Did the VA read anything I submitted to them? Are these outside medical exams a scam? Who is willing to fight for me?
These are all common questions that Joseph Sapien, a Southern California-based Veteran Service Officer and Army vet, encounters on a daily basis. Veteran Service Officers, or “VSOs,” serve as a free resource to help vets properly submit disability claims and steer them to all the benefits of their service.
WATM recently spoke with Sapien on what it’s like serving as a VSO and got some advice from him on how to handle issues veterans face during the process of filing claims with the VA.
1. Where do I find a Veteran Service Officer to help with my claim?
Finding a Veteran Service Officer is as easy as picking up the phone and dialing 888-777-4443 to locate the office nearest you or by visiting the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Veterans, or the Disabled American Veterans. Visiting a VSO is free of charge. Veterans should refrain from paying out of pocket to any agency claiming to offer them help with their claim. There are veterans services available in all 50 states.
2. Who is willingly to fight for me?
One benefit that a lot of veterans don’t take advantage of is calling up their congressman. Sapien says it’s a good idea for all vets to know who their elected officials are and meet them in person.
“This guy listens and tries to help vets, I have seen him give his time and thoughts on veteran matters, and that impressed me,” Sapien says of his local congressman, Rep. Tony Cárdenas.
3.What are some benefits Veterans don’t know about?
Caregiver program: This program provides monthly stipends to pay for support caregivers along with home and vehicle modifications for those who qualify. Caregivers of eligible veterans are urged to apply through the Caregiver Program website or by calling 855-260-3274.
College fee waiver: This program is set up to waive tuition fees for dependents and possibly for spouses. This is a state-based program. Visit your local VSO for more information.
4.What paperwork should I have before visiting a VSO?
Having the most current medical record on hand is key. If it’s not up-to-date, consider tracking the paperworkdown by getting in touch with your previous commands. Have a good solid copy of your service record on hand as well as your DD-214. The better your records are kept, the fewer bumps in the road. Just remember, filing is a process.
If you’re missing some of the documents, you can request them from archives.gov. It typically takes four to six weeks.
5.What Joe would like you to know
“We need to take care of each other. The only reason our era of veterans are getting better treatment and benefits is due to the Vietnam veterans who fought for our government,” Sapien says. “They fought and kept fighting for what was right, not for what was popular, not for the status quo. It’s our turn to stand. It is our turn to fight for future generations, so when they come home, they will be taken care of better than we are today.”
The Kurdish YPG, a contingent of the US-backed forces fighting ISIS in Syria, released a video Aug. 29 showing the underground tunnels that ISIS digs to launch sneak attacks.
The video shows two rather large tunnels inside a captured, bombed-out mosque, from which the YPG claim that ISIS had been using.
“The barbaric group, aware of the YPG’s sensitivity towards people’s places of worship and other historic sites, has been using [mosques] as bases to delay the liberation of Raqqa,” text in the YPG video reads.
“Hail, Caesar!,” the latest movie from the Coen Brothers, hits theaters on Friday, February 5. Here’s a sneak peek at one of the military parts of the film (cause that’s how we roll at WATM), a song where Navy man Channing Tatum complains that there ain’t gonna be no dames on his upcoming deployment. The song also contains veiled sexual references using sealife (octopus and clams), which is in line with what audiences have come to expect from the Coen Brothers in terms of hilarity.
So the next time you complain about gender integration, think about this poor sailor with clams in his rack.
The F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets left behind at Tyndall Air Base when Hurricane Michael damaged or destroyed virtually every building on site will be visited by structural engineers from Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor tweeted.
Hurricane Michael hit Tyndall with unexpected force and sooner than expected, and the Air Force left some of the jets, which cost in the hundreds of millions apiece, behind in the base’s most hardened hangars.
But the storm proved historically powerful, and images of the aftermath show the hangars torn open. Initial assessments said that up to 17 of the planes had been destroyed, but top US Air Force officials later visited the base and said the damage wasn’t as bad as first thought.
F-22 Raptors from Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., taxi after landing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio for safe haven.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Wesley Farnsworth)
While the Air Force still won’t share how many F-22s were left behind, or how bad they were damaged by the storm, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sounded hopeful on Oct. 16, 2018.
