Some of you might not know that four years ago, I worked as the outreach coordinator on the film, Restrepo. This film followed the men of the 2/503, Battle Co. of the 173rd ABN. Both a kinetic and emotional experience, the film took audiences into the belly of war, showing people what war is, what it looks like, and how it is to fight.
After the death of Tim Hetherington, for whom this blog was started, Tim decided to embark on the project they both had discussed. To make a film with some of the hundreds of hours left over and unused, that would look at war in a different way. And so now, I’ve been called back. The film is ready to launch on May 30 in NYC, then across the country throughout the summer. The team is back together, Battle Co and ever troop who ever served in the Korengal have been alerted. We’re back. Without Tim. Without so many friends –troops who died then, and more recently. But their loss just signifies the growing need for the stories of war to be told now, and not left to be brushed off only to be varnished with a coat of nostalgia.
Korengal is a more visceral experience. It asks the questions, how do soldiers fight? What is courage, and what is fear? What happens to you when you lose one friend, then two, then three? What do you tell your family back home, when you finally get to talk to them? What’s the impact of daily firefights, and when does it all turn so surreal that the only thing certain about your situation in a remote combat outpost is the uncertainty itself.
Same valley. Same men. Same ferocious fight. Their stories continue.
Watch Jason Mace and Michael Cunningham talk about the film at the Little Rock Film Festival.
December 5 is Tim Hetherington’s Birthday. WarRetreat was started in his honor, following his untimely death this year in Libya. Tim will always be remembered for is his many embeds with the 2/503, Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. The relationships he formed with the men were the basis of the film Restrepo, Tim’s book Infidel, and Sebastian Junger’s book WAR. To mark Tim’s birthday, WarRetreat is pleased to have Eric Ortegren from Battle Company, share his thoughts.
By Eric Ortegren
We became hardened men in the Korengal. Most interaction with media was disliked and carried the weight of bad luck. This was really brought home to me when Al Jazeera English came to my remote Fire Base Vegas for a tour. While our Platoon Sergeant SFC Blaskowski was showing the reporter around, a single round rang out. We ran to our posts and lit up the whole forest, but no more shots came at us. After a brief lull we heard the shout for medic. I grabbed a radio and ran down, only to see SFC Ski sucking for air. It was one of the worst days of my life to work so hard to keep him alive, and watch as life left his eyes before the medevac bird even landed. Needless to say reporters had a stigma.
I met Sebastian and Tim while refitting at the KOP and was surprised to learn that I instantly liked them. It helped that I planned at that time to be a commercial fisherman when I got out and Sebastian had written the best fishing story (The Perfect Storm) since The Old Man And The Sea, which I had read multiple times.
These men were a genuine shock because they actually wanted to know us. They cared about us. Over a short time they proved to not get anyone killed, or cower and put us at risk. A paradigm shift occurred that I had never heard of in American military circles. We accepted them as our own.
We protected them just like the man to our left and right, which is a very sacred brotherhood that few are given the privilege to enter. I dare say: We grew to love them, and they grew to love us. It was because they took a new approach and wanted to report on us not the war.
Tim and Sebastian made us human in a war where the American public had become detached. They forced America to see that the men on the front lines who lived in fear and anticipation (every waking moment) and are now plagued by it in our nightmares –were the same kids that used to play football at the big homecoming games. The same guys who worked at the Subway down the street. (Sal Giunta) We weren’t superhuman assassins intent on killing, and we earned a Medal of Honor for one of the most laid back non overbearing men I have ever met. We were normal men doing extraordinary things all with the hope to bring your man to the left and right home alive.
Sebastian and Tim showed it in such an eloquent way in their film Restrepo that a country that was numb to our plight gained their long-lost empathy. For that we are forever indebted to them. For that Tim will be among the pantheon of heroes. His legend will go on inspiring a whole new generation of photojournalists to take it as far as they can.
I was medically retired after leaving the Korengal about nine months in. The transition back to civilian life was the most difficult time in my life. The lack of camaraderie is what made it so hard. My marriage suffered, my family suffered, my identity suffered. I came back a shattered remnant of the man I was before. Making peace with who I have become was amazingly difficult. But we are Sky Soldiers, and we drive on and continue the mission.
I am finishing up with my first semester towards a Masters in Clinical Social Work hoping to work on veteran reintegration as there is a great need. My desire is to continue the professional development of soldiers. I participate with many wounded warrior functions and was recently given the amazing opportunity to fly in the wounded warrior project balloon at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. I even recently reignited a passion with fly fishing going on a Troops First Foundation fly fishing retreat. I went with my best friend, who lost his legs in the Korengal in our one IED attack.
Life is still a constant struggle and more work than ever, but now I am proud of who I am and what I did. I won’t ever let my disabilities take that away from me. You know, we thought about God a lot over there, and what his judgement would be to us back here, but it is what you make it. I read a great quote the other day:
Idil Ibrahim, the love of Tim’s life, told me over breakfast: “Tim thought that strangers were friends yet to be met.” And it’s true. Described as “The Prince” amongst NY journalists, Tim was one of the easiest persons to talk to. Or as a soldier wrote to me: “I used to try to talk to him every chance I had in the Korengal. We’d sit outside at night, and I’d listen to all of his stories.”
In other words, people didn’t remain strangers for very long. The image in the header for this blog is Tim with Sgt Marc Solowski, Sgt Tad Donoho in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, 2008. It was taken by Sgt. Santana Rueda. They embraced him as a brother, and he hugged right back. The military support community embraced Tim as a son as well. (If you want to know, Solowski is getting ready to go back to college, Donoho and Rueda are still in the U.S. Army).
On this blog you’ll find information about the upcoming War Photographers’ Retreat. Click through the menu items at the top. We also have a swell Facebook page, we’ll be updating daily. If you’re with the media and want to contact us, please go to the top and click “Contact.” Thanks for stopping by. We’ve only just begun.