Politicians, activists, pundits and academics have all had their say about the war in Afghanistan, but on National Geographic Channel on Monday, Nov. 29, soldiers on the front line get to tell their own stories.
Released by National Geographic Entertainment to theaters in July, the documentary "Restrepo" (airing as "Restrepo: Afghan Outpost," and, at the time of this writing, with its very rough language intact) has passed the $1 million mark at the box office and was a winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
But for journalist and author Sebastian Junger ("The Perfect Storm"), who worked on the film with director, producer and photojournalist Tim Hetherington, the major takeaway is not the money or the prize but what he learned about people who were largely unfamiliar to him -- American soldiers.
Junger and Hetherington tracked Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, based at the 15-man Outpost Restrepo -- named after a medic, PFC Juan "Doc" Restrepo, who was killed in action -- in the rugged and remote Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, for an entire deployment in 2007 and 2008.
Although Junger has been in battle zones around the world, this was his first time embedded with the military.
"I've always been with civilian populations," Junger says in the incongruous setting of a hotel lobby in Beverly Hills, Calif., in August. "So I was with Battle Company, and I just really liked those guys. I grew up in the wake of Vietnam, and my image of the U.S. military was not particularly positive.
"But I was just so impressed by the men that I was with."
Junger first met Battle Company in the Korengal in 2005 on assignment for Vanity Fair. He returned in June of 2007 for Vanity Fair and ABC News but also with the idea of making a documentary and writing a book.
Three months after the deployment ended, Junger and Hetherington traveled to Battle Company's home base in Italy to conduct in-depth interviews.Junger's book is called "War," and Hetherington has also released a book of photographs called "Infidel" (after the tattoo the men of the company have as a symbol of their bond).
"They're so well-trained," Junger says of the soldiers, "and they're so disciplined under fire. It's not that I thought they wouldn't be; it was just amazing to see that."
Asked what his goal was with "Restrepo," Junger says, "Lost in the very important public conversation about the war is the experience of the soldiers themselves. The left wing and the right wing both have their ideas about that experience, but what we wanted to do was spend enough time with soldiers in a remote outpost to actually show what the experience is.
"Whether you're against the war or for the war, these are American citizens who volunteered to fight. They're over there, and they're fighting and getting killed on behalf of this country, and they're coming home.
"The better we understand their experience, the more successful we'll be at incorporating them back into society."
The film could also have a strong effect on those who know and love veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars.
"They often can't talk about it themselves," Junger says, "so this is a way for people who love these guys who went over there to fight to look through the keyhole into this weird room called combat.
"They can't go into it themselves, but now they have a little peephole to look in there and understand what went on there, starting with the families and then broadening out to everyone who sees it."
On Sept. 10, the White House announced that 25-year-old Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta of Battle Company, First Platoon, would receive the Medal of Honor, the nation's top military award, for his actions during a nighttime Taliban ambush in the Korengal on Oct. 25, 2007.
Giunta was interviewed for Junger's "War," but, because he's in First Platoon rather than Second Platoon, he doesn't appear in "Restrepo." However, while following Second Platoon, Hetherington caught the only footage of the Battle Company operation that earned Giunta his honor -- and also resulted in Hetherington breaking his leg.
"He had to walk all night on it," Junger says in a follow-up phone interview in early October, "because they couldn't get him off that mountain."
Fortunately for Junger, he was able to get a rare firsthand account from a Medal of Honor recipient.
"To get a Medal of Honor," Junger says, "you have to be brave, and often, bravery gets you killed."
Asked what he thought of Giunta when the two finally sat down to talk, Junger says, "He was very polite, humble, really charming young man. He had a lot to say, and I had a tremendous respect for him and how he was processing and talking about the experience.
"He was a completely honest guy, honest about his feelings, honest about everything."