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Initially, writer-director Kimberly Peirce had seen the movie as a character piece in the style of such classic road movies as “The Last Detail.” But as she got deeper into the material, she was also affected by seminal war movies as varied as “The Best Years of Our Lives,” to “Apocalypse, Now” “Platoon,” “Born on the 4deeper into the material, she was also affected by seminal war movies as varied as “The Best Years of Our Lives,” to “Apocalypse, Now” “Platoon,” “Born on the 4th of July and “Coming Home.

The project took a more personal turn when Peirce’s younger brother, then 18, enlisted in the Army after the events of September 11, 2001. “I understood his desire to ‘get the people who had done this,’ but the idea of my own brother carrying this out was devastating,” she says. “None of my friends or family knew anyone in the military. Now we were a military family. He joined the 10th Mountain Division attached to the 82nd Airborne. He prepared for war while we were fighting in Afghanistan and entered the war in Iraq in September 2003. I was concerned for his safety and worried about the emotional and spiritual toll this would take on him.

“In an effort to understand what my brother was going through,” she continues, “I started making a documentary on our soldiers. I interviewed soldiers, asking them why they joined, what they experienced at war (killing, not killing, seeing their men killed and wounded), and what they experienced upon their return – specifically, how they struggled to re-assimilate into society.” The research began to illuminate discontent among the soldiers about the war, what they were fighting for and the way it was being fought. “As a result,” says Peirce, “an increasing number of servicemen were going AWOL. Kathie Dobie wrote an excellent piece about it in Harper’s magazine, ‘AWOL in America.’ We began searching these soldiers out and interviewing them on the run in America and those who had settled abroad.”

During her brother’s first leave from Iraq, Peirce stumbled on a treasure trove of original material relating to his and his fellow soldiers’ war experiences. “I found my brother in our living room sitting a few inches from an oversized TV, mesmerized by what was playing: soldier-shot and edited images of life and war in Iraq cut to rock music. There was something completely unique and immediate about these images – images of soldiers doing raids, seeing combat, cruising in Humvees – mostly shot with lightweight, one-chip cameras that the soldiers had mounted on guns, Humvees, sandbags, or whatever they could attach them to; images of weapons, fighter jets, bombs going off (downloaded from other soldiers and from the internet (from Defense Weapons companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing) then edited on I-Movie or Final Cut and put to music – rock, sentimental, patriotic. It was a personal, unadulterated look at combat as these young men were experiencing and signifying it. I studied the videos he brought home and located more videos through other soldiers. These small home movies were like anthropological finds – told entirely from the soldiers’ point of view. They opened many windows into the lives of these guys and my brother.”

Once he was back in Iraq, Peirce’s brother text-messaged her the story of a friend, a decorated soldier who had done his time and was ready to go home to his wife and child when he was Stop-Lossed by the Army, “which meant that despite the fact that he’d completed his contract, the army was breaking that contract and sending him right back into the combat zone –


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