By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity
It’s not often that the military gives accolades to a production depicting a real-life battle, but according to those involved in the National Geographic Channel miniseries “The Long Road Home,” it’s deserving.
The eight-part miniseries premieres Nov. 7. It depicts what was dubbed “Black Sunday” during the Iraq War – when several Army 1st Cavalry Division soldiers were ambushed on April 4, 2004, in the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City. By the end of the eight-hour ordeal, eight American soldiers died and 65 more were injured.
The series is based on the bestselling book, “The Long Road Home,” by author and ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz. It focuses on the battlefield, as well as the harrowing 48 hours that the families waited to learn their loved ones’ fates.
Raddatz and several others involved in the series, including two soldiers who survived the firefight, recently sat down to discuss the show’s impact. Here are some of the most interesting facts that came from it.
The Fort Hood set was enormous and extremely accurate.
To recreate the stretch of road where the ambush took place, set designers built a huge set at Fort Hood, where the 1st Cavalry Division is based, complete with more than 100 buildings made from scratch. Photos, videos and first-person interviews helped replicate everything, from the dimensions of the buildings’ doorways to how the radios in the Humvees were configured. At 12 acres, it was the largest working set in North America.
Aaron Fowler spent 39 months in Iraq over three deployments. He was wounded in the battle and helped consult for the show. He said he watched as the set gradually went up.
“By the time that they were finished, it was breathtaking. The only thing that wasn’t accurate was the smell, thank God,” the veteran said.
It’s one of the most accurate portrayals military experts have seen on film.
“This is the only project that I’ve read a script on in the two years I’ve been doing the job that takes time to focus on the family,” said Army Lt. Col. Tim Hyde, the deputy director of the Los Angeles Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, who helped advise on the project. “The attention to detail that everyone on the cast and crew had for getting it right … that blew me away.”
Mikko Alanne, the show’s screen writer and executive producer, said it was his conversations with those families that really hit home.
“What Hollywood gets wrong so many times is that the stories that are told are more about the glossy visuals, action sequences or the camera moves than the actual experience of combat … the intimacy and chaos and terror of it,” he said. “I wanted the soldiers and families to be our guides.”
It wasn’t easy for the soldiers portrayed to open up.
Fowler said talking to any reporter is a “very foreign idea” for most service members, but the production was handled so well that his reluctance quickly faded.
“The way that Martha and Mikko cared and respected not only me but the Gold Star family members, it made me feel like I was a member of a team that was doing my brothers honor,” he said.
Eric Bourquin, a thrice-deployed veteran who was also in the battle and worked as a show consultant, said despite his initial reluctance, it was important to share his story.
“How could I not open up when so many men died just so I could sit here and breathe like this?” he said. “While it’s difficult, it gets easier each time I talk about it.”
The realistic set helped them heal.
“It was almost like a chance to pause a DVR in your mind and walk through your memories in real time. It allowed me to heal in a way that I didn’t think I would possibly be able to before this project,” Fowler said.
Bourquin, a 15-year veteran, said going through it at his own pace was crucial.
“There’s a level of healing that veterans of the global war on terror generally aren’t going to be able to get, at least in the foreseeable future, because traveling back to those places right now just isn’t acceptable as a civilian,” he said of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Being able to share that [experience on set] … was something that brought me an immense level of healing and satisfaction.”
The actors really got to know the soldiers they were playing.
The actors went through a two-week boot camp before filming began, and they got to spend lots of time with their characters’ namesakes and their families. For Jon Beavers, who plays Bourquin in the show, portraying someone who was watching him on set was intimidating at first.
“Then I got to meet Eric, and he was exceptionally generous to me. … He believed I could do it before I believed I could do it,” Beavers said.
The two really connected when he asked Bourquin if there was ever a time when he realized he was a good soldier.
“[Bourquin] said, ‘Every day that I served in the military, I was waiting for someone to walk up to me and say, “Oh hey, we figured it out – you have no idea what the [expletive] you’re doing,”’” Beavers said. “I think what he was trying to tell me was, ‘I’m not a superhero. … I’m making it up as I go.’”
After that, Beavers said he could ask the veteran anything.
“It went from being an extraordinary challenge to a really empowering and humbling support system,” Beavers said.
They discovered the soldiers were just normal guys.
“I foolishly started weightlifting as much as I possibly could, thinking I was going to have to do pushups for days,” explained Ian Quinlan, who plays Spc. Robert Arsiaga, one of the eight soldiers who died during the battle. “Then Eric and Aaron showed us photos of them when they were overseas, as did our other trainers, and [they] were noodles.”
It helped him realize the soldiers were like anyone else.
“That’s when I was like, ‘Thank goodness, I can stop this now,’” Quinlan joked.
Many roles went to real-life soldiers.
Fowler and Bourqin both have cameos in the show, as do a few other men who were actually in the battle.
“Some of these guys put on the uniforms of their fallen friends, getting back into trucks to simulate the battle that they witnessed firsthand,” Fowler said.
At times, you could find more than 200 active-duty soldiers on set.
“When you see us moving in a platoon or squad, they’re fleshed out with former service members and active-duty guys who were placed on production as part of their active duty,” Beavers said. “The generosity of these guys to not only participate and do a hell of a job, but also to share their experiences … that, for us, meant the whole world.”
Their presence provided entertainment for both sides.
Sometimes, it got a little awkward for the actors.
“I’m pretending to be a sergeant, and I’m shouting commands that I’m just learning from the script to these guys as if they’re my Pfc.’s. Then I cut and walk back to my buddy who’s actually a sergeant, and I’m like, ‘First of all, sorry for yelling at you, and second, how am I doing?’” Beavers explained. “It was really an incredible experience.”
“You had Jon acting as an E-6, yelling at probably a real E-7 who was wearing a uniform that had E-3 rank on it,” Hyde joked.
The show proves that military/civilian connection is important.
The show’s focus on family and its ability to make the real vets know their opinions and input were important helped bridge the military/civilian divide.
“Now everybody is hopefully going to be able to see what sacrifice actually means,” Bourquin said.
While civilians don’t fully understand what goes on in the military, Raddatz offered a suggestion to all service members.
“I urge you not to become a tribe that separates yourselves from civilians. I think it’s incredibly important that you stay involved in the community outside your own – to try to tell your story and make civilians understand what it is you do,” Raddatz said. “Help them understand.”
Raddatz has covered national security and foreign policy for decades. She’s spent numerous trips abroad embedded with U.S. forces, with the majority of those trips being in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can check out her bio here.