Two of the best military documentaries since Jake Rademacher’s Brothers at War premiered at the G. I. Film festival last weekend to incredible audience enthusiasm. David Scantling’s Patrol Base Jaker and Mitty Giffis Mirrer’s Gold Star Children captured viewers with two completely divergent looks at the War on Terror. Patrol Base Jaker won the G. I. Film Festival’s coveted Best Documentary Feature Award telling the behind the scenes story of a successful counter insurgency mission that many in the liberal press don’t want to acknowledge.
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This is NOT a propaganda piece – Jaker shows just how difficult the job of counterinsurgency is, and how successful and rewarding it can be. The 1st Battalion 5th Marine Regiment’s Regimental Combat Team 3, the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, Combat Logistics Battalion 8 and the unit’s highly motivated civil affairs teams took over Patrol Base Jaker in the almost deserted Taliban controlled town of Nawa-l-Brakzayi in Helmand Province. The British unit that was relieved had been so under manned that they had to over depend on air support that sometimes killed and wounded local civilians.
Enter Jaker’s commanding officer Colonel William McCollough, a scholar-warrior of the best type who commands through example, intelligence and understanding. McCollough’s officers, NCO’s and enlisted personnel not only push back the Taliban from Nawa but implement a large number of successful civil affairs missions, ranging from rebuilding and resupplying local schools, clearing irrigation ditches and providing wheat seed to replace the poppies that help fund the Taliban. They also reinvigorate the abandoned market place, gradually getting the locals to bringing back almost 80 merchants and do their best to help reform the corrupt local governmental hierarchy and police. This is a film about gaining trust, one uneasy step at a time.
It’s a huge job, but the Marines of Patrol Base Jaker are more than up to it thanks to civil affairs professionals like Gus Biggio, who gave up a successful career on Wall Street to serve his country. The success in Nawa is in a big part due to getting to know and understand the local Afghani people, who grow poppies and let their son’s fight for the Taliban, because they’ll wind up dead if they don’t. Afghani governmental and police corruption is not shied away from. McCollough and his officers listen to the complaints and observe the locals confront Afghani officials right on camera.
One of the film’s biggest strengths is that the viewer gets to know average Afghanis, young and old as real people, in many ways vastly different from us, but still wanting peace, education and self determination. School kids and parents yearn for the reopening of the first school and merchants and farmers are anxious to get back to their trades. Even local tribal leaders are shown now not afraid to stand up and speak their minds in public, gradually coming to trust the Americans, not as conquerors but as allies. The Marines in Nawa are not trying to turn these Afghanis into Americans they’re just trying to give them a chance to live their normal lives.
The successes in Nawa didn’t come without a bloody price tag, during filming four Marines, including a highly regarded 34-year-old NCO and recent first time father lost their lives trying to bring peace to the region. One of the most affecting scenes is the ceremony honoring that sergeant with members of the battalion in formation as his helmet is place a top his M-4 carbine commemorating his sacrifice. David Scantling’s Patrol Base Jaker captures the spirit, intelligence and compassion of the modern American fighting man, whose contributions are not always won at the end of the muzzle of a weapon, but often with a bulldozer and a school book.
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Mitty Griffis Mirrer’s Gold Star Children is an inspiring look at how the children of service men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are coping with their losses. And it is told through the eyes and words of many of those children and surviving parents including Ms. Mirrer, who lost her own father in Vietnam when she was only 16 hours old. Mirrer doesn’t appear to have any previous film credits, but this film is not only as professional as any top PBS documentary, but also so emotional that hardly anyone in the audience could back a tear or two, myself included.
The spouses and kids of Gold Star children aren’t blaming the U.S. Government for their losses. They are all incredibly proud of their parents or spouses service and are learning to cope through a wonderful mentoring program called TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. At TAPS older children and adults who have lost loved ones go through extensive training to help the younger kids deal with the loss in a positive fashion. In the process the adults learn as much from the kids as the kids do from the adults. The maturity and decency of the youngest surviving family members is incredible to see. Nine-year-olds talk openly about how they are dealing with dad or mom’s death while mothers strive to regain a positive sense of normalcy for their children. Mirrer has captured the children and adults of TAPS on camera in a poignant and compassionate style that was not easy to accomplish.
One dignified Hispanic-American mother tells how as a child she lost her father in Vietnam and now has to deal with the death of her officer husband in Afghanistan. She has two bright and decent teenaged boys who are a true tribute to their dad’s memory and the family works with each other one day at a time in a fitting memory to a loving husband and father.
Gold Star kids are brought to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington to help clean it and are then told the stories behind some of the 50,000 names chiseled there. During the annual Rolling Thunder biker rally of Vietnam Vets these tough looking former soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen are shown giving kids rides on their bikes and talking with them quietly about their own war time friends and experiences. One nine-year-old girl from Texas trains and then runs a children’s TAPS marathon as a tribute to her late father, learning about, while also teaching others, how to deal with the loss while on her own emotional journey.
The quietly gripping content of this film that director Mirrer so deftly gives to her audience makes any one viewing it feel sadness, pride and wonder, all at the same time, at how everyone from grownups to three-year-olds are dealing with their grief. This is not a film that is easy to explain, it is far more a film that has to be felt. Gold Star Children should be mandatory viewing for all high school students so they can see just how real the phrase “Freedom isn’t free,” truly is.