Screenshots of Military Families

Last week, I spoke about books I’ve read that painted moving portraits of soldiers fighting overseas, the veterans they become once home, and the families who anxiously await them. This week, I wanted to profile three HBO films that provide the same spotlight. Have you ever noticed that an image can be particularly heart-wrenching, even more so than the words on a page? These three films take the stories I’ve read about (in one case, literally the same story) and put them in the stark relief of the moving picture. Take a box of tissues for each viewing.

  • “Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery”: Section 60 is the portion of Arlington dedicated to the fallen fighters of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; it has been called the “saddest acre in America.” First shown in 2008, the film follows several families as they visit Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to gaze upon the final resting place of their loved ones. To watch a parent tend to their child’s tombstone—a child who only just became a man or woman, who risked everything to brave a war—is a sobering experience. To watch a young child face the marker of their parent’s grave even more so. These families showed immense courage in allowing cameras to document their private moments. But in doing so, they give the American people a greater understanding of their family’s sacrifice. They put a face behind the casualty numbers. And they make an image you’ll never forget.
  • “Last Letters Home: Voices of American Troops from the Battlefields of Iraq”: This is yet another film that puts you right in the lives, in the homes, of military families. In this film, first shown in 2004, several families read letters from their fallen loved ones; in some cases these are the final letters they may have received. This is a difficult film to watch because the families are reliving their pain on screen. (Melissa Givens, wife of Pfc. Jesse Givens, and their two boys are both in this film and in Jim Sheeler’s Final Salute. Her youngest son was born after his father died and Pfc. Givens’ letter to his unborn son is explored in both mediums.) As with the families in “Section 60”, there is an incredible openness amongst these families to allow an unknown audience into their precious memories. They want us to remember their loved ones as they do. By reading the words on these letters, they ensure someone else hears them. Someone else will remember them.
  • “Taking Chance”: This 2009 movie is based on the true story of Lance Corporal Chance Phelps, a young Marine who died in Iraq, and Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl (played by Kevin Bacon), who volunteers to escort him home to Wyoming. As Strobl crosses the United States, he is met with surprising instances of comfort and support, many of them in recognition of Chance and the Phelps family. It is a beautiful, wonderfully wrought story. I’ve seen it many times, cried all of those times, and usually try to watch it every year as we approach Veterans Day. It’s an important reminder of what we don’t see, but should still always think about.

An honorable mention goes to a PBS/POV film called “Where Soldiers Come From”, which follows several young men from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who’ve enlisted in the National Guard and are sent to Afghanistan. You watch 18 and 19 year olds prepare for and go into battle and return men older than their years. They become philosophical, indifferent, wise, angry. They become soldiers and veterans all at the same time. It’s an uncanny, unreal transformation and it’s worth watching.

(You might notice I’m trying to make a distinction between soldiers and veterans. Read this recent New York Times piece to learn why.)

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