Monday, August 01, 2016

Citizen Soldier: The Oklahoma Guard in Afghanistan

We expect a lot of our regular army. Lately, we have asked even more of our National Guardsmen. Only provided thirty-nine days of training per year, National Guard units have been frequently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan on a long-term basis. Yet many members of Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, a.k.a. “The Thunderbirds,” apparently expected the assignment and in some cases knowingly signed up with such service in mind. David Salzberg & Christian Tureaud, the co-directors of The Hornet’s Nest, follow the Oklahoma Guardsmen during their deployment in Citizen Soldier (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The way Sgt. Eran Harrill and his comrades talk about Lt. Damon Leehan and Sgt. Mycal Prince in the past tense certainly gives the viewer a sense of foreboding during the introductory sequences. Tragically, they will indeed sacrifice their lives during the course of events documented in Citizen. Ironically, their rugged corner of Afghanistan was relatively quiet during their first months in-country. However, that would change drastically.

We witness the lethal force of IED attacks in brutally close proximity. Salzberg & Tureaud capture all the confusion of warfighting as well as the unique challenges of the mountainous terrain. Frequently, the film resembles Cliffhanger or The Eiger Sanction as the men of the 45th struggle to descend impossibly steep mountain faces, just so they can reinforce their brothers pinned down in a fire fight.

Salzberg, Tureaud, and war correspondent-executive producer Boettcher (the subject of Hornet’s Nest) truly set the gold standard for embedded documentary filmmaking. Once again, they chronicle some dramatic boots-on-the-ground action (although probably not quite as adrenaline charged as that seen in Nest), but their battery of editors cut it together into a remarkably clear narrative form. Viewers will always get what is happening on screen and understand the implications well enough. Salzberg & Tureaud also convey a vivid sense of at least a half dozen of the Guardsmen, maybe more.

As you watch Citizen unfold, you really start to question just how fair it is to send the Oklahoma Thunderbirds to Afghanistan, yet nobody ever complains. In fact, Harrill and his brothers-in-arms seem to miss the camaraderie and keen sense of purpose once they return to civilian life. Of course, they do not all make it back—a fact that is ever so poignantly clear. Sometimes the film will choke you up, but it always makes you grateful the Oklahoma National Guardsman are ready and willing to serve. Very highly recommended, Citizen Soldier opens this Friday (8/5) in New York, at the AMC Empire.