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‘Hell and Back Again’: What it Means to Lead Men in War, and Then Return Home

May 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the summer of 2009, Marines pushed hard against the Taliban, hoping to attain control of Helmand province in Afghanistan. Photojournalist Danfung Dennis filmed one Marine's combat experiences and difficult readjustment into home life. Dennis discusses his film "Hell and Back Again" with Jeffrey Brown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to our second report on returning veterans.

An award-winning documentary follows a Marine from the battlefield in Afghanistan to a troubled life back home in North Carolina.

Jeffrey Brown has our look.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the summer of 2009, the Marines of 2nd Battalion 8th Marine Regiment pushed hard against the Taliban in an effort to regain control of Helmand Province.

Embedded with Echo Company was Danfung Dennis, a news photographer shooting video for the first time to capture the fighting against an elusive in and around villages where the welcome from residents was often anything but warm.

Dennis’ camera caught the combat life and stress of one Marine in particular, Sgt. Nathan Harris, and followed him home after a bullet shattered his hip and broke his leg. But Dennis went further, essentially embedding himself into the home life of the 25-year-old from North Carolina, his difficult readjustment, his painful rehabilitation and growing dependence on medication, and his loving but occasionally tense relations with his young wife, Ashley.

Weaving together scenes from the war and the home front, Danfung Dennis’ film, “Hell and Back Again,” won a top award at the Sundance Film Festival, received an Academy Award nomination, and airs tonight on the PBS series “Independent Lens.”

And Danfung Dennis joins me now.

Welcome. And congratulations on this.

DANFUNG DENNIS, filmmaker: Thank you for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: I understand that you actually didn’t set out to make a film. Right? So, how did this come about?

DANFUNG DENNIS: I had been working as a photojournalist in Iraq and Afghanistan for several years.

And even though my images were being published, I felt like they were losing their impact, that after so many years of war, society was numb to these pictures. And so I moved into video. And in July of 2009, I was embedded with Echo Company 2-8 of the 2nd Marine Division during the largest helicopter-borne assault since Vietnam; 4,000 Marines were being dropped into an enemy stronghold.

And I was with Echo Company. We were dropped 18 kilometers behind enemy lines. And I brought with me a custom camera system that was able to shoot very high-quality cinematic video.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so — but what was it you were trying to do that you felt you couldn’t do before?

DANFUNG DENNIS: I wanted to use new technology to try to bring people closer to this story, actually show them what was happening on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you get real close. We’re watching as you’re running along with the soldiers amid the shooting.

DANFUNG DENNIS: On the first day, we were surrounded by Taliban fighters. And the fighting was extremely heavy.

It focused around this pile of rubble that became known as Machine Gun Hill. And, after the first day, one Marine had been killed. A dozen had collapsed from exhaustion. And nearly all of us had run out of water.

And that’s when a Marine handed me his last bottle of water. And this was Sgt. Nathan Harris. And this is where we first met. And I could tell he was this courageous leader, a professional. And I followed his platoon as they pushed further into the stronghold.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in fact, he, as we learn, is on his third tour of combat duty. And as he tells — as he says in the film, early on, he had a kind of gung-ho warrior sensibility, still does to some degree, but now, as we meet him, things have got, as he says, hard. I mean, things have really taken a turn.

DANFUNG DENNIS: He was trained from a young age to join the Marine Corps.

His father had always wanted him to fight, had trained him to be a warrior. He was a champion wrestler in high school. And he signed up right at the age of 18. This was his third deployment.

JEFFREY BROWN: The — a couple of striking things about the film, I mean, among many things, the access that you got, I mean, both on the battlefield and at home. Was that — did that happen organically or did you have to work hard at that? How did it happen?

DANFUNG DENNIS: There’s always some mistrust between a tightly knit military unit and an outside journalist.


DANFUNG DENNIS: But after you go through some difficult experiences, they learn to trust you and you learn to trust them.

And so I think I was able to get that type of access back at home especially because I had been there out in Afghanistan with that platoon and with Nathan.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so when you found him coming back home when he was injured, you broached the subject or you raised the idea of actually sort of watching his life as it unfolded, right?

DANFUNG DENNIS: I didn’t actually know the story would follow just him.

JEFFREY BROWN: You didn’t know at that time?

DANFUNG DENNIS: I just followed it, and it unfolded. And I was back in North Carolina six months after that first initial offensive, with the battalion coming home.

And it was this emotional reunion, with Marines stepping off the buses to their waiting families. And I quickly realized that Nathan didn’t get off the bus. And so I asked the men, where is Sgt. Harris? And they said, he was hit two weeks ago. He had been shot in the hip by a Taliban machine gun round.

