By Diane Howard, Ph.D.
National Geographic presents a weekly TV miniseries, “The Long Road Home,” this fall. It is realistically and accurately filmed at Fort Hood, Texas, about Fort Hood’s 1st Cav’s horrific experiences in a brutal, unexpected ambush in Sadr City, after it had been prematurely announced that the mission was accomplished in Iraq.
This series is appropriate for older teens and adults only, as it is graphic in terms of realistic violence. It also has some female, backside nudity in one scene. It does present faith and prayer positively throughout.
I have pre-screened the whole series and sat with soldiers who had been there during the real events for the series’ premiere at Fort Hood. They said that for the most part it is accurate and realistic. They were impressed at how hard the actors and film team worked to get it right.
“The Long Road Home” is based on Martha Raddatz’s New York Times best-selling book. It features the following notable actors who give heartfelt, believable, authentic performances: Michael Kelly, Jason Ritter, E.J. Bonilla, Kate Bosworth, Sarah Wayne Callies, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Sisto and more.
National Geographic’s eight-part global event series is a gripping and intimate look at the toll war takes on soldiers and their families. It tells the story of “Black Sunday,” when a small platoon of soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division was ferociously ambushed in Sadr City, Baghdad, in April 2004. Eight American soldiers would make the ultimate sacrifice that day and more than 65 seriously wounded.
The series begins as the soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division say goodbye to their loved ones as they depart for Sadr City, Baghdad, on what is considered a peacekeeping mission. Without incident for a year, the area was known as the “safest place in Iraq.” Troops under Lt. Shane Aguero are ambushed during a routine support mission. Within minutes bullets pound the vehicles in a relentless hailstorm. Aguero’s platoon has no hope of getting back to base with its two vehicles down. Braving an increasing rain of bullets from rooftops, the men head down a long, narrow alley, where they find refuge in a house with its terrified Iraqi family inside. Lt. Col. Gary Volesky and Capt. Troy Denomy back at Camp War Eagle launch the first of three rescue missions to retake the city and to free their men. At first unaware of the mounting situation in Iraq, the soldiers’ wives and families back at home continue on with daily life as they try to maintain normalcy during their loved ones’ deployment.
See trailer for “The Long Road Home”:
National Geographic interviewed U.S. Army veteran Aaron Fowler who was involved in the ambush and served as a production consultant for the series. Here are excerpts:
NG: Can you tell us about your experience on April 4, 2004?
AF: On April 4, I was a member of Charlie Company, 1st Platoon. I was the first dismounted squad leader, and I had been in-country for probably about 30 days. I had arrived on the leader’s recon with Lt. Aguero and Sgt. Haubert. We had absorbed as much information as we could from the unit that we were relieving, and tried to regurgitate it to the people who were coming in as quickly as possible because we had only maybe a week of trade-over before it was all ours. And so, the first day that we had assumed responsibility for our sector, Lt. Aguero and Sgt. Haubert had taken the guys out, and I was staying back with the rest of our guys who wouldn’t fit on the trucks, to do maintenance and relax and just answer questions that they would have being new to Sadr City. About lunchtime, we heard the call come out over the radio from Spc. Riddell calling in that 1st Platoon was in contact. After that, it was just mobilizing, and since our platoon was out in sector, the handful of 1st Platoon guys who were left over jumped in wherever we could.
I had gotten into the back of a headquarters platoon LMTV with Sgt. Lay and other guys from headquarters’ platoon, and we had managed to make at least one push up through the city trying to find our guys who were pinned down and took a lot of casualties. We had pulled back out of the sector a little bit, sent that LMTV back with the wounded to the aid station, and I got in the back of Capt. Denomy’s truck. We got the remainder of the soldiers who weren’t injured out of the back of the truck and into Bradleys and any other vehicles that we could get them into, and we began another push out into the city. It was during that second push out into the city that I was wounded a few times, and I ended up being medically evacuated back to the States, and went back to finish out the deployment a couple months after I healed.