The Air Force did manage to relocate a number of air-worthy F-22s before the storm, and they’ve returned to training stealth pilots in the world’s most capable combat plane. The limited run of F-22s, their stealth shaping and coating, and rare parts make repairing them a costly endeavor.
Dec. 26, 1872, the day after Christmas — the weather in Norfolk was bitter cold, with sleet and a gale-force wind. Aboard USS Powhatan, a sidewheel steamer commissioned in 1852, it was particularly unpleasant, with a wet, slippery deck and a dangerous pitch.
Then came a cry of, “man overboard!” Boatswain Jack Walton had fallen from the fo’c’sle into the choppy, freezing water below. He had minutes — maybe seconds — before he either drowned or succumbed to hypothermia.
Seaman Joseph Noil didn’t hesitate, didn’t stop to think of the danger or the risk to his own life. He came running from below deck, “took the end of a rope, went overboard, under the bow, and caught Mr. Walton — and held him until he was hauled into the boat sent to his rescue,” his commanding officer, Capt. Peirce Crosby, wrote. “Mr. Walton, when brought on board, was almost insensible, and would have perished but for the noble conduct of Noil.”
Noil received the Medal of Honor the following month.
Then, he slowly faded from history.
Coming to America
Noil was black and was probably from Liverpool, Nova Scotia, although various records also mention Halifax, the West Indies, New York, and Pennsylvania, said Bart Armstrong, a Canadian researcher dedicated to finding some 113 Medal of Honor recipients connected to that country.
The distinguished Medal of Honor — Navy version. (Image from U.S. Navy)
“During the early days, it was not uncommon for a Soldier or Sailor to fake their residence or place of birth, date of birth or marital status.”
No one knows just what brought Noil to the U.S. or what inspired him to enlist in the Union Navy, Oct. 7, 1864. According to Armstrong, many Canadian black men who traveled south to fight in the Civil War did so to help free the slaves.
Canada was the terminus for the Underground Railroad, and many citizens, particularly in the black community, would have seen or heard of the pitiful, dehumanizing conditions escaped slaves endured.
Noil was from a coastal area, and the Navy may have been a natural fit. Enlistment papers indicate his occupation was carpenter. Dr. Regina Akers, a historian who specializes in diversity at the Navy’s History and Heritage Command, noted that he also served as a caulker and would have helped keep his ship watertight – “a very important job.”
Many free black Sailors had some type of ship or shipyard experience, whether it was as a crewmember on a merchant or whaling ship, as a fisherman or as a dockyard worker, Joseph P. Reidy, a history professor at Howard University in D.C. and the director of the African-American Sailors Project, wrote in “Prologue,” a publication of the National Archives.
According to Akers and Reidy, African-American Sailors had always been, if not precisely welcome in the Navy, at least not institutionally discriminated against. They had served honorably in the Revolution and in the War of 1812, and some 18,000 black Civil War Navy veterans have been identified by name.
Unlike the Army, the Navy in the 19th century did not segregate black servicemen. They pulled the same watches, slept in the same bunks — hammocks in those days — and ate in the same galleys as their white counterparts.
Although their ranks were limited to enlisted, there were few, if any, rating restrictions for skilled, experienced men of any color, said Akers. They served in almost every billet, from fireman to gunner, although Reidy wrote that service ratings, such as cook or steward, were the most common.
“If they could qualify or were able to learn that skill set and fill that rating, just like today, many commanding officers would allow them to do so,” Akers said, noting that the background of the ship’s commander and crew could affect the treatment African-American Sailors received.
Noil eventually became captain of the hold, a petty officer in charge of the men assigned to a storage area. He would probably have been responsible for ensuring barrels and containers were properly stowed and locating the appropriate barrels when needed, according to the Navy History and Heritage Command. However, he wouldn’t have had any authority over white Sailors.
Conditions were worse for escaped slaves, Reidy pointed out. By classifying escaped or captured slaves as contraband, the Union could legally consider them spoils of war and put them to work. Contrabands served in the Navy. They fought in the Army. They built fortifications. They cooked. They did laundry. Both men and women served in various capacities. In fact, nearly three men born into slavery served for every black man born free.
Contrabands’ naval ratings and pay tended to be the lowest and least skilled, with most classified as boy or landsman, Reidy explained. They scrubbed, painted, and polished ships. They also served in large numbers on supply and ordnance ships, where they provided manual labor. By the late 1800s, the ratings available to all African-American Sailors became extremely restricted.
