Nat Geo's miniseries chronicles 'Black Sunday' and the hell those soldiers faced in Sadr City

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"Can you believe this is only our day four here?" a corporal asks from his turret, more to himself than to the specialist in the Humvee next to him. They're in an alleyway in the sprawling Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, straddling their up-armored Humvees, facing opposite directions, to cover the avenues of approach. They're positioned in front of a three-story house where their platoon-mates regrouped in the aftermath of an ambush that killed one of their number — Sgt. Yihjyh "Eddie" Chen, 31, from Saipan — and left the unit cut off and surrounded.

"I've been meaning to ask you... someone said you were a teacher for at-risk youth or something?"

"Yeah, back in Arkansas," the specialist replies. "Why?"

"Back home I was at-risk youth, but here we both are," the corporal quips, sending short bursts of laughter across the audience watching them onscreen at Fort Hood's Abrams Gym — the same auditorium where the real-life soldiers portrayed by those screen actors said their goodbyes to spouses, parents, and kids just five days before their unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Cavalry Regiment, suffered that ambush. By the time the sun set on Baghdad on April 4, 2004, more than 60 soldiers were wounded — many gravely — and eight were dead from a series of deadly ambushes and desperate rescue attempts. The day was so horrible that it's remembered by survivors and chroniclers as Black Sunday.

The 12-acre Sadr City set was constructed atop Fort Hood's "Elijah" training area, a mockup of a Middle Eastern town used to train troops for military operations in urban terrain (MOUT) — and the same site where members of 2/5 trained prior to their deployment.National Geographic/Van Redin

Now, more than 13 years later, on Oct. 27, many of those men and their families were gathered again at the Texas auditorium — some for the first time since the day they left for their yearlong deployment — for a special two-episode screening of The Long Road Home, National Geographic's upcoming miniseries on 2/5's Iraq odyssey, which premieres Nov. 7.

Families, friends, soldiers and vets lined the seats, with overflow viewers spilling onto bleachers in back. Outside, counselors and emotional support personnel had a booth set up, should the need arise.

As the event wrapped up and the crowd filed out, a man in a Stetson hat stood to the side, chatting quietly with show execs and friends. This was Matt Fisk, the real-life Arkansas teacher-turned Army E-4 who manned that Humvee turret.

"My heart is going about a hundred miles an hour," Fisk, who hadn't seen the series until that night at Fort Hood, told Task & Purpose. "I feel a tightness in my chest. And I guess I feel some excitement and a bit of sadness, because I was with Sgt. Chen when he died, and seeing it right there in front of me, I'm feeling all these mixed emotions. It's like combat — combat's a mixed bag of emotions — and I am experiencing what I experienced back then."

"I hope that we shatter a stereotype"

Over the course of eight one-hour long episodes, each told from the vantage point of a different character, The Long Road Home embarks on a dogged pursuit of authenticity and emotional realism. The series makes accessible those post-9/11 servicemembers, and their families, who have been by turns lionized as heroes and portrayed as victims in popular culture, held aloft as political props on one side of the aisle or the other.

Set during a critical juncture in the Iraq War — when a peacekeeping mission became a desperate struggle to stem the tide of an unexpected insurgency — The Long Road Home is based on ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz's 2007 nonfiction book of the same name. Raddatz had done a series of interviews with members of 2/5 for a story on the April 4 battle — a precursor to three months of brutal and unforgiving fighting to retake the city. But she quickly realized that to tell this story, a short segment wouldn't cut it.

The Army provided production support for "The Long Road Home" in the form of nearly 1,000 troops, as many as 250 in a given day, as well as Bradleys, Abrams tanks, scores of Humvees and trucks, and at least one Black Hawk helicopter.National Geographic/Jeremy Benning

"I hope that we shatter a stereotype, first of all, of who's serving our country," Raddatz told Task & Purpose. "This isn't just about this battle, this isn't just about that war, it is a bigger story of conflict and sacrifice and service. Those soldiers could be anybody, and those families could be any of our Gold Star families."

The Army apparently agreed, providing production support for The Long Road Home: nearly 1,000 troops, as many as 250 in a given day, as well as Bradleys, Abrams tanks, scores of Humvees and trucks, and at least one Black Hawk helicopter.

And studio space, too: The 12-acre Sadr City set was constructed atop Fort Hood's "Elijah" training area, a mockup of a Middle Eastern town used to train troops for military operations in urban terrain (MOUT) — and the same site where members of 2/5 trained prior to their deployment. The actors were billeted in base housing on the sprawling installation, interspersed in different neighborhoods and near active-duty families. (An Army representative told Task & Purpose that the production crew, not the taxpayer, covered the actors' billeting.)

"Everyone was a regular Joe Schmoe"

But it's not tanks or accurate uniforms that distinguish National Geographic's mil drama — those are minimum requirements that even the most procedural TV war stories get mostly right. What sets The Long Road Home apart from its equally market-savvy competition is that it's "disarmingly sincere," as Military.com's Hope Hodge Seck put it. It's light on stereotypes and caricatures of men-at-arms who piss napalm and floss their teeth with concertina wire.

"Everyone was a regular Joe Schmoe; most of them hadn't seen combat," Ezekiel Swinford, who plays Fisk in the show, told T&P.; "The fact that no one had any experience with this, the ambush, it had to pull the warrior out of them."

That's reflected by the men on screen, some surly, others subdued, but most unblooded by battle: a mix of misfits, outcasts, fighters, idealists, and self-described nerds, whose plan to play Dungeons and Dragons after their "shit-sucking" detail cleaning up sewage in a Baghdad neighborhood is derailed by a sudden and ferocious assault.

