On Tuesday, May 30, we hosted a one-time live online screening of Hell and Back Again with the subject of the film, Sgt. Nathan Harris and his wife Ashley present to take questions. We were so moved by the experience, we’re posting some of the highlights here. (The event is archived here — you can read the complete interchange, but the film is no longer available for online viewing.)
Viewer Cathy: Nathan, I am very proud of what you and other troops have done for this country. It breaks my heart to see you going thru so much pain in the movie. Brandon says you are doing better now, and I am glad to hear it. As I said before if you ever need us you only have to let us know !! We will be there for you.
Viewer PAYA: I’m 27 years of age and I recognize that we as citizens of this country owe a HUGE debt of gratitude to the military wives and families of our brave troops who are called to serve on the front lines. God Bless.
Sgt. Harris: Thank you very much! The families’ and wives’ story doesn’t get told often.
Viewer 5ULQ: Nathan, how is your recovery coming?
Sgt. Harris: My recovery has really taken off……. I have done a lot of different types of rehabilitation and I am really happy with where I’m at but still constantly trying to improve…. I walk with assistance but have gained alot of independence and Ashley (my wife) still does a wonderful job aiding me.
Viewer 7 UBR: Thanks you for your service, Nathan. Hope for your rehab to continue progressing.
Sgt Harris: Thank You, I just have to keep my head up and the support I get from family and people I don’t even know really helps.
Moderator Steve: @Sgt. Harris – filmmaker Danfung Dennis has mentioned you offering him water during combat. Do you remember meeting him for the first time?
Sgt. Harris: Me and Danfung meet this evening. We all were out of water and I was going up and down the line passing out/replacing water and ammo and Mr. Danfung was out of water as well so I gave him our last bottle of water.
Viewer Annelise: Sgt. Harris, thanks so much for all you are doing to educate folks about the war and what it means to serve. Question: Does Ashley have any support as a caregiver?
Sgt. Harris: Ashley’s grandmother was a caregiver for many years for her grandpa, so they have been her number one support system, but located 4 hrs away she sometimes does need and has to reach out to organizations for help. We are in Wounded Warrior Battalion and that helps as well because I am in a place with other injured Marines.
Viewer Annelise: Was it hard to share all of these intimate moments of your personal life with Danfung there with camera in hand?
Sgt. Harris: It was hard to share them and sometimes we didn’t want to or even know we were but we knew it could potentionally help by telling many peoples story because this one is mine but also alot of others.
Viewer Susan: Why do you have to have the handgun Nathan? Ashley, does the handgun make you nervous?
Sgt. Harris: I depended on a firearm for yrs of my life to keep me safe. if someone else has a firearm and tries to use it to hurt you and you don’t have one you lose and are not safe. the film has scenes that you see a 15 sec clip and you have no context behind it and I look dangerous and it was ignorant sometimes but basically I chose to keep my family and self safe and I know hurt or not that I can do that as people have for a long time….. I’ll let Ashley answer the rest of the question.
Ashley: I know Nathan has trained for many years and knows firearms in and out, it is his job, so I wasn’t ever scared and even though it wasn’t appropriate, he was never serious. You just don’t know that because of context.
Viewer Susan: Ashley, I am not judging based on these scenes, the suicide rate is sky high for returning vets, was just surprised to see Nathan playing around with it.
Viewer Krissy: Nathan – how did you feel about this scene? Do you feel like it captured how you might have been feeling at this meeting with your doctor?
Sgt. Harris: I knew what the doctor was saying and I had family at the hospital getting involved and talking about pain medication but I had a serious like threatening injury and was in pain, so even though I had to take meds and had many surgeries I kind of was feeling the way it is portrayed.
Viewer Krissy: That’s great that you feel Danfung portrayed you so authentically – there must be a lot of trust between you, for you to open your life up like this. Thank you to you and Ashley.
Moderator Steve: Sgt. Harris — can you tell us what it was like to see this film for the first time? Interested to hear both of your perspectives on that one…
Sgt. Harris: It was emotional because of the sacrifices that were made during that time, and the hardships we went through and the casualties and just seeing that transfered onto camera was really difficult and new.
Ashley: It was extremely emotional for me to watch any time it has played. I am grateful that we have this opportunity to show what military families and spouses and caregivers go through.
Viewer Debbie: Maybe the next movie could be about how we Americans can contribute to wounded soldiers and their families with actual stories.
Viewer Josh (who went to Paris Island with Nathan): Wounded Warrior Project
Sgt. Harris: There is Wounded Warrior Battalion, where the injured are with a command and health care professionals and are military just wounded and then there is wounded warrior project and they do wonderful things also just want to clarify the difference.
Viewer Annelise: This scene does so much to show how Afghans really feel about the US military presence in their communities. We don’t get this on CNN.
Sgt. Harris: This is important. This was the 2nd week into deployment. By the end before I was wounded the villagers had moved back into there homes, we had a bubble basically around them that we could protect them from anything outside it, but by the end they thanked us and meet in large groups to thank us…….. Once the people understood we weren’t going to fight and then leave them one day to the Taliban they were extremely happy to have us protecting them and trying to make their lives better. They were no longer being drug out of their homes in the middle of the night and beaten or killed.
Moderator Steve: Sgt. Harris – how has your relationship grown with troops you served in combat with? Are they still in your life?
Sgt. Harris: Some of them are still best friends and have been through my whole recovery process. others had to move on and go to different places, some have deployed back around the same area twice since then and are fighting now.
Viewer Debbie: Ashley: Is there a support group for the wives of wounded soldiers?
Ashley: Yes there are outings, meetings, support groups, counseling available, all through the wounded warrior battalion.
Viewer 8822: How are you now?
Sgt. Harris: I am doing really good. I fortunately have a family and wonderful spouse and support from the Wounded Warrior Battalion but many service members come from broken homes and don’t have family visiting them in the hospital at Walter Reed etc and that’s something the public can do……. We can visit them and sit and talk with them while they recover and let them know someone cares, America cares and is thankful.
Viewer Debbie: Does the military offer you any counseling to deal with all these issues you face?
Sgt. Harris: The military does, but this is new in our understanding of what happens to a person or your mind when going through things of this nature. so it is a process and it is rapidly improving.
Viewer 71BR: What’s your dog’s name?
Sgt. Harris: I have two. This one is a princess and goes with me everywhere and her name is Vera after Vera Bradley and she is a pitbull with lupus. I have a big male as well and he is a momma’s boy, Hagan.
Viewer 71BR: Good dogs man….have a bad rap. Hope they help ease the pain some.
Sgt. Harris: It would have been completely different without them. I think all injured service members that can should be given/ donated a dog for their spirits.
Viewer Joe: When a video journalist like Danfung is with you, is someone assigned to cover them, or are they on their own?
Sgt. Harris: Well it is my responsibility to keep them safe. I put them with someone but they do this at great risk and with no weapon. Danfung captured the frontline of the war by being with us. He often ran past me or was between me and the enemy so that he could get the video and I think that is special.
Moderator Steve: You are incredibly brave for sharing your story w/ Danfung (filmmaker) and all of us. What do you see the next phase of your life looking like? What do you want to do?
Sgt. Harris: Thank you, I would like to start my first small business and have my family help run it and let it keep us all together and be able to support/ spend time with each other. I am transitioning or medically retiring soon. I also plan and hope I get to stay involved with Veterans issues and would love to be an advocate for them and help in many different areas. So I wanna look at that and see where it goes.
Moderator Steve: Sgt. Harris & Ashley — are these candid scenes at home difficult for you to watch?
Sgt. Harris: NO not really, the scenes at home are personal but we are comfortable by now with sharing it because we believe in doing so it may help others. We did not get paid for film, or act, it is just simply what was going on when the camera was on. I honestly didn’t know when the camera was on or off half the time. I can tell you this, if I had of know then the gun scenes probably wouldn’t have made it.
We’d like to thank the hundreds of viewers who participated in this groundbreaking screening event, an hope you’ll join us for more such events in the coming months.