Noil, who had given his age as 25 when he enlisted in 1864 and his height at 5 feet, 6 inches, transferred to USS Nyack, a wooden-hulled screw gunboat, in January 1865. Nyack was then part of the blockade off of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Noil was likely present for her involvement in the capture of nearby Fort Anderson the following month.
His next posting is listed as the steam sloop USS Dacotah in March 1866, although Navy records indicate the ship put out to sea that January on a tour that took her to Funchal, Maderia, Portugal; Rio de Janerio, Brazil; Montevideo, Uruguay, the Strait of Magellan, and Valparaiso, Chili.
Noil was discharged, March 18, 1867. Perhaps he found it difficult to make a living or perhaps he simply missed the sea, for he re-enlisted, Dec. 18, 1871, giving his age as 30. Presumably, he went straight to Norfolk and USS Powhatan, then part of the North Atlantic Squadron and one of the Navy’s last, and largest, paddle frigates.
The ship’s conduct book noted Noil was “always 1st class and on time.” Upon receiving the Medal of Honor, Noil followed in the footsteps of eight African-American Sailors who received the medal during the Civil War. Akers noted that no African-American Sailor has received the Medal of Honor since the Spanish-American War.
For Noil and the others, their actions showed that valor transcended color, that black, brown, white, it didn’t matter — shipmates came first.
Shipmate comes without definition. It’s not because you’re white, because you’re black, because we come from the same state, because you’re in the same rating — It doesn’t stop when the orders stop. Your shipmates are your shipmates. I mean, that’s your family.” – Dr. Regina Akers
Noil’s story, Akers continued, also “reminds us of – the importance of Sailors’ readiness, their physical and mental fitness, the training. Drill, drill, drill. Drill them down to the point where they can think almost unconsciously about what to do. So, man overboard. – There’s just certain procedures that pop into place. Now, the environment makes it that much worse. But it doesn’t change the routine or the requirements or the plan for what to do if someone falls overboard.”
Over the next few years, Noil was discharged and re-enlisted twice. His next ship was USS Wyoming, a wooden-hulled, 198-foot screw sloop of war. The Wyoming arrived in Villefranche, France, near Nice, Christmas Eve 1878, and spent the next two years in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
She returned to Hampton Roads, Virginia, May 21, 1881. It was her final cruise. It was Noil’s as well. It must have been a difficult one, for that month, he was admitted to the naval hospital in Norfolk and quickly transferred to the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C.
“For many months,” his admission paperwork reads, “it has been noticed that the patient’s mind was failing, that he was losing his locomotive powers. … Early in April last, he had an epileptic attack, and another on the 13th of May. For two days after latter attack he was speechless, though able to walk and eat. As he has been in the U.S. Naval service for the last seventeen years, it is natural to infer the disease originated in the line of duty.”
No one knows exactly what condition Noil suffered from, whether it was what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, some form of depression, or something else, said Jogues Prandoni, Ph.D., a volunteer historian and former director of forensic services at the hospital, now called St. Elizabeth’s.
“There could be so many reasons. Back in that era, so little was known about mental illness that sometimes certain disorders that were clearly neurological and brain-based were attributed to other causes.” – Jogues Prandoni, Ph.D.
There also wasn’t much 19th-century medicine could do for Noil, Prandoni continued, noting that although the hospital was the premier treatment facility for servicemen and veterans – as well as local civilians – only six medical doctors were on staff to treat roughly a thousand patients.
“What you had, basically, was moral therapy,” he explained. “The concept was that if you could remove people from the stresses of day-to-day living, put them in a homelike atmosphere with beautiful surroundings and caring individuals that would assist them in recovering.”
Noil’s wife, Sarah Jane, was terribly worried about her husband. With two daughters to support, she couldn’t afford to visit him, but she wrote to his doctor regularly: “I was sorry to hear that my husband was so sick and out of his mind. – Doctor do you think that I had better come on and see him? I am very poor with two children to look after,” she wrote in July 1881, later telling the doctor that her “poor little children are always talking about their papa and it makes me feel bad to hear them.”
“Doctor I am glad to think he has had good care. … Doctor if my husband should die I tell you I have not got the means to bury him,” she added that November.
