My fellow Red Bull TOC-rats and I pulled a working lunch earlier this week. As we started pulling apart our tactical computer systems in preparation for loading them on a truck, we previewed a soon-to-be-released (and award-winning) documentary called "Restrepo," which unblinkingly depicts the hardships endured by U.S. troops fighting in Eastern Afghanistan's Kunar Province.
From June 2007 to July 2008, documentary co-producers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger repeatedly embedded in the Korengal with the second platoon of Battle Company, 503rd Infantry Battalion (2/B/503 Infantry) in the Korengal Valley. In 2007, nearly one-fifth of the combat in Afghanistan occurred in this valley, which is only 6 miles long. The unit is part of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (A.B.C.T.), headquartered in Vincenza, Italy.
Our unit's public affairs officer wanted a couple of Joes' reactions to the film, to see whether they thought it a potentially useful pre-deployment learning tool for our Red Bull soldiers. We've got a good mix of experiences and specialties in the TOC, he knew, and certainly no shortage of opinions.
About 90 minutes later, even the combat veterans among us called the film "eye-opening."
Said one staff sergeant: "I wish I'd had something like that to show my soldiers before we left for Iraq." An Afghan-theater veteran observed how well the documentary depicted the mountainous terrain as an ever-present enemy. Another commented: "It's a good reminder that this uniform gets dirty ... and sometimes bloody."
It remains to be seen, of course, whether elements of our unit ever face conditions as brutal and gut-wrenching as the 15 soldiers who established and maintained Observation Post Restrepo in 2007. Because "Restrepo" is a doggedly neutral work of non-fiction--there is no spin-and-polish offered here, only situation and circumstance--it rewards non-judgemental and soldierly contemplations such as:
- How would I react to the death of a friend?
- How will I react to enemy contact?
- How would my body hold up to the demands of altitude and terrain?
- How would I seek to win friends while also holding a rifle?
By placing Battle Company in the Korengal in 2007, U.S. military leaders had sought to stop the flow of fighters, while winning over the hearts and minds of the indigenous Korengali people--an ethnically distinct population.
In April 2010, however, U.S. forces withdrew from the Korengal after determining that their presence was doing more to create anti-U.S. sympathies and Taliban influence than to diminish them.
Hetherington is a photographer and filmmaker who has covered wars in Liberia and Afghanistan. Junger, author of "The Perfect Storm," has also recently published "War," a book-length account of the troops who fought in the Korengal.
After a theatrical release in June and July, plans call for "Restrepo" to air on the National Geographic Channel later in 2010.