NG: What was it like to work with the cast?
AF: The actors have been a really hardworking bunch of people. They took basic training in stride, and they were very attentive. They asked a lot of individual questions. E.J. Bonilla, who played Lt. Shane Aguero, wanted every detail to help him represent Aguero in the best way possible. All the actors wanted to know all they could, including nicknames and stories. It was really rewarding to be able to tell them these things and to watch them eat it up, and then to see those little things make their way to the camera. It just added another layer of realism to the whole thing.
NG: What has it been like to be able to experience this filming with some of your 1st Cavalry brothers?
AF: Something about going through the experience of war gives us this urge to come back together. We had a reunion at the 10-year mark, and this production has almost been like a second reunion. I have gotten to see Gold Star family members who I haven’t seen since I was at Walter Reed immediately after Black Sunday. There’s been a lot of hugs, a lot of slaps on the back, a lot of “Is this as crazy to you as it is to me?” Getting the opportunity to reconnect with my friends and their family members has been just an amazing part of the experience. And I think it’s been really helpful for me personally, for healing, to see Tomas Young’s mother and a lot of my friends who I haven’t had a chance to see in a while.
NG: Brotherhood is a big part of “The Long Road Home.” What is it like to have a bond like you do with these guys?
AF: I take it for granted, honestly, and it’s not until somebody phrases a question that way that makes me think about the fact that I am lucky. I have a couple dozen people who I could call at a moment’s notice who would help me move, who would help me if my truck was stranded on the side of the road, who would cheer me up, who would help me move a dog across country – people who will absolutely be there, because when the bullets were flying, they came for my friends. They were by my side. When you’ve seen humanity at its worst and people have stayed right beside you, that gives you a feeling of quiet confidence. I know what they bring to the table every day, no matter what, whether we’re near, whether we’re far. We went through something and will forever be connected in a way that is almost closer than a husband and spouse. My wife will say sometimes that she doesn’t understand the connection, but she appreciates it, and she’s glad that Eric Bourquin and I have it, and that the rest of us have it – this bond that transcends blood or relatives just by shared experience.
NG: What does it mean to you that so many people across the world will hear and see your story?
AF: It is amazing and not in any way because of me, honestly. It’s because I want my friends’ story to be told. We have a saying – it’s pretty old – that a warrior never truly dies until the last time his name has been spoken. So getting to see all of our friends who made the ultimate sacrifice get memorialized for eternity, to know that forever from now on, as long as digital information is in existence, that people will be able to look back on what people like Sgt. Eddie Chen gave for their country and for their friends, for each other; it’s overwhelming.
The series shows how no soldier fights alone. This scripted series offers viewers an intimate look at the experience of war as seen through the eyes and the hearts of the soldiers themselves, as well of their families back home. It is an adrenaline-fueled and emotional journey that follows the action of the battle on two simultaneous fronts. One front is on the chaotic, terror-filled streets of Sadr City, where a group of inexperienced young soldiers faces an unexpected and unimaginable attack with bravery they never knew they had. The second front is at home at Fort Hood, where family members, desperate for news of their loved ones and fearing the worst, discover their own courage and determination as well.
With unprecedented intimacy, this eight-part series tells the stories not only of the courageous soldiers under the fire of an ambush but also of their compatriots involved in the three desperate and deadly rescue missions launched to save them. Across eight hours, reflecting the exact amount of time the soldiers were pinned down, each episode focuses on a different character’s unique and compelling story as we come to understand their heroism and humanity.
Diane Howard, Ph.D. (Performance Studies), has been involved with the military all of her life. She grew up in an Army family and then married Dave Howard who became a 20 year veteran Army chaplain. He has been trained by the Army as a marriage and family therapist. He is a Ph.D. in marriage and family counseling and has been involved in PTSD research and counseling.
Dr. Dave Howard’s last assignment was at Fort Hood and continues to serve the military and their families there, as does Dr. Diane Howard. Both Howards served as professors at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.