Lost then found again
Her husband did pass away, March 21, 1882. “He was a relatively young man,” said Prandoni. “He died within nine months. That really raises questions about what kind of disease process was going on. It certainly sounds like more than just a psychiatric disorder.”
“The loss of my poor husband has been quite a shock to me. – My friends assure me that time will reconcile me to my great bereavement,” Sarah Jane wrote after learning of his death. “Yet time and the great consolation that I have in meeting in a better world where parting will be no more, will I trust enable me to bear my sorrow.”
Unfortunately, Noil’s name was misspelled on his death certificate and subsequently his headstone. For more than a century, he lay lost in Saint Elizabeth’s graveyard under the name Joseph Benjamin Noel until a group of historians and researchers connected with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and the Medal of Honor Historical Society, including Armstrong, finally tracked him down.
Noil finally received a new headstone spring 2017, one with not only the correct spelling of his name but also recognizing him as a Medal of Honor recipient.
Your shipmate is not simply someone who happens to serve with you. He or she is someone who you know that you can trust and count on to stand by you in good times and bad and who will forever have your back. – We are [Noil’s] shipmates and 134 years after he passed, we have his back.” – Vice Adm. Robin Braun, Chief of Navy Reserve
Before he received his code name of GARBO, Juan Pujol Garcia was a chicken farmer and hotel manager in Fascist Spain. He started his espionage career with no training, no contacts, and surrounded by intelligence agents from all sides. By the end of World War II, he would be awarded the Iron Cross Second Class from Hitler himself and made a member of the Order of the British Empire by King George VI. He was a bold double agent who greatly contributed to the success of the D-Day invasions, but the Nazis never realized they’d been had.
As Spain was torn apart by its civil war from 1936 until 1939, Pujol developed a distaste for both Fascists and Communists after being mistreated by both sides, though he had done his compulsory military service to Spain in 1931. When World War II broke out, he and his wife approached the British government to offer their services as informants. When they were rejected, Pujol created a fake identity for himself as a virulently pro-Nazi Spanish official and his spy career was born.
Instead of going to Britain to recruit more agents as his orders from Berlin would have had him do, he moved to Lisbon, where he started feeding his Nazi handlers terrible intelligence from open sources — all true, but useless —from tourism guides to England, encyclopedias and reference books, magazine ads, and even news reels. The Nazis accepted him and trained him based on how impressive-looking his reports were.
He soon had a fake network of his own agents and would blame them for faulty information. But it was when the Germans started hunting a fake convoy, created by Pujols, that British intelligence became interested in him. It was the British who dubbed him GARBO. He and his handler expanded their fake network, eventually having the Nazis pay for 27 spies that didn’t exist. His reports were so long and grandiose he soon had to start transmitting to Berlin via radio. This did nothing to shorten the British effort to flood German intelligence with information that they would stop trying to infiltrate the British government.
His primary goal was deception. When Operation Torch came about, Pujols sent his Nazi handlers a letter, backdated via airmail, a warning about the invasion of North Africa. It was designed to arrive just too late to be of use but convince the Wehrmacht of his credibility. They took the bait. His finest hour came as part of Operation Fortitude, the massive Allied deception operation aimed at fooling the Germans about the D-Day landings. The Germans told Pujols they were concerned about the buildup for an invasion of Europe. Between January and June 1944, Pujols transmitted 500 times (four times a day) with planned snippets of information that would lead Hitler to believe Pas de Calais was the main target for the Allied and that Normandy was a diversion.
His deception kept 19 Nazi infantry divisions and two armored divisions at Pas de Calais, allowing the Allies to establish a beachhead in Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Even after the landings, his broadcasts to Berlin managed to keep those units from moving for a full two months. British intelligence’s official history of D-Day maintains that had Rommel moved those units to Normandy, they would “have tipped the balance” and the Allies might have been pushed back into the English Channel. The way he managed the Germans even won him more credibility and he was rewarded by Hitler himself, via radio, with an Iron Cross.
After the war ended, Pujol feared reprisals from surviving Nazis. He faked his death from Malaria in Angola in 1949 and went underground, running a bookstore in Venezuela. He died in Caracas in 1988.
Concern is rising in Japan that the Chinese military may be training for a future mission in the disputed Senkaku Islands, where Beijing has been dispatching coast guard ships at increasing frequency in recent years.
