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Well, babies, here we go. Once again I have to face my trepidation upon entering the documentary field, a place I’ve mentioned I go with nerves akimbo. (- Click for our words on Nanking) I don’t know if I’ve ever spoken on my equal aversion to the subject of war. Not because there are any good documentaries or war films, it’s that ofttimes the subjects are too hard for my fluffy little heart to take. So when the Temple was blessed with a viewing of the documentary, Fighting for Life, which is about the experience and training of the medical military deployed in Iraq, my courage had to be screwed to the sticking place to sit and watch.

However, I always feel a bit silly after my hesitation, especially when I gain the enjoyment out of viewing a film as enlightening and inspiring as Fighting for Life. Filmed over two years, the documentary began its life as the story of USU, the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland, a premier training ground for medically inclined soldiers to hone their surgical skills and become ready for the horrors of attending combat situations. Director Terry Sanders became involved in the project because of the repeated attempts to close this important facility. What started off as a fairly straightforward examination of the school then bloomed into Sanders’ following some of the graduates of USU to a field hospital in Balad, Iraq, dead center in the volatile Shiite Triangle, then took us round to Germany and back home via medical transport to the States.

Sanders gives us unparalleled access into the world of the brave and dedicated soldiers as they begin their medical life at USU reciting the Hippocratic Oath and repeat that oath on the day of their graduation. Admittedly, not having given much thought to how they got there, discovering that there was any sort of military training beyond basic for soldiers who wanted to become doctors was an eye-opener; I reckoned the volunteers already had degrees and perhaps were given some sort of ad-hoc instruction for the field. USU utilises state-of-the-art medical and training equipment and realistic combat reenactments (- complete with squirting arteries) to ready these young people for what they might face in the real world.

And in the real world Sanders’ crew spends four days in Iraq, where we see that not only are US soldiers treated for their injuries, but a touching sequence shows the medical staff’s efforts to comfort a wounded Iraqi baby. Particularly moving is the despair of an Iraqi general who is brought in shot and paralysed; considered a soldier’s soldier, the man’s world is shattered and he tearfully begs a female staffer to kill him. The hospital staff so perilously located has no time to worry about the possibility of being attacked and when there is an alert, the medical team just puts on their helmets and keeps on working.

The next stop for a wounded soldier after bring triaged in Balad, is the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Sanders listens to the staff’s stories of the never-ending intake of soldiers they see every day. It is interesting to hear them discuss making the phone calls to the patient’s families and the toll it takes on them, but at no point either in Iraq or Germany does the medical staff ever become maudlin or defeated. Their dedication to their work healing these soldiers is astonishing.

If it’s decided in Germany that a soldier needs ongoing care, the next stop is back in the U.S. at either the Walter Reed Army Medical Center or the National Naval Medical Center. Sanders brings us aboard the specially outfitted C-141 and C-17 planes which serve as intensive care transports for the patients.

The three components of Fighting for Life, the initial training at USU, the wild field conditions in the Balad tent hospital and the intermediate care in Germany are threaded together in the story of Army Specialist Crystal Davis. Davis entered the field hospital due to an unfortunate interaction with an unseen bomb that left her minus one foot and the permanence of the other in serious jeopardy. The documentary, taking on a life of its own, focuses on Crystal’s journey, which we follow from her intake at Balad, to the military hospital in Germany onto the medical transport plane bringing her back to the States for multiple surgeries and intensive physical therapy. The fiercely determined North Carolinian is a study in strength and courage. Her openness to having her struggle recorded lifts the documentary to another level and brings a face and indomitable personality to the efforts of the doctors and medical staff work to achieve every day.

As I said, I’m a big ol’ coward on the squeamish stuff and there is a judicious bit of it here, the cadaver practise, surgeons plucking shrapnel from a soldier’s bleeding wounds, many disfigurements and skin grafts. Yet Sanders selectively handles the material with as much delicacy as one can have in the situation and shows us only enough to demonstrate that war is indeed hell, but this is the reality of what these men and women see every day. The fact that this documentary occurs during this particular time and this particular war seems almost beside the point. The film’s only whiff of politics is a conversation with Hawaiian Senator Daniel K. Inouye, a hero of World War II and a recipient of the benefits of military medical expertise. His memories of his experience in the field emphasise the need for the training of USU and highlight the lunacy behind the efforts to close the school. Sanders keeps his eye firmly trained on the job these physicians are doing and not the reasons why, and that’s one of the things that makes Fighting for Life such a success.

Fighting for Life will undoubtedly make any American proud to know these dedicated, amazing people are out in the field looking after the men and women in active combat. Bravo to Terry Sanders and those involved in the documentary for presenting the real, unvarnished story of these heroes without politics or judgments and simply allowing to us to be truly inspired.


~ Mighty Ganesha

Mar 1st, 2008




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