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GI Film Festival Puts Military in Focus

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 15, 2009 – The works screened at the GI Film Festival, the only American cinema expo dedicated to honoring U.S. troops, represent a wide-lens view of the military that goes beyond the narrative angles commonly pursued by Hollywood.

Far from sugar-coating the realities of human conflict, the assortment of independent, international, mainstream and short films aim to represent a more rounded depiction of war and the people affected by it, according to the festival co-founder.

“This range of films is important, not only for the American G.I.s, but for the public to see our warriors’ story from a variety of perspectives -- from the active-duty servicemember inside the arena of war, to the military spouse at home waiting for their loved one to return,” said Maj. Laura Law-Millett, U.S. Army Reserve, who started the festival with her husband three years ago.

This year’s lineup includes 16 feature-length documentaries, two major studio feature films and 30 short films covering the Civil War, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Festival organizers expect more than 1,000 guests over the next three days, including active and retired military, their families, as well as military and history buffs and film aficionados.

Audience members here last night watched Valkyrie, a 2008 release that tells the tale of Claus von Stauffenberg, a colonel in the German army during WWII who becomes disillusioned with his role as the military face of Adolph Hitler’s inhumanity. The officer’s dilemma is established early and Stauffenberg spends little time computing the moral calculus, quickly deciding to tie his fate to an anti-establishment movement bent on overthrowing the Third Reich and installing a new German government.

Valkyrie Producer Gilbert Adler said that while the movie’s creators were shooting the historically-based film on location in Berlin, he steeped himself in the culture of WWII-era Germany.

“In so doing, I realized how great it is to live in this country,” he said of the United States. “And when I realized who was going to be in this audience tonight, I felt compelled to come and say how honored I am to be invited to this, and how much I appreciate the military’s involvement in protecting the Constitution.”

Before the film reaches its crescendo, with Stauffenberg botching an assassination attempt on the fuhrer’s head that leads to the swift dissolution of the coup, the audience sees the young colonel suffer wounds in a pitched battle in Northern Africa. The physical changes the character undergoes as a result of his injuries resonated with last night’s audience, which included wounded warriors from two local military hospitals.

Stauffenberg loses his right hand above the wrist, two digits on his left and an eye after allied war planes strafed his Army unit with bullets. A sub-plot of Valkryie focuses on the colonel adapting to his new life: Stauffenberg fumbles with his uniform coat while dressing, he struggles to recognize the face in the mirror staring back at him with one eye, and he can no longer salute.

Marine Sgt. Jack Eubanks, a member of last night’s audience who was decked out in dress blues, shared his own tale of rehabilitation. The cane he clutches to help balance him is a visible cue that his path to recovery is ongoing.

During his first deployment to Anbar province, Iraq, in October 2005, Eubanks was thrown from his vehicle when it rolled over an improvised explosive device. Two months later, again his vehicle drove over a roadside bomb and he was ejected a second time. Two years later while deployed to Habaniyah, Iraq, Eubanks was struck with a mortar.

Eubanks now works as an enlisted advisor and medical liaison at the Defense Center of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury and receives treatment at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

The sergeant suffered both physical and mental wounds, injured his spine and experienced post-traumatic stress. But like many junior enlisted troops returning home a changed person, Eubanks exudes resilience and humility in describing his own great courage.

“It took its toll,” he said of his battle wounds. “But I don’t consider myself seriously injured – I’m in one piece. I’ve got a spinal injury; it hurts. But I’m not missing legs like some of these guys. I consider myself extremely fortunate. I’m able to do most daily things myself. I just feel bad for those who can’t.”

Army Lt. Col. Michael Jasmin, a soldier recovering from surgery for injuries to his rotator cuff and bicep tendon that he sustained while on his second deployment to Iraq, expressed his admiration for those troops more severely injured than he.

Jasmin is part of the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Belvoir, Va., but receives treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, the Army’s main, U.S. military hospital.

“I go to Walter Reed, I talk to these guys, and they have higher spirits than people I know outside,” he said.

Jasmin told of when he shared an elevator in the hospital with an injured solder who noticed the Iraq war patch on Jasmin’s uniform and asked, “You heading out anytime soon, sir?”

“Well, actually, I’m here to get fixed,’” Jasmin recalled telling the soldier, who replied: “You let me know when you do, I wanna go with you.” Jasmin added, “He wanted to get right back in the fight.”

Jasmin said he appreciates that the GI Film Festival showcases the duty, honor and sacrifice displayed by American servicemembers – aspects of service that are sometimes glossed over or ignored by blockbuster movies that use war as a backdrop.

“I think a lot of guys, me in particular, feel abandoned by mainstream Hollywood,” he said. “So I really appreciate what they’re doing here. They’re showing the sacrifice and the service of America’s sons and daughters.”

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