Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq

Our government will spend whatever it takes in pharmacology and technology to save people, and if they don’t die, it’s okay. Prevent fatality. They speak to caring, but meanwhile services are being cut and access is an issue. When we first began this effort, everybody talked about the quality of life, maximizing functionality. It costs money, and a lifetime of commitment.

— Marilyn Price Spivack, Founder, Brain Injury Association (Discover Magazine, 23 February 2007)

If they gave me legs tomorrow, I would go and pursue my other goals. But I really felt it was a good idea.

— Cpl. Jonathan Bartlett

“I think people come away from the war wanting to feel like they made a difference,” says Dawn Halfaker. “Wanting to feel like their sacrifice or their time or their energy was worth it. I went over a young lieutenant. I had a lot of energy and I was very naïve. I don’t think I fully understood what could happen or how people are forced to live with the consequences of war.” First Lt. Halfaker is one of 10 U.S. veterans of the Iraq war interviewed for Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq. Each embodies a particular “consequence of war.” But if their injuries are different, their self-presentations are strikingly similar: they all remember details of the days they were wounded, the days they might have died, but lived instead.

Moreover, they’re all aware of the sheer accidents of their survival. Halfaker says an RPG “came right through my shoulder, then exploded right behind me.” In that instant, she lost her arm but could just as easily have lost her life. This much is underscored by “insurgent footage” of a man launching a grenade from a shoulder mount: unlike Halfaker’s precisely staged interview, this image is grainy, the explosion startling. Twenty-five-year-old Army Sgt. Bryan Anderson’s “alive day” was also a surprise. “I feel like I’m not supposed to be here,” he says. “My best friend was behind the driver, and he lost his life.” Anderson recalls riding in a humvee that was destroyed by an IED, his memory also illustrated by insurgent footage. Though he didn’t see the explosion, Anderson remembers hearing it. Afterwards, he reached up with his left hand to wipe away the flies suddenly buzzing around his bloody face: “That’s when I saw there was nothing there.” An instant later, he saw his legs were gone. Asked what he thought at that moment, Anderson says, “I was just kind of like, ‘Oh shit.'”

Simultaneously acute and hazy, their memories make for great stories, certainly. And as they sit down one by one down with James (“Hi, I’m Jim”) Gandolfini, who also executive produced the documentary for his Attaboy Films, the vets are remarkably poised. The set is sparse: a couple of chairs, maybe a camera or a mic in frame, even a clapboard, suggesting at once an awareness of the film’s own awkwardness and a profound respect for its subjects. (Gandolfini repeatedly thanks them for their service, and tries to comfort 41-year-old Army Staff Sgt. Jay Wilkerson, who laments not being able to remember his own child’s name. “Give it time,” says Gandolfini, compassionate but also helpless).

The film is mostly comprised of segments where the vets describe and show their injuries. In one case, that of Marine Sgt. Eddie Ryan (who suffered severe frontal lobe injuries), his mother does the talking: “Although he understands and he recognizes us, there’s still some behavioral issues,” she says as her son smiles and gestures, “As you can see.” The interviewees don’t talk about the excellent care they received, struggles with Veterans Administration paperwork, or even their difficulties coming home to families or friends. Alive Day Memories maintains a sharp focus on tales of trauma, framed by brief before and after images (in the form of snapshots or home video footage) and a series of statistical contexts (informative intertitles, like, “For the first time in American history, 90% of the [war] wounded survive their injuries. But a greater percentage of these men and women are coming home from Iraq with amputations, traumatic brain injuries and severe post-traumatic stress”).

At first this contrast between personal experiences and official abstractions seems neatly contrived. Each aspect effectively shapes your understanding of the other, as putting faces to numbers tends to do. But even if the individual stories themselves are equally alarming, sad, and hopeful, the film actually builds toward emotional climaxes, as the storytellers’ language and affects reveal emotional complexities, mixtures of frustration and pride. Early on, Anderson puts his loss of both legs and one hand in his own perspective, as the film shows his youthful talent as a gymnast (“If I lost both my hands, I’d really think it wouldn’t be worth it to be around”), just as Sgt. Ryan’s mother finds a bright side: “It’s a miracle for us,” she says of her boy, shown briefly dancing in uniform, a now-long-ago video that hints at his former, goofily energetic self. Now, his mother says, “He’s proud of his scars.” He sings the “Marine Hymn”: “We are proud to claim the title
 / Of United States Fucking Marines.”

Later interviews are less sanguine, though just as courageous and moving. Set against war zone photos, of what might have happened (a body with its head half-missing, blood and brain matter splatted), Halfaker asserts, “War is, I mean, it’s horrible. I don’t like the sounds associated with it… but I’m glad I did it.” Even as she appears in a video singing that she’s “proud to be an American,” she pauses. When Gandolfini asks her what she was thinking, she says it’s the kid she hasn’t had yet. “I won’t be able to pick up my son or daughter with two arms.”

Pvt. Dexter Pitts, just 22, is introduced as he drives away from his service, “free.” When his friends say he’s “changed,” Pitts says, he doesn’t know how to explain it. “Everything seems like a dark place, now that I’m out of the Army. I don’t feel welcome in the civilian world.” Old footage shows him laughing, while he describes himself as “a teddy bear, man, a nice lovable guy,” he admits, “I’ve done some like mean things to kids over there that I had to do.” Now, he says, he’s haunted, sleepless, on medication. Gandolfini asks about his diagnosis. “In the world I come from,” Pitts says wearily, “The Army infantryland, they don’t believe in PTSD. They believe there’s just weak-minded people. There’s nothing wrong with you: Get your sand out of your clit and drive on.” But he’s seen what war trauma did to an uncle, and Pitts is determined not to let that happen to him.

Pitts’ story leads to that of Marine Corporal Michael Jernigan, introduced as a blurry, nightmarish figure, his cane an extra limb in a composition narrowed by the walls of a hotel hallway. Blinded, he’s left with a broken marriage and bad dreams (he’s had his wedding band diamonds ground down to fit into one of his fake eyes, because “It makes you think that it has truly affected our life in an emotional sense, long term”). Jernigan talks about the inability to see clearly in a “guerrilla war,” where the enemy doesn’t wear uniforms. “I could look at you,” he tells Gandoflini, “and I could look at [a crew member] — if I could see — and you could be a bad guy and he could be not, but I couldn’t tell.” Such uncertainty shattered his expectations that war would bring glory, based on “those Vietnam movies.” His decidedly unglorious experience bothers him still: “It’s not normal to sit there and kill somebody, especially if you do it up close and personal and see that person die,” he says. “You know that’s gonna change you, that’s gonna affect you mentally for the rest of your life.”

For all its focus on memories, Alive Day Memories is, at last, about that “rest of your life.” Not just the lives of the troops, presented here in eloquent terms. But the lives of those who might be watching, too, as you consider your relationship to these stories, what it means that such resilient young men and women will now face dark memories every day. That they do so with class and courage only makes your responsibility more critical.

RATING 8 / 10