Veterans outspoken about challenges in Iraq Patrick Parkinson Of the Record staff
Politics and art routinely collide on the big screen during the Sundance Film Festival but tempers could flare in 2006 as four young veterans from the Iraq war prepared Friday to take their message to people on the streets of Park City.
Their stories are featured in a Sundance documentary that premiered this weekend titled "The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends." The film explores the lives of soldiers who served in the war: some who lost limbs and others who now suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
But along with promoting the documentary, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) Executive Director Paul Rieckhoff says he plans to spend the week relaying to moviegoers how important it is to educate themselves about the situation in the Middle East. "I’m not telling you to be for or against the war. I’m just telling you to think about the war," the 31-year-old New Yorker said. "If you look on the ski slopes behind us and you see the Hollywood celebrities roaming around today, it’s not going to look like a country at war." Rieckhoff spent 10 months as an infantry officer in Iraq leading a platoon through the streets of Baghdad. Staring out his hotel window Friday, the guardsman recalled a day when his unit perched themselves on the roof of a building and surveyed the Iraqi capital. "We saw sporadic firefights, explosions were going off, artillery were still coming in," Rieckhoff said.
But they saw no other Americans, he added. "One of my soldiers turned to me and goes, ‘Hey sir, where is everybody else?’ That was a good question," Rieckhoff said. "From that point on, we knew that we were out on an island we did not have enough troops."
He says he started IAVA in 2004 after returning home to find widespread apathy about Iraq. "We were pissed off man. We came home and nobody was talking about the war and nobody was connected with the war and nobody understood the war," Rieckhoff said. "I got sick of seeing talking heads and policy wonks and retired four-star generals who had been out of the military for 15 years talking about a war they knew nothing about."
Three other soldiers featured in the documentary joined Rieckhoff Friday in Park City. One is 31-year-old Sean Huze, an actor from Southern California who fought in Iraq in 2003 with the United States Marine Corps. "The real struggle is kind of reconciling who you were before the war with who were during the war and then with who you were when you come back from the war," Huze said. "They’re three different men."
Huze, who this spring plans to begin shooting a film about Iraq called "Dragon Slayer," praised seasoned filmmaker Patricia Foulkrod for her work on "The Ground Truth." "It’s always harder to blaze a path than it is to walk down one that’s been well traveled," Huze said. "It’s our job to suffer the slings and arrows so the next guys that have something to say and want to speak out about it don’t have to go through the same bullshit we did." Though he leans to the left, Huze says Democrats and Republicans have failed in their handling of the war on terror. In 2005, he joined IAVA — a non-profit, non-partisan advocacy group for veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and was introduced to Foulkrod.
The filmmaker described her documentary Friday as "one of the best anti-recruiting movies around." "We send people off to war but we never get to see how they’re trained and we never get to see what they do," Foulkrod said during a telephone interview. "How do you take care of someone when you don’t even understand how they’ve been wounded?" The days of veterans protesting the government on Pennsylvania Avenue are over, Rieckhoff said, adding that documentary filmmaking and cable news now provide far more efficient ways for disseminating information. "If I can get [a veteran] in front of CNN for five minutes, he’s talking to millions. We’re here to hopefully wake people up and to give them a shake to put a face on the policy," Rieckhoff said. "I’d love to be able to have Harvey Weinstein and Bruce Willis and whoever else is going to be here spend five minutes with them. That would be incredible."
Though the scope of post-traumatic stress disorder’s impact on soldiers returning from Iraq is unknown, Rieckhoff says he no longer trusts politicians to watch out for the needs of veterans. "Some people say it could be our generation’s Agent Orange," he said. "It’s hard to get [George W. Bush] to stand up and say, hey, one in four guys coming home are going to be messed up."
But independent films, Rieckhoff adds, "are an incredibly effective tool." "It’s a reminder that we have an obligation as citizens to be vigilant, to be involved and to know what the hell is going on in the world," he said. Visit http://www.IAVA.org or http://www.thegroundtruth.org for more information about the film. "Veterans have come home and become involved since the beginning of the United States," Rieckhoff said. "Republicans got us into this mess, Democrats don’t have a way out. For the most part, we’re guys without a party."
The documentary will be screened at Holiday Village Cinema III in Park City on Jan. 21 at 9:15 a.m. and Jan. 27 at 3:30 p.m. The film will show at Prospector Square Theatre on Jan. 25 at 11:30 a.m.
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