Tributes to 'Black Sunday' Vets at Premiere of 'The Long Road Home'

Actors Patrick Schwarzenegger (L), Jon Beavers, Joshua Brennan and Thomas McDonell on the set of National Geographic's "The Long Road Home" miniseries at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. (National Geographic photo/Van Redin)
Actors Patrick Schwarzenegger (L), Jon Beavers, Joshua Brennan and Thomas McDonell on the set of National Geographic's "The Long Road Home" miniseries at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. (National Geographic photo/Van Redin)

FORT HOOD, Texas -- On March 31, 2004, soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, said goodbye to their families and departed for Sadr City, Iraq, on what was expected to be a low-key peacekeeping mission.

Five days later, eight of the troops would be dead and more than 60 wounded on what would become known as "Black Sunday," a horrific series of ambushes and valiant rescue attempts that would precede 80 days of brutal and costly fighting in the city.

On Oct. 27, many of the same 2-5 troops and their families crowded into Fort Hood's Abrams Gym, the same place they had said their goodbyes more than 13 years before.

At the screening of the new National Geographic miniseries, "The Long Road Home," which tells the story of Black Sunday hour-by-hour through the eyes of the soldiers and their loved ones, the mood was both somber and celebratory.

Veterans posed for photos with the actors who played them on the screen; families embraced and huddled in groups during an intermission between episodes.

Outside the gym, several mental health counselors sat at a table holding brochures about veteran suicide and post-traumatic stress, ready to talk to anyone in the audience who found the gritty portrayal of war too reminiscent or simply too difficult to watch.

"The Long Road Home" is based on a book of the same name by ABC Chief Global Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz, who began to report on the troops of 2-5 while the horrors of that deployment to Sadr City were still unfolding.

"This is a very emotional night for me," she told the audience ahead of the screening, her voice quavering. "This community has embraced me for 13 years. You have shared your stories; you have shared your soldiers; you have shared your families. This story and this project means more to me than anything I have ever done."

Producers of the series and the cast, many of whom attended the Fort Hood screening, also spoke with feeling about what the project meant to them.

The entire series was shot on-base, with Iraq street scenes recreated in painstaking detail at a Fort Hood urban training complex. Two veterans of the battle, Aaron Fowler and Eric Bourquin, worked on the show as technical advisers; many other soldiers and family members stayed in contact with the production team throughout the project, offering their insights and memories.

Actor John Beavers, who plays Bourquin in the series, was seldom far from his real-life counterpart. Other cast members joked about the bond that had grown between the two men, down to shared mannerisms.

Beavers said the responsibility of portraying those who had sacrificed so much was weighty "to the point of buckling our knees." But, he added, the cast had quickly been embraced by the soldiers and by the families of the fallen.

"We had the guys that lived it and the families that experienced it telling us that they believed in us, that we could do it before we even believed that about ourselves," he said.

"And ... I have yet to share a story with another actor who could say they were getting ready for a big scene. They knew it was going to be action-packed and emotional, and they were able to walk over to their real-life counterpart and ask them ... can you please walk me step by step through what actually happened in this scene so I can recreate it as close to life as possible."

Ian Quinlan, who plays Spc. Robert Arsiaga, one of the soldiers killed in action on Black Sunday, said he reached out to Arsiaga's brothers and sisters, inviting them over to his home to share a meal.

"I wanted them to tell them how I felt and hear more stories about Robert, and to be a part of this process," he said. "I was so honored to help tell this story and to hear that I had their approval and, 'We're behind you every step of the way.' "

Mikko Alanne, showrunner and screenwriter for the series, said he first became involved in the project nine years ago when executive producer Mike Medavoy sent him a copy of the book.

"I read the book all in one sitting and just fell in love with the soldiers and their families," he said. "It was one of those unique things that you saw right away, so many fascinating real-life stories. I've always felt like nothing is more precious and fascinating than ordinary life. And all these families, they deployed together."

In an era of films like "War Machine" that emphasize the politics of conflict, "The Long Road Home" is disarmingly sincere.

It lingers on the baby-faced soldier blinking sweat out of his eyes and trembling as he watches for shooters from a rooftop. It feels the full impact of small acts of heroism and determination, as when a soldier hesitates for a moment before standing to man a Humvee's turret gun immediately after the previous gunner has been killed in an ambush. And it toggles regularly back from the heat of the battle to the spouses working to maintain normalcy at home while waiting anxiously for news of their loved ones.

The series emphasizes the diversity found in combat as well.

While some soldiers display toughness and swagger, others are intelligent nerds who play the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons in their spare time.

One weathered staff sergeant seems to be in Iraq under protest due to a stop-loss measure, only to display extraordinary heroism in the heat of the fight. All, like the soft-covered Humvees and slim detachment of Bradley Fighting Vehicles they deployed with, were unprepared for the crucible of war they would encounter in Sadr City.

One of the soldiers, Pfc. Tomas Young, would be paralyzed by wounds received in the fighting. He would return home and become an outspoken protester of the Iraq conflict, his story featured in the 2007 documentary "Body of War."

Young's brother, Nathan Young, attended the screening with his wife Amanda.

"That was intense. I almost broke her hand," Young said after viewing the first episode.

A former cannon crewmember with the Army's 101st Airborne Division who deployed twice to Iraq, Nathan Young spoke in clipped sentences, struggling to control his emotion when he spoke of Tomas, who died in 2014. His mother, Cathy Smith, told The New York Times that "his body just wore out."

"[Tomas'] story lives on," Young said about the series. "He did quite a few amazing things ... he touched a lot of people's hearts, and he only wanted to help people."

Carl Wild, who was then a specialist and is played in the series by Thomas McDonnell, said it was surreal to see himself portrayed on the screen.

"I'm still processing it, I think. I'm a little bit in shock," he said, after the two-episode premiere screening concluded.

Wild, who was medically retired in 2012 and now is working on a bachelor's degree in radiology, said he had emailed with McDonnell during production and given him advice about the sorts of things he used to do to prepare for missions and how he'd act in his spare time.

After seeing the show for the first time at the screening, Wild approved: McDonnell, who plays him with a quirky sensibility, had been cast perfectly, he said.

But what Wild was really concerned with, he said, was ensuring the men his unit lost were portrayed as heroes and that their memory was honored in the project. That has been done, he said.

"This is every Iraq veteran's story," he said. "There's stuff that's involved in this process that didn't necessarily even happen to us, but it's things that went on during the war and they added it to the film, so they could tell those guys' stories. This is all of their stories."

Dinah Rodriguez, mother of Spc. Israel Garza, who was killed in action on Black Sunday, said it was difficult for her to be in the Abrams Gym, as she hadn't been able to make it to base to see her son off in 2004.

"It's very emotional," she said. "But at the same time, I'm very proud of my son."

Elements of Garza's portrayal in the series by actor Jorge Diaz rang especially true, she said, such as a scene showing a playfully affectionate phone conversation between Garza and his wife Lupita.

"[Garza] always said he was going to be famous," said his cousin, Renee Mata. "It was true; he was right."

"The Long Road Home" premieres Nov. 7 on the National Geographic Channel.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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