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The war in close-up

Shooting own documentary footage, N.E. soldiers blaze a path

WASHINGTON -- ''It'll be a better country in 20 years because we were there," Army Sergeant Stephen Pink declares on camera before adding, almost in a whisper, ''I hope."

That is how the Kingston native, 24, sums up his yearlong tour in Iraq with the New Hampshire National Guard. It also captures the essence of the gripping documentary film that he and fellow soldiers from New England filmed with digital cameras packed in their rucksacks.

The battlefront documentary has taken on a new twist in ''The War Tapes," the first of its kind to be filmed by soldiers themselves. The 94-minute film, to be released next month, traces Pink, Specialist Michael Moriarty, a native of Beverly, and Sergeant Zack Bazzi of Watertown as they chronicled their 2004 deployment in the vicious Sunni Triangle -- on camera and via e-mail exchanges with director Deborah Scranton, who outfitted five soldiers in the unit with 10 digital cameras in what she called ''virtual embedding."

The odyssey of Charlie Company and the trials of their loved ones back home captivated the film industry at its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last week, where it received standing ovations from audiences. The military community, too, is embracing the documentary for its unvarnished glimpse of the war in Iraq -- both the good and the bad.

''The War Tapes" is neither decidedly antiwar nor prowar. Supporters and opponents will likely have their views reinforced. But it does provide a front-row seat to the military struggle, including footage of the defining mission of their tour: the house-to-house battle in November 2004 to take the city of Fallujah, considered the center of gravity of the Iraq insurgency at the time and a haven for foreign terrorists slipping into the country to plant car bombs.

His handwritten pages laid out in front of him, Pink reads from his journal: ''It is Nov 29. I want to kill. I may have already killed one or some of these bastards with the MK19 grenades or the [squad automatic weapon]. I have a recurring epiphany. This is happening and will have a