Quoting the Pentagon’s 2017 survey of the Chinese military, Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun reported June 8 the People’s Liberation Army could be training for a raid of outlying areas, including the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China and Taiwan.
In a section on China’s amphibious capabilities, the report from the U.S. Department of Defense states the “PLA Army focuses its amphibious efforts on a Taiwan invasion while the PLA Navy Marine Corps focuses on small island seizures in the South China Sea, with a potential emerging mission in the Senkakus.”
The Japanese military also may be concerned that, according to the report, China’s PLA Navy Marine Corps brigades conducted “battalion-level amphibious training at their respective training areas in Guangdong,” or the Southern Theater.
“The training focused on swimming amphibious armored vehicles from sea to shore, small boat assault and deployment of special forces by helicopter,” the report states.
In May, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported China’s Navy Marine Corps is in the process of building a 100,000-strong military unit.
The Pentagon report states China has used “coercive tactics, such as the use of law enforcement vessels and its maritime militia, to enforce maritime claims.”
Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty applies to the Senkakus, and the United States is obligated to defend the islands if they come under attack.
In May, four Chinese coast guard ships entered Japanese territorial waters near Okinawa and the Senkaku Islands and in 2016, more than 100 Chinese ships trespassed into Japan’s territorial waters, the second-largest annual number of Chinese ships entering disputed areas since Japan announced the nationalization of the Senkakus in September 2012.
It will also be the first time six F-22 Raptors will visit South Korea, and it will focus on enemy infiltration and precision airstrikes, according to Yonhap news.
The drill will close out a heated 2017 where President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have exchanged vicious threats of destroying each other’s countries.
With the emphasis of stealth jets to the annual U.S.-South Korea exercises, this drill will be unlike any others. The US typically invites international observers to its military drills, but North Korea simply has no way to track stealth jets.
In late September the U.S. flew a B-1B bomber and a few F-15 fighter jets near North Korea, and Pyongyang never found out. In the past, the U.S. has had to tell North Korea about B-1B flights, because North Korea can’t detect them on their own, a South Korean defense official told NK News at the time.
But North Korea has no chance of spotting, tracking, or shooting down stealth jets, and the commonly accepted role of stealth platforms as being “door kickers,” or weapons systems to start wars off, will only aggravate Pyongyang’s worst fears.
So a year of record-high tensions between the U.S. and North Korea will end with practically invisible jets flying over the Korean Peninsula, and there is little that Kim Jong Un can do in response.
During the spring of 2003, the first medivacs were returning to Camp Pendleton from the battlefield of Iraq. Karen Guenther, a Marine Corps spouse who’s husband was deployed at the time, was working at the Naval Hospital on Camp Pendleton, and saw firsthand the needs of the wounded arriving there.
Guenther immediately realized most of them were in need of basic health and comfort items, so she enlisted the help of some fellow military spouses and began assembling “welcome bags” full of toiletries, phone cards, and other items intended to make life better for the wounded Marines.
“We went out to local churches and Boy Scouts and had everybody help,” said Wendy Lethin, one of the first to join Guenther’s effort. “Everybody was very generous, but we realized there was much more than welcome bags needed.”
During this same time, the spouses learned of parents of wounded Marines sleeping in their cars while visiting hospitals because they could not afford to stay at local hospitals, and they also helped to provide an adapted vehicle to a Marine whose wife was having difficulty lifting him into their truck
“That was kind of the idea for the Semper Fi Fund,” Lethin said.
Guenther gathered her group of spouses around her kitchen table in her house aboard Camp Pendleton and started brainstorming what they should do to get their collective arms around all of the needs that they saw rapidly emerging. They researched existing non-profits and were surprised that there didn’t seem to be any that were doing what they had in mind.
“We had the right group at the right time,” Lethin said. “We read all kinds of books on non profits and did our research. And we agreed to the ideals and tenants of the organization that still guide us today.”
As stated on the Semper Fi Fund’s website, the organization’s mission is to provide immediate financial assistance and lifetime support to post-9/11 wounded, critically ill and injured members of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, and their families, ensuring that they have the resources they need during their recovery and transition back to their communities.
The Fund’s first official donation came for the Lighthouse Christian Church in Oceanside, California. The entire donation was given to the first three wounded Marines referred by the hospital with the thought that even if that was all that was raised it would at least help those three and their families at a difficult time in their recovery. Little did the organizers realize that that donation would be the first of many.
