Within two months of arriving in Afghanistan in 2007, I was sitting in the back of one of the few Humvees on Kandahar Air Field that wasn’t up-armored. Seven of my comrades and I, all paratroopers from Task Force One Fury, had rehearsed this mission over and over. This was one of the most important assignments we would have the entire deployment. We trained with the stern faces and stiff jaws of men who made their living as professional Soldiers. But as we sat in the dark in that back of that humvee, our mission commencing within minutes, the stern faces broke. The jaws quivered. Tears ran down all eight of our faces.
This mission wasn’t taking us outside the wire. We weren’t going more than a couple hundred yards, but we had precious cargo. Between our legs sat a flag-draped coffin with the remains of Sergeant Alexander Van Aalten, the first paratrooper in our unit lost during that deployment. We wiped our faces clean. We reset our jaws. We rode in the humvee to the C-17 waiting on the flight line and carried Sergeant Van Aalten onto the bird that would take him back to his home and his family.
We had a small unit, and I’m sure I had come into contact with Sergeant Van Aalten at sometime before that night. But I couldn’t remember it. I was probably the guy in the back of that truck who knew him the least. But I wept alongside my brothers. Sometimes, you don’t have to know a person to be profoundly affected by their death. Such was the case for me with Sergeant Van Aalten. And such was the case with Tim Hetherington.
Not long after that night, we began a nightly dominoes game in our hooch. Two of my roommates and I threw bones down on top of a tough box each evening with fury. I wasn’t very good. I had really just learned how to play the game on that deployment. One night I was losing badly, as usual. Through pure luck, as I had little idea what I was doing, I locked down the board within a couple moves. All the points in my buddy’s hands became mine. I went from several hundred points behind to winning the game in a single hand. Finally, my moment of post-bones celebration had come. As the other guys had done so many nights before, I wrapped my waist in the reflective safety belt that we had fashioned into a pro-wrestling style championship belt. I cranked up my crappy iPod stereo speakers and blasted my victory anthem (we each had a different one). I stood on top of the tough box, my poncho liner draped over my shoulders like a cape, and lip-synced to Queen’s We Are the Champions. It was glorious.
This is why Tim Hetherington’s life and death profoundly affected me. Like Sergeant Van Aalten, I never knew Tim Hetherington. I still don’t know much about him, other than that he was an accomplished photographer for Vanity Fair and that he co-directed the film that brutally affected me in a way no other work of art ever has. That movie was Restrepo.
Restrepo captured both the misery and the absurdity of combat better than any war film I’ve ever seen. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece. For me, Restrepo held personal relevance. During the same period that 2nd Platoon, B Company, 2-503rd (the unit followed in Restrepo) was in the Korengal Valley, my battalion was at Jalallabad attached to their higher headquarters. We also sent guys into the Korengal and while I didn’t personally know anyone from the documentary, there were faces I recognized as guys who came back to J-Bad for resupply or other purposes. There were moments in the film I remember happening back then, like Operation Rock Avalanche and the mass-cas incident with 2-503rd’s C Company.
I can’t lie – with my personal attachment to the events portrayed, Restropo may have been the hardest film to watch that I’ve ever seen. There were more than a few moments that I sat in my theater seat biting my bottom lip and holding down the lump in my throat. A friend sent me a text after I got out asking if I planned on seeing it again. I said I don’t know if I can. To this day, I still haven’t.
Often, when I’m asked about what it was like being in Afghanistan by civilians, I tell them it was the most fun I ever had being miserable. That probably sounds ridiculous to anyone who has never been deployed, but those who have know exactly what I mean. Yeah, being deployed sucks. It really sucks. But you also develop loyalty and camaraderie with a group of fellow soldiers who become your only family, and together you involve yourselves in some of the most ridiculous activities imaginable just to maintain sanity. Yeah, my deployment was RPG’s flying over my head, not showering for weeks at a time, and carrying that flag-draped coffin onto the C-17. But it was also making professional wrestling style championship belts out of PT belts for our dominoes game and blasting the winner’s theme song.
Hetherington’s Restrepo depicted all of that. The reality of war. The tragedy, the camaraderie, the absurdity, and the ridiculous things you do to keep yourself sane. I may not have known Tim Hetherington, but his work has had a greater affect on me than most of my personal relationships, let alone any movie, could ever possibly have. That’s why when I learned of his death in Libya I was absolutely floored. I spent the whole day in a fog. It was like reliving the days that we lost guys in Afghanistan all over again.
Restrepo was such a powerful movie because it did not seek to shape opinions about the war in Afghanistan. It didn’t paint soldiers as mythical heroes. It didn’t try to convince you that Afghanistan isn’t worth winning, nor did it attempt to persuade you that it is a worthy fight. It just showed war in all its absurd and horrible reality.
If there is any great lesson to be taken from Tim Hetherington’s death, it is this: war is terrible. I am somewhat of a realist, and I acknowledge that it is sometimes necessary. Just as Tim didn’t seek to change your mind with his film, I’m not making a statement of ideology here. Just stating fact. War is absolutely awful for anyone the least bit touched by it. The soldiers on each side, whether their fight is righteous or not. The civilians, the families of those directly involved, everyone. We would do well to remember this as we mourn Tim, who made it his cause to ensure that people saw the awfulness of war even when they were far removed from it.
In Tim Hetherington, the world has lost a valiant and fearless truth-teller. Even though I never knew him, I’ll never forget him and my thoughts and sympathies are with his family as they mourn his recent loss.
Richard Allen Smith serves as Vice Chairman and Outreach Director for VoteVets.org. He holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and enlisted in the United States Army at the age of 18. After serving a stint with the 6th Cavalry and the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea, Richard was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In 2007 he deployed with his unit to Afghanistan where he served as an NCO for 14 months. He returned home in April 2008. Richard has held numerous staff and leadership positions within advocacy organizations and campaigns, and his writing on Veterans and military issues has been featured or quoted in the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Washington Independent, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, The Atlantic, The Daily Caller, Reuters, Fox News, Center for American Progress, Talking Points Memo and in various media outlets across the country.