The Defense Department often partners with filmmakers to create accurate military portrayals, which is why we recently collaborated with streaming giant Netflix on a big venture: a docuseries celebrating Medal of Honor recipients.
The series highlights the lives and experiences of eight men who earned the honor since World War II. So naturally, several current and former service members were asked to offer their expertise behind the scenes and on camera.
“[The DOD] sent several active-duty soldiers to be background in an episode, but they also sent Humvees and other vehicles, which are valuable assets to have for authenticity,” said Marine Corps veteran Mike Dowling, who now works in the entertainment industry and did a lot of advising on choreography, tactics and weapons for the show.
Many of those soldiers were from the New York Army National Guard. One of the show’s highlighted recipients, Army Master Sgt. Vito Bertoldo, was a member of the 42nd Infantry Division during World War II, which is now part of the NYARNG. So, it made sense for them to be part of it.
For an episode on Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger, the Air Force reviewed the script, offered historical Vietnam footage to filmmakers and had historians consult on the reenactment scenes.
The other recipients highlighted are World War II soldiers Army Sgt. Sylvester Antolak and Army Sgt. Edward Carter, Korean War troops Army Cpl. Hiroshi Miyamura and Marine Corps Cpl. Joseph Vittori,and more recent recipients Army Spc. Ty Carter and Army Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha, who fought in Afghanistan.
Dowling also connected the production to resources in the veteran community, including getting veterans jobs as actors, stuntmen, editors and production assistants. The DOD helped him verify the vets who applied for positions.
“This production was extremely supportive of getting veterans hired when possible,” he said.
A lot of research went into finding the recipients’ brothers in arms to tell their stories on camera — a tough prospect when decades have passed for many of them. But Dowling said their efforts actually helped put the Congressional Medal of Honor Society back in touch with a few of the recipients’ families who it had lost touch with over the years.
One of the best connections they made was this:
“We couldn’t find anybody to tell Joe Vittori’s story,” Dowling said.
But he had learned of a man named Lyle Conaway, who fought side by side with Vittori in battle. And Dowling couldn’t find any obituaries for Conaway.
“So I started calling American Legions in his hometown and … we found him. He’s alive,” Dowling said. “He doesn’t even have a phone. I had the commander of the legion drive to his house and call me from his cellphone to put me on the phone with him. I had to speak to him through his girlfriend because he can’t really hear all that well. But once he realized what we were calling for, he said, ‘Oh my God, I have to tell Joe’s story. I needed to do this.’”
But wait: It gets better!
Conaway helped put them in touch with several other living Marines who witnessed Vittori’s actions. One of them was Tom Zayas, who producers brought in for an interview with Conaway.
“They had not seen each other since the night of the battle. Lyle had been medically evacuated that night,” Dowling said. “They would keep in touch, but they’d never seen each other. So, we reunited them from the battle on camera for the series about Joe’s story.”
Pretty cool, huh?
This was Netflix’s first partnership with the DOD. We’re glad they decided to aim high for it!
You can find the docuseries, aptly titled Medal of Honor, currently streaming on Netflix.