The erstwhile grunts, though, aren't the only characters to follow in The Long Road Home. The story splits between the battlefront and the homefront, Fort Hood and Sadr City moving in parallel, their occupants facing different hardships. See, for example, how milspouse Gina Denomy (played by Kate Bosworth) pulls her husband Troy's Army sweater from the laundry bin — faded and well-worn — and puts it on, breathing in his scent before a ring at the doorbell jars her back into her body, on the cluttered floor of her laundry room, alone, save for her still-sleeping infant son.

Gina Denomy, played by Kate Bosworth. and her husband Troy, played by Jason Ritter, in "The Long Road Home" share a moment with their infant son prior to 2/5's yearlong deployment to Sadr City, Iraq.National Geographic/Van Redin

Politically charged, but not politically divisive

The Long Road Home follows a similar narrative structure to Raddatz's book — laying out events, one after the other, with viewers left to draw their own conclusions about how it all adds up, and plays out in the battle, and what it says about that time in the war: There was a sudden citywide attack, inflamed by anti-American resentment that had been allowed to slowly simmer, right under the noses of U.S. troops.

The ambush, coordinated and well-orchestrated, came just as 2/5 assumed command in Sadr City, which meant the troops who knew the streets best were on their way out, and the soldiers arriving didn't yet have their bearings in the sprawling neighborhood. Since theirs was a peacekeeping mission, the unit left behind most of its heavy armor, sending some soldiers out in unarmored trucks. The soldiers who were injured in battle entered a government medical system overloaded by the grinder of war as Iraq's peacekeeping mission morphed into a full-blown counterinsurgency that occupied U.S. forces for seven more years.

Set during a critical juncture in the Iraq War — when a peacekeeping mission became a desperate struggle to stem the tide of an unexpected insurgency — The Long Road Home is based on ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz's 2007 nonfiction book of the same name.National Geographic/Van Redin

In Raddatz's book, "There is an implicit criticism of things — it was meant to be a peacekeeping mission but wasn't," Mikko Alanne, the series showrunner, screenwriter and executive producer, told Task & Purpose. "And I felt like I wanted to use the same balance, so that no matter which side of the war you were on, you would keep watching."

"I don't think of the show as either political or apolitical," Alanne continued, but he acknowledged that you can't tell soldiers' stories without capturing their own skepticism about what they do in America's name. And although the Army had a chance to review the script, it doesn't exactly dial back the FUBAR. "I think the show, and this is to the Army's credit, carries a lot of the legitimate criticism about the way that the initial occupation was handled," Alanne said.

'Nobody cares. About me, about any of us who are like this'

Perhaps the closest that The Long Road Home comes to getting political occurs in the show's sixth episode, which focuses on Spc. Tomas Young (Noel Fisher), who was shot by a sniper and paralyzed in the battle, becoming a vocal anti-war activist until his death on Nov. 10, 2014.

In the series, we witness Young's transformation from eager soldier — who talks about using that "warrior muscle" he spent months honing in training — to a disillusioned and severely combat-wounded veteran who is disgusted at the apathy he sees back home.

"You know, guys like me in Vietnam got a year in the hospital, nine months outpatient," Young says in one scene. "Me? I got 103 days and they were like 'Here's some fucking pills, good luck.' Nobody gives a shit. Nobody cares. About me, about any of us who are like this. We're fucking invisible."

Though Young appears at an Iraq Veterans Against The War rally later in the episode, his public speeches are dubbed over or fade out. This was a creative choice, Alanne told Task & Purpose, and not based on concerns about politicizing the show.

"I had a version where he gave a speech on the stage in Grover, Texas, talking about that specifically," Alanne said — but the substance of the speech, on the treatment of severely wounded veterans, still appeared in the episode, he added. "The focus that I always wanted to have, and one of the things I admired in Martha's book, is that it was accessible to both the readers who supported and opposed the war, so our portrait of Tomas always focused on his activism [for] wounded veterans."

'You damn well better know why you're there'

Young's portrayal is one of many scenes where The Long Road Home flicks lightly at still-raw nerve endings. Yes, we still need to have a conversation about whether this was all worth it, these moments seem to say.

"Some of them — Young, you know — they didn't get to hit all those milestones that we consider milestones of a fulfilled life," said Eric Bourquin, a technical advisor for the show. "It's not lost on me." Young and his fellow soldiers had been en route to save Bourquin, Fisk, and Chen's platoon when they, too, were ambushed.

"This is going to show what that sacrifice is," Bourquin, who is played by actor Jon Beavers in the show, told Task & Purpose. "That's what those guys gave up. The fact that they mounted up without equipment, without gear, that's pretty brave, pretty courageous.

Aaron Fowler and Eric Bourquin, veterans of "Black Sunday" speak at the Fort Hood, Texas premiere of "The Long Road Home," a National Geographic miniseries commemorating the Sadr City, Iraq battle.U.S. Army/Sgt. Christopher Case

At a time when it's safe for a war drama to either fully embrace the politics of the forever war with cynicism and manufactured anger — or to just skirt the "why's" entirely — The Long Road Home pulls the viewer back to 2004, just a year after then-president George W. Bush declared the "mission accomplished," with the added horror that we already know what happens next — to these soldiers, to Iraq, to America's foreign policy.

The Long Road Home isn't the first or last word on the Iraq War, its consequences, and costs. But it's moving the conversation forward — and putting regular, trigger-pulling Joe Schmoes and their families at the center of that conversation.

"I absolutely think that when it comes to it," Raddatz said, "if nothing else works and you have to go to war, you damn well better know why you're there and who you're sending."

SEE ALSO: 8 Unbelievable Stories From The Second Battle Of Fallujah

WATCH NEXT: National Geographic's The Long Road Home


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