"You can't be 19 forever," says Xavier Zell, a SAW gunner who deployed to Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. It was the advice he received from a Korean War veteran before joining the Corps.
Zell, along with filmmaker Stephen Canty and the rest of Charlie Company, deployed to Marjah in 2010 as part of Operation Moshtarak. Charlie Company was just one unit among the 15,000 troops sent there to push the Taliban out of southern Afghanistan.
Operation Moshtarak was Canty's second tour in the country and was the largest battle of the war to date. Charlie Company experienced some of the heaviest combat during the operation.
Canty, just 17 when he joined the Marines in 2007, decided to make a documentary short detailing the experiences of his fellow Marines in the fighting. "Once a Marine" debuted on Amazon Prime on Veterans Day 2020.
For seven years, Canty interviewed the members of his unit as they struggled with the aftermath of the fighting and of leaving the Marines. He also interviewed the mother of a fellow Marine who died by suicide in the years that followed.
The veterans featured in the film largely joined the Corps at a young age. Many were in their early 20s when they first deployed to Afghanistan. In the crowdfunding pitch he used to finance the film, he calls "Once a Marine" a "documentary about coming home from war."
Just six months after returning from Marjah, Canty was a civilian once again and living in his hometown of Louisa, Virginia. The documentary started as a project to get into film school but as he reached out to the Marines of Charlie Company, he began to learn they were experiencing the same troubles he was.
Canty did little to prepare himself for leaving the military. He soon found himself having trouble with the relationships in his life, struggling to hold a job and living a life with little purpose. To cope, he turned drugs and alcohol. When he reached out to the members of Charlie Company for the film, he discovered they were in the same boat.
"All you have to do is not die over there," says Darren Doss, a Marine veteran of Charlie Company who kicked a heroin addiction before filming began. "You don't have to pay bills. You don't have to go to work, go to school. You don't have to ****ing do homework. I think that's part of the problem. Not being able to deal with life on life's terms."
All the Marines Canty talked to discovered they were all having the same problems. Filming the interviews for "Once a Marine" soon became therapeutic for the group and a sounding board for the thousands of veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In many ways, "Once a Marine" picks up from where documentaries like "Korengal" and "Restrepo" left off. The film uses real footage and photos from the deployment of the 1-6 Marines during Operation Moshtarak, but the most striking aspect of the film is the candor they use when talking to the camera.
The Marines of Charlie Company talk about the thoughts and feelings they have they would normally reserve for sharing only with each other. They talk about the exhilaration of fighting the Taliban, the thoughts they have about killing another human and -- especially -- how hard it is to relate their experiences to the civilian world.
Anyone looking for a polished documentary about the overall war in Afghanistan won't find it here. But "Once a Marine" brings an open, real and at times brutal account of the effects of a war on the young men sent to fight it -- and the failures of the military to help reintroduce these warriors into everyday life.
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