In the 12 years since the Semper Fi Fund has transformed the lives of thousands of wounded service members and their families. The Fund now has a dedicated staff supplemented by hundreds of volunteers around the world.
“I’m proud of what we do and how we do it,” Lethin said. “It’s a sacred duty to be able to do what we do.”
The Fund’s next major event is the “InVETational,” a charity golf tournament hosted by comedian and actor Rob Riggle (who, among other roles, is currently playing Col. Sanders in KFC commercials). Riggle is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who served as a public affairs officer in Afghanistan. The tournament will take place at Valencia Country Club in Los Angeles on Dec. 5.
“We are so excited that Rob is doing this for the Semper Fi Fund,” Lethin said. “He has the heart of our mission. He’s a Marine who knows the power and good of what we do.”
Frustrated current and former US officials warned that President Donald Trump’s personal Apple iPhone is being monitored by Chinese spies, according to a New York Times report published Oct. 24, 2018.
Trump reportedly has two iPhones that were programmed by the National Security Agency for official use, but he keeps a third, personal phone that remains unaltered — much like the normal iPhones on the consumer market, according to the officials.
Unlike the other government-managed phones, Trump uses the unaltered personal iPhone because of its ability to store contacts, The Times reported. One of the two official phones is designated for making calls, the other one is for Twitter.
The information Chinese spies have collected included who Trump regularly speaks to and why, The Times said, and was part of a wider lobbying effort to influence Trump’s friends and business associates. US intelligence agencies discovered the espionage campaign from sources in foreign governments and communications from foreign officials.
(Flickr photo by Japanexperterna.se)
Through its efforts, China reportedly identified Blackstone Group chief executive Stephen Schwarzman, who has ties to Beijing’s Tsinghua University, and former Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn as potential targets in an influence campaign to curb the ongoing trade war with China.
China’s plan included targeting and encouraging Trump’s associates to persuade the president to formally meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, one official said to The Times.
Despite the security compromise, current and former officials reportedly cited Trump’s unfamiliarity in matters of intelligence and said they believe he was not divulging sensitive information through his personal phone.
The White House’s communication methods have long been scrutinized by people familiar with the situation. Much to the chagrin of the officials, Trump is believed to quietly make calls to current and former aides. Separately, the White House chief of staff John Kelly’s phone was reportedly compromised for months in 2017.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
Any time someone sets out to make a war film, he or she risks getting swept up into the action, the combat, the inherent drama that comes with the subject. The truly great war movies recognize the smaller elements, the ironies and subtleties of life during conflicts. Day One, a short film from U.S. Army veteran turned filmmaker Henry Hughes, is such a movie.
“We’re not having a lot of success in getting telling the soldier experience story,” says Hughes, an American Film Institute alum. “I don’t think we’ve changed much how we look at war and the stories that come out of it. Troops are portrayed as either victims or heroes. We still think war is ironic, that we go in and we’re surprised by the things that we find in war. Maybe there’s some bad things about it, and we’re like ‘oh that’s a surprise!’ But it’s not a surprise. War is a very mixed bag, but it can be spiritual and it can be fun and it can be dangerous and it can be morally wrong at times and it can also be one of the things you’re most proud of because you do some really good things.”
Day One is based on Hughes’ own experience with his translator while he was an infantry officer in 173d Airborne Brigade Combat Team. The movie follows a new female translator’s first day accompanying a U.S. Army unit as it searches for a local terrorist in Afghanistan. Her job brings up brutal complexities as gender and religious barriers emerge with lives hanging in the balance.
“Having a female interpreter definitely changed my perspective of fighting, particularly having been on two deployments,” Hughes says. “The first time, it feels very new and romantic and exciting. The second time, you aren’t seeing a lot of impact in the way you would like and so you start wondering if you’re doing the right thing. In this instance, I had this Afghan-American woman with me at all times, and she was the person I communicated with locals to and she had access to the Afghan women in a way that I have never had before.”
“In my first deployment we didn’t even look at the women,” Hughes continues. “I remember that was a thing we did as a company. When we were on a trail and a woman came by, we would clear the trail, turn out, and allow them to walk by. Now all of a sudden, I mean I’m not face to face with these women but my interpreter would tell me she just spoke with a woman that would give us a very different perspective from what we would usually get. It’s interesting in that way.”