And so I called him up. And he was just being released from a Naval hospital. He was in extreme pain and distress and feeling quite guilty for having left his men behind. Yet he invited me back up to his hometown in Yadkinville, North Carolina. And he introduced me to his friends and family and his wife, Ashley, as, “This guy was out there with me.”

And, instantly, I was accepted into this rural Baptist community.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, the other really striking thing about this documentary, as opposed to — more so than most, is the way you weave back and forth between the war and the home front.

I want to show — it’s hard to capture in a short film, but I want to show a short clip. So this where we’re seeing Sgt. Harris first out in the battlefield and the stress. And then you quickly switch to a scene of him and his wife in the car after they have visited the doctor.

So let’s roll that.

SGT. NATHAN HARRIS, U.S. Marine Corps: No. Johnson, I need you to go up there and check the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) bag, get the turf, talk to these guys and find out what the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) is going on.

Do you think I’m lying about it when I tell you I’m getting sick?

ASHLEY HARRIS, wife of Sgt. Nathan Harris: No. Just leave me alone. I’m so tired of arguing with you over stupid. . .

SGT. NATHAN HARRIS: I know, but you insist.

ASHLEY HARRIS: You got to leave me alone.

SGT. NATHAN HARRIS: I wasn’t mean to you. A little bit. OK? All I said was I didn’t want you telling the doctor, no, we need to switch it to something else. I didn’t want you messing me up and not letting me get my medicine, which I know you won’t do. But you even told that other doctor. I mean, I know you were just jumping — I know you were just conversating and talking.

ASHLEY HARRIS: Tell what doctor what?

SGT. NATHAN HARRIS: Dr. James about me switching medicines to something else.

ASHLEY HARRIS: You said I even told that other doctor something.

SGT. NATHAN HARRIS: You told Dr. James that. And I didn’t want you to tell the pain doctor that and make them mess me all up.

ASHLEY HARRIS: Tell the pain doctor what? What did I tell him?

SGT. NATHAN HARRIS: To switch my medicine. You didn’t tell him. . .

ASHLEY HARRIS: I didn’t tell anybody to switch your medicine. I didn’t say a word to Dr. James. What are you talking about?

SGT. NATHAN HARRIS: Flying off the handle.

ASHLEY HARRIS: I told you that and you just — once again, you don’t listen to a thing I ever say.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, he’s accusing her of colluding in a sense with the doctor. But it’s showing the stress.

One of the really interesting things here is this technique of, as I say, going back and forth. But it’s almost a sort of film quality where it’s like you’re suggesting that — what’s going on in his head, what has led to the scene at home. We just see what sort of led to it on the battlefield.

Were you conscious of that? And were you, I don’t know, a little wary of that, because you can almost go too far with that?

DANFUNG DENNIS: I never actually sat down with Nathan and asked him, what was going through your head right at this moment? I actually brought in a lot of my own personal experiences of going to war and coming home from it.

And what I realized was that the fighting doesn’t end when these men come back. It just continues in a different way. It’s very personal, very psychological, and becomes an entirely different battle, whether it’s with medication, with pain or relationships. It’s an entirely different struggle.

JEFFREY BROWN: And your own experience, I mean, how much of this is based on your own experience of being in war, and then having to deal with what you saw?

DANFUNG DENNIS: I tried to bring in a lot of my own personal experiences of that difficulty of coming back to society that has very little understanding of what you have just been through.

You’re coming from this world of life and death and blood and dust to one where it seems like everyone is shopping. And that’s very difficult to deal with.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, that’s a scene where he goes — that’s one of the remarkable scenes where he drives into the shopping mall, right, and just says, I would rather be back at war. It’s just hard to find a parking place, for one thing.

DANFUNG DENNIS: And I think a lot of men and women that return from war feel like that. It’s simpler over there.

Back here, you have bills and relationships and all of that seems much more complex. And so I wanted to try to bring these two worlds together of the battlefields of Afghanistan and the complexity of back at home and blend them together. And I used sounds and images to try to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have stayed in touch with Sgt. Harris, I guess. What has happened to him and his family?

DANFUNG DENNIS: We have had an incredible journey together. And he’s still an active-duty Marine in the Wounded Warriors Regiment at Camp Lejeune and he’s still together with his wife, Ashley.

JEFFREY BROWN: He wants to go — part of what he says in this film is he wants to go back. That’s not going to happen, I guess.

DANFUNG DENNIS: I think he will always want to be that infantry grunt that goes back. But he’s had that that realization that he won’t go. He’s going to have to stay at home and find a new identity. If he’s not that warrior, who is he? And I think that’s his next struggle.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the film is “Hell and Back Again.”

Danfung Dennis, thanks so much.

DANFUNG DENNIS: Thanks for having me.