Putting a face on Iraq war

Times Staff Writer

In “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq,” the HBO documentary about wounded soldiers and Marines and their struggles to resume -- regain, really -- their lives, Army Pvt. Dexter Pitts talks about his post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Everything seems like a dark place now,” Pitts tells “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini. “I don’t feel comfortable anywhere in the civilian world.”

Army Staff Sgt. Jay Wilkerson tells Gandolfini about the day his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. “All I heard was screaming, and everything went black.”

Wilkerson suffered severe traumatic brain injury, nerve damage to his face and multiple injuries to his left side. He fell into a 12-day coma and later had to relearn how to eat and talk.


And Army 1st Lt. Dawn Halfaker, who lost her right arm and shoulder in a grenade attack, admits to Gandolfini, after a long and painful silence, that she worries that her injury will keep her from having a family.

“I won’t be able to pick up my son or daughter with two arms -- I won’t,” she says. “I hope they still love me. I hope I’m a good parent.”

Gandolfini listens and replies quietly, off camera, “If it matters, I think you’re going to be a wonderful family.”

Throughout all three interviews, and seven others, Gandolfini is rarely seen. He is a respectful listener. There are no star turns -- no cutaway shots showing him racked with emotion.


“Alive Day” is the first project for Gandolfini and his Attaboy Films since “The Sopranos” ended. He’s teamed with HBO and acclaimed documentary filmmaker Jon Alpert (along with Ellen Goosenberg) for a look at America’s war wounded that is detailed, heart-wrenching and altogether brilliant -- must-viewing for anyone interested in the sacrifices made by our soldiers and Marines.

The hourlong effort mixes the Gandolfini interviews (set in a darkened soundstage), home movies shot by and about the soldiers and Marines before their injuries, and, in what could lead to controversy, insurgent propaganda videos showing roadside bomb explosions killing and maiming Americans.

The facts behind “Alive Day” have been the subject of innumerable media stories: that, with better personal protective gear, soldiers and Marines are surviving attacks that would have been fatal in other wars but are coming home as amputees and with severe brain injuries and emotional trauma.

The facts may be standard, but rarely, if ever, has there been a more powerful presentation of them.

Although the film is not overtly political -- Alpert is not Michael Moore -- HBO Documentary Films President Sheila Nevins says she deliberately scheduled the premiere of “Alive Day” to coincide with a report to Congress and President Bush by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

“We wanted to give a face to the numbers,” Nevins said.

The setup of “Alive Day” is that wounded soldiers and Marines come to regard the day they survived an attack -- their Alive Day -- with the same attention they give to their birthday.

“Alive Day” was an outgrowth of “Baghdad ER,” the HBO-Alpert effort that captured the blood, guts and heroism in the main trauma hospital for U.S. service personnel in Iraq.


Gandolfini and Nevins had thought of a look at patients and doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but military support vanished mysteriously, even before a Washington Post series about shoddy outpatient care.

In some cases, “Alive Day” has the video of the actual attack that injured the soldier or Marine -- the kind of footage that drew some political criticism, including from a GOP presidential hopeful, Rep. Duncan Hunter of El Cajon, when shown on CNN.

Gandolfini, in an interview, said that he was “struck by what quality people they are, how thoughtful and intelligent and patriotic. I suppose I thought they’d be more angry. A lot of them got emotional but not angry.”

He said the decision to be mostly invisible was his. “This was their story, not mine. . . . They all wanted to talk.”

Marine Sgt. Eddie Ryan took two bullets to the head. Angela Ryan, interviewed beside her son, said she did not recognize him when he was brought to Bethesda Naval Hospital.

“We only knew it was Eddie because of his tattoos,” she said.

Marine Lance Cpl. Michael Jernigan, blinded in both eyes, came home to a broken marriage. He had the diamonds from his wedding ring embedded into his prosthetic eye.

The camera follows Army Spec. Crystal Davis, who lost her right leg and was left with every bone in her left leg broken, as she wears a prosthetic to go dancing in a honky-tonk. “I loved it. I felt normal again,” she says.


Marine Staff Sgt. John Jones, both legs gone below the knee, is one of the few subjects to be interviewed while wearing his uniform. Like many of the interviewees, his injuries led to a medical retirement from the military. Still, he says he doesn’t regret going to Iraq.

Jones also said he was immediately put at ease by Gandolfini before their interview. “He acted as if we were the stars, not him.”

“Alive Day” is the third HBO documentary about Iraq, not the international upheaval and Washington-centric politics but about the individual soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen. Nevins and Alpert are already discussing a fourth and final project. The site they have in mind is Arlington National Cemetery, where some of the dead are buried.

“There’s no one to talk to,” Nevins said. “Everything is so silent at Arlington.”


‘Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq’

Where: HBO

When: 10:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA-L,V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language and violence)