Hughes’ Army perspective spans more than just his time as an Army officer. He was also a military brat, following his dad with the rest of the family, living in Germany and Texas. As an officer in the 173d, he went to Airborne and Ranger School, Armor School, and Scout Leaders Course to prepare for his time in Afghanistan during 2007 and 2008 and then again in 2010.
“I’m very interested in exploring the military stuff because it is such a hyperbolic life.” He says. “Things are just so condensed and so strange and powerful. It’s like the meaning of life is life hangs in balance sometimes. You get that moment in the military and most people don’t ever work in those types of absolutes.”
Hughes has always been the artistic type. He went to a high school that had a TV studio, which inspired the creative side of his personality. He’s also come to believe that the military is the perfect place to start a filmmaking career.
“You take so many lessons from your military experience and apply them into filmmaking because it is so team-oriented and team-based. The ability to communicate and draft up a single clear mission or objective. Those skills that I learned as a young officer are paying massive dividends now, being creative.”
Hughes also believes a good storyteller must step out of his or her comfort zone to empathize with the characters and relate them to the audience.
“With trying to express yourself artistically, you have to be a little bit more vulnerable. ‘What is actually at play here,’ as opposed to ‘How do I accomplish this?’ I think you have to be a little bit more introspective whereas in the military, we’re very external and action-driven. It’s just analysis but we all do tons of analysis in the military too. I think it’s a good thing.”
Several small groups of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division have deployed in early 2017, bound for the Middle East and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
That fight, according to U.S. officials, includes the “most significant urban combat to take place since World War II.”
“It is tough and brutal,” Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend said from Baghdad late March, describing the ongoing operation to liberate Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS.
“House by house, block by block fights. Despite that, the Iraqi Security Forces continue to press ISIS on multiple axes, presenting them with multiple dilemmas. We know the enemy cannot respond to this. Tough fighting in one sector provides the opportunity for other elements to advance in other areas, and that’s what the Iraqi Security Forces have been doing.”
Townsend is the commander of the anti-ISIS coalition, known as Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve. He’s also the commander of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Branden Quintana and Sgt. Cory Ballentine, both 82nd Airborne Division, pull security with M4 carbines on the roof of an Iraqi police station in Habaniyah, Anbar province, Iraq, July 13, 2011. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Kissta Feldner/Released)
The coalition he leads includes dozens of countries making varied contributions to the fight. The 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team is a key contributor among U.S. forces, with more than 1,800 paratroopers deployed in support of an advise-and-assist mission, training and equipping Iraqi forces before battle and providing intelligence, artillery support and advice during combat.
The latest 82nd Airborne troops to deploy in support of the fight are also from the unit, known as Falcon Brigade. Although they are not expected to remain in country for the entirety of what’s left of the nine-month deployment.
Army leaders first discussed the additional deployments last month, when a three-star general told members of Congress up to 2,500 soldiers from the brigade could join the rest of their unit on the deployment.
But officials have said more recently that it’s unclear if that number will be called forward. Instead, smaller groups — such as the two companies of about 200 soldiers who left Fort Bragg last Tuesday — have been deployed.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon via telephone last week, Townsend said ISIS was causing massive human suffering and would continue to do so if the Iraqi forces and their coalition partners do not prevail.
“Our enemy, ISIS, are evil and murderous butchers, engaged in purposeful and mass slaughter,” he said. “There are countless mass graves surrounding Mosul. ISIS put those bodies in there…the savages that are ISIS deliberately target, terrorize, and kill innocent civilians every day. The best and fastest way to end this human suffering is to quickly liberate these cities and Iraq and Syria from ISIS.”
Townsend said officials have observed civilians fleeing ISIS-held buildings. They’ve heard reports that ISIS was shooting civilians trying to leave Mosul. Iraqi forces have reported houses filled with hostages and rigged to explode.
“This is a difficult and brutal fight on multiple fronts,” he said. “…it is the toughest and most brutal phase of this war and…the toughest and most brutal close quarters combat that I have experienced in my 34 year of service.”
“ISIS is slaughtering Iraqis and Syrians on a daily basis,” Townsend added. “ISIS is cutting off heads. ISIS is shooting people, throwing people from buildings, burning them alive in cases, and they’re making a video record to prove it. This has got to stop. This evil has got to be stamped out.”