Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hollywood Heroes: Boots On the Ground Report

by Brigadier General Anthony J. Tata

Kicking back listening to Bonnie Tyler belt out “Holding Out For A Hero” made me think of a recent visit to Hollywood where I had the opportunity to speak with a few producers and screenwriters, truly good people all.

Their big message: military films aren’t working. The country is weary and doesn’t want war films as entertainment. Rather, they say, the good citizens of our nation want to escape with the fictional heroes in movies such as “Transformers,” “X-Men,” and “Spider-Man.”

Military movies may not be working because Hollywood presently refuses to capitalize on the real life heroes in combat everyday. Everyone loves a good hero and for Hollywood to embrace the notion that there might be a valorous man or woman worthy of a feature film may lend creditability to the cause for which they are fighting. And we can’t have that.

Instead, their latest war films are partisan propaganda as opposed to realistic and balanced. Somewhere between the screenplay and the final edit group therapy takes place and movie houses release message films as opposed to realistic action movies.
Take for example Lions for Lambs and Redacted.

In Lions for Lambs, two students, the ‘Lambs,’ follow the guidance of a professor to make a difference in the world so they enlist in the Army, only to be left stranded by their chain of command on an Afghan mountaintop as the Taliban execute them. The message? Don’t be a fool and enlist. You will be abandoned. The movie is noticeably absent any true hero as Tom Cruise, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep all pontificate through a collective diatribe. The failing here is that millions of servicemen and women have fought in these wars and their families know that they are true heroes. So a movie that paints their loved ones as misguided sheep rings hollow.

Redacted is worse and more blunt. It sensationalizes a violent criminal act by a small group of Soldiers. Why did De Palma choose the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl as the focus of his movie, using the tagline, “Truth is the First Casualty of War?” It was a heinous, violent crime, but in no way does De Palma’s movie capture the essence of these wars or the spirit of the American fighting men and women. Again, no heroes, only villains, who happen to be American service personnel.

It seems to me that the invasion of Iraq has been a watershed. Instead of gems such as Blackhawk Down, We Were Soldiers, Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, post-Iraq we get political pitch pieces. Hollywood is venting its displeasure with the previous administration’s foreign policy through its films. Yet moviegoers are not so easily fooled and pan the movies that portray the military as bloodthirsty goons or ill-informed morons.

If really is that simple, and Tyler’s lyrics have it right. We are holding out for a hero-the right kind of hero. We need Hollywood to capture the heroism of our troops. The American people know that their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and fathers and mothers are carrying this nation’s rucksack superbly in combat. And everyday there are heroes fighting to deny our enemies the ability to attack our homeland.

One short example takes me back to January 2007 where a young sergeant displayed the everyday valor of American fighting personnel.

Tyler’s lyrics were the furthest thing from my mind as my UH-60 Blackhawk’s composite rotor blades cut through the thin air of the Afghan Hindu Kush Mountains.

For two weeks I had been trying to fly from Bagram Air Base, where the joint task force is headquartered, to a remote operating base near the Pakistan border called the Korengal Outpost. My team had been collecting ‘To Any Soldier” letters and boxes for weeks and the holidays were upon us. However, a sudden snowstorm prevented our movement on Christmas Eve and then again on New Year’s Eve.

But January 5th was a crystal clear day, the winter sun low and bright in the blue sky, perfect for flying…and fighting. So we loaded the Blackhawk and departed early in the morning with the intent of circulating to several small outposts, checking on morale, and ensuring the troops had the equipment they needed, a routine part of senior leader battlefield movement in the 10th Mountain Division.

As we approached Asadabad Base where we would refuel, the radio crackled with the excited chatter of troops in contact just one valley over. They needed air support quickly. I directed my Apache helicopter escort to provide that support and for my Blackhawk to provide cover as his wingman. After emptying all of their ammunition twice in support of the troops in contact, the aircraft returned, picked up my team and we cruised the remaining 15 minutes to the Korengal Oupost where I would link up with Captain Jim McKnight’s rifle company.

As we approached for landing, PKM machine gun fire echoed from two or three directions. Jim McKnight was there to greet me as we disembarked, but it was clear that he had other priorities. Soon machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades were raining down upon our exposed position. The Blackhawk alone took 8 rounds in its cargo door, where we had just been sitting, and the left engine caught on fire. The pilots powered up with the right engine, leaving their crew chief on the ground and yanking his communications cord from his crew helmet.

As rocket propelled grenades begin to crisscross through the outpost like Roman candles, I told Captain McKnight, “Forget about me, go command your company.” Happy to be unburdened from the task of managing a general in his outpost, he got to work. Meanwhile, we hunkered down and returned fire. As we moved toward the command bunker, I caught out of the corner of my eye a Soldier running down to the command post. This Soldier was shot through his left arm, tying off his tourniquet with his teeth.

As he wheeled into the bunker, he hooked a radio handset into his helmet strap with his good hand while his wounded arm was bleeding badly. Soon, it was apparent he was going into shock and that his arm was seriously damaged. He began convulsing and a medic approached him, saying, “I need to take a look at that.”

“Get away from me,” the Sergeant said, bluntly, as he punched numbers into his mortar ballistic computer. The biggest weapon at this firebase was a 120mm mortar that, with the right calculus, could destroy the attackers in quick fashion. This sergeant’s mission was to perform that calculus with the aid of a ballistic computer and then relay the information to the gun crew. Conversely, if he got the math wrong, a misguided round could kill friendly troops or civilians.

He had an important mission.

As the sergeant began to shake from the onset of shock, the medic approached again, and a second time the sergeant refused medical care, this time employing an expletive to keep the intruder at bay.

As enemy machine gun rounds punched through the plywood roof of the bunker and fell to the floor like a Colorado summertime hail storm, the medic approached a third time. Looking up from his ballistic computer the sergeant said, “You can work on me when we get first round down range.”

That was his compromise, which of course was no compromise at all. This Soldier was going to perform his most vital mission until the last drop of his blood fell into the gathering pool at his feet.

Finally, a few minutes later the mortar launched the first round, which was impressively accurate. Soon, the mortar crew was melting the tubes, pumping out high explosive, fin stabilized and deadly accurate rounds onto the enemy.

His mission done, the sergeant pushed the ballistic computer across the table to his assistant, handed him the radio, turned to the medic, and said, “Now you can work on me.”

While it’s not Paul Blart, Mall Cop, there is a good message for Americans in the young Sergeant’s sacrifice. His actions were truly heroic. And the amazing part of this Sergeant’s valor is what came next.

I was privileged to pin on his Purple Heart (2nd Award), the following day in Bagram after we medically evacuated him out of the Korengal Outpost. The sergeant then was evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany and then finally to Walter Reed Army Medical Center where he spent two months getting reconstructive surgery and healing from the gunshot wound.

In the interim, the Secretary of Defense extended by 5 months his brigade combat team’s deployment in Afghanistan, making that brigade’s cumulative time deployed 17 months. As soon as this sergeant was released from Walter Reed Army Medical Center he had every right to go on convalescent leave and chill out. He’d earned that after 11 months of combat and a serious battle wound.

Everyone but perhaps Hollywood knows how this story ends. Our hero scoffed at the notion of taking time off while his buddies were in the thick of it in Afghanistan.

Of course, he was on the next airplane smoking to Bagram.

So, we don’t need to hold out for our heroes. They’re there, right in front of us everyday.

They are holding out for Hollywood’s enormous resources and talent to capture the right heroes doing the right things at the right time. And that’s a timeless story. It’s Hoosiers on the battlefield. Good men and women with solid values placed in difficult circumstances and producing unbelievable results.

On our behalf.

Message to Hollywood: Get to work. If you remove the political lens so that you can see the American heroes fighting the good fight, your only issue will be too many good screenplays and packed movie theaters.

Believe it or not, the America I know is very proud of its men and women in uniform.

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