glorified version of it that we think it is. I had this same kind of representation of it when I first went, but then realized this is just a myth. War is far more brutal, and you end up losing your comrades, and this devastation will last for a lifetime. So after his second deployment, he is kind of ready to say he is done. But when he is called up for his third deployment, he says he is ready to go, ready to do it. But he has changed as a person. He doesn’t have the same kind of killer attitude he had before. And now that he is back home and realizes he isn’t going to be able to go back and do it again, so as a leader, he is trying to figure out what his role is now. He is highly dependent on his wife, and he is probably going to retire with full medical benefits. But what will he do then and have the same purpose he had over there? So I think he is trying to figure that out. He doesn’t have the opportunities many had hoped for after service. They thought they would come back, get out and have their job waiting for them. That is not the case. Veterans’ unemployment rates are enormous, far higher than the national average. So I think there is that struggle for him as well. He knows he does well in the service. He is promoted very quickly. Now what’s left is a sort of a shell of the man he used to be. He is not quite sure he knows what his future holds.

DAV: It must have been a revelation to you to see firsthand as someone struggles with the depression and painkiller addiction. Even though the medicines are completely necessary for his recovery, you can see his concern and his doctor’s concern. What was that like to witness?

Dennis: Yeah, it was just part of this other world that we embarked on after we got home. He goes from this world where he was leading men and clearing out villages to where he became completely dependent on his medications. And he is pretty honest that he is on some of the strongest medications. He would go through withdrawal symptoms if he did not get his meds on time. So he became aware of this entirely new struggle of being dependent on these pills.

I think he felt a little bit out of control. He knew if he did not take these medications on time, he would go through extremely bad withdrawals. He knew he had to take them because the pain was so bad. He does become completely reliant on them and it becomes another part of his life depending on them. He feels he has good doctors and good pain management team. But in the end, he is the one who has to try to go through it and wean himself off [the drugs].

Part 3 of 4: This Invisible Ghost

DAV: There is an idea that, as feelings about the war became more ambiguous, you start seeing higher rates of suicide, PTSD and addiction. Do you see that ambiguity and our society’s ignorance of the war contributing to some of the problems these men and women are experiencing?

Dennis: Yes, I agree with that. It was shown when the public was against the Vietnam War, the rates of suicide and PTSD were much higher because of not knowing if what they were doing was right. I think it is very different for these modern wars. Men and women are fighting on our behalf because of the policies of their government. It’s their job. Overall, most support the veteran community. They may or may not support the war itself, but that is a completely different political matter. But for those on the ground doing their job, the support is strong. So I think that is a big difference between Vietnam and the current wars. What also is very important to remember is the number of deployments. What these men and women are going through, we have never seen before. In Vietnam, soldiers often did one tour and came back. Some current Marines and soldiers are going five, six times over and over again. So we are seeing numerous types of injuries that we have never seen before because of the amount of exposure to time in trauma and combat.

DAV: It seems like you were trying to convey that Afghanistan can be a very confusing, very difficult mission.

Dennis: It was very frustrating. Nobody in southern Helmand province had ever seen any western forces before. So in these situations where the villagers had all fled this area because of the fighting, they did start coming back and talking to Marines. But they were hesitant to offer any sort of help. They knew the Taliban were extremely strong in that region and if they were caught giving any assistance or aid to the Marines, they could be executed. So the Marines are usually there to help, but the locals aren’t that open to receiving it because they know the Marines will [be pulled out] in the future at some point. And yet, there is no support for the Taliban. They are so harsh that no one even wants to come back. So the Afghans there are really just trying to stay in the middle and not help either side. They just try to get through it without getting involved and live their own lives. Yet they really can’t. The Taliban come in at night, and the Marines come in during the day, each pulling them in different directions. They are really stuck in the middle. As for the Marines, they can’t reor who is a villager; who is carrying an AK47 and who isn’t. It is hard for them to develop a level a trust in the people who they are trying to help. And the enemy is completely invisible. They are these ghosts that use clever traps. The frustration makes counterinsurgency difficult psychologically because it is not traditional warfare where you have an enemy to fight in front of you. You are fighting this invisible ghost, and there is no one you can trust. That adds another whole layer of pressure.

DAV: You are talking about how we have a very small percentage of America who is fighting these wars on our behalf and who understands what service really means. But there are these scenes in the film of Nathan being mesmerized by the violent war video game “Call of Duty.” What does that say to you? You have this warrior, this person who had seen actual combat, playing a game where it is trivial?

Dennis: I think that is something I am trying to get across, and I am personally affected by just how little understanding there is of what it means to serve your country and what it means to actually be at war. Our country has been at war for nearly 10 years, and it doesn’t feel like it. There are only those relatively few who served who know what the real costs are. And yet, we have the rest of the population with their view of war–especially for young men–formed by these video games. The rest of us can watch all the news reports, read all the newspapers, but they will never know what it feels like to go to war and what it feels like to come home from war. With my film I try to bring it closer to home and in real terms. I intended to give this very unmerciful view into this war that is as honest and truthful portrayal as possible.

But it is more. People back at home don’t really know what war looks or feels like. What they are seeing is far from what the truth is. This film shows someone who came back from the real version and is still confronted and absorbed in some ways by what most of America sees and these false representations.

Part 4 of 4: And She Is Tired

DAV: It seems like for much of the film, Sgt. Harris’s wife Ashley is a long-suffering ghost in this man’s landscape. She just quietly endures this great difficulty, all the while looking like a typical young, pretty woman. Then finally you see her personality emerge, especially at the end when she finally opens up to someone filling her husband’s prescription. She just lets loose on this stranger in a very sad way.

Dennis: When I first started filming, I was a complete stranger to her. So I didn’t film her at first. Over time, she felt comfortable with my presence and in front of the camera. I had already had that experience of being acquainted with her husband. It was just the three of us and I really did not want to intrude and make her feel uncomfortable. So I didn’t really film her for quite a while. But she was always around Nathan, so in that kind of dynamics you see a certain side of her personality. And then in that pharmacy, she feels like she had to get it off her chest while she had the chance. That was one of the few times when Nathan wasn’t right there. So it felt like it was something that was quite honest and something she needed to say in one of these rather rare opportunities where it was just the two of us.

But she really is an angel. She is just always there for him. She is so patient. And many lesser women would have left that situation and would not have put up with his kind of caregiving which is exhausting. And she is tired. She has been through so much. She has been through the deployments and now this injury.

DAV: Do you think documentary film making is more effective to understanding the policy as a whole? Or is it more effective in understanding one person’s involvement in the war?

Dennis: I think it gets down to the essence of what warfare is and what it means for someone to go to war and what it means for those at home who receive these warriors back. I think by slowing it down to one Marine’s story, it boils down the war into something we can relate to. It is one province, one village, one town in America. I think it is something we can turn and look through to get a better view of the bigger picture. So while it may not reflect what the actual policies are and what the actual generals say, this is a real and honest portrayal of war.

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