Every individual who enters a branch of the US Armed Forces understands there is a possibility of having to be in a combat situation. They also understand there’s a chance they will be wounded or potentially killed while attempting to complete their mission. The First Calvary Division from Ft. Hood TX was on a basic peacekeeping mission in Iraq in 2004—the city they were placed in, Sadr City, had been incident-free for nearly a year. Nice and easy, right?
On Palm Sunday (April 4, 2004), the First Calvary Division came under a surprise attack resulting in nearly fifty soldiers being wounded, along with eight deaths. It was horrible, to be sure—an event that was written about by ABC Chief Global Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz in her book The Long Road Home. On Tuesday, November 7th, National Geographic will broadcast an eight-part miniseries chronicling that day in Iraq. I had the recent opportunity to interview members of the series and discovered that despite the difficult circumstances, the concept of family and faith was critical to the survival of both the soldiers and their families seven thousand miles away.
For the soldiers, the situation was pretty dire—but they didn’t fight alone. Katie Paxton, who played the wife of 1st Lt. Shane Aguero in the series, said that, in reality, “Every soldier is you, is me, is your neighbor.” As a result, the families deploy with the soldiers (though not physically), constantly worrying if their loved one will return to embrace them again. It’s a sense of sacrifice that isn’t lost on the children. Karina Ortiz, playing the wife of Spc. Israel Garza, noted that the soldier is seen to some kids as abandoning them instead of a hero. Others attempt to cling to them in a sense of desperation. It manifests itself into varied and unpredictable forms of behavior as a result.
War is a test on couples as well. Paxton noted that the wife is basically a single parent. It’s an additional level of stress and trauma to deal with. Martha Raddatz added that since the families don’t know anything, they’re constantly terrified. As a result, the wives have no real choice but to form a close-knit community. Jorge Diaz, who played Israel Garza, shared that it’s also tough on the soldiers who constantly think about their families back home. The occasional phone call helps but doesn’t relieve the worry. In addition, the soldiers miss out on large chunks of family life. In the case of Shane Aguero, his tours of duty caused him to miss 65 months of his kids’ lives.
When soldiers get into the heat of battle, they are forced to make split-second decisions affecting people’s lives. But that’s not all they deal with in those moments. Sometimes, a soldier is hit by gunfire or shrapnel and has to deal with physical injuries. But Aaron Fowler, US Army veteran, mentioned a unique term in my interview: moral injuries. Moral Injuries are unseen and involve doing something that is legally correct but violates a person’s morals (such as killing a child who has a suicide vest on). In these cases, deep spiritual trauma can occur.
To this end, faith in God is almost a requirement for a soldier. Chaplains are deployed just like soldiers and help the soldiers spiritually, but they don’t have weapons. Mikko Alanne, executive producer and screenwriter, added that each episode of the series has a focus on a specific character and theme. The second part of the episode on Tuesday evening has a theme of faith—and it’s readily on display for the viewer to see. He referenced Psalm 130:1, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,” mentioning that faith can give people the will to survive in a difficult time. Eric Bourquin, US Army veteran featured in the series, noted that “if you have nothing to believe in, you have nothing to hope for.”
It’s important to know not only what happened, but why it happened, according to Alanne. The Long Road Home was created with meticulous attention to detail to honor the soldiers who were a part of Black Sunday. As Fowler noted, why would you sacrifice the relationship with your brothers for something that’s not accurate? It became a solemn responsibility for them. Raddatz mentioned that when the event happened in 2004, she received two photos of the whole thing, so her reaction to first seeing the final product was one of “absolute awe.” After seeing two episodes, you’ll probably say the same thing.
The Long Road Home premieres Tuesday, November 7th at 9 PM (8/CT) on National Geographic and will feature the first two episodes.
Special thanks to National Geographic and Andy Peterson from Different Drummer for coordinating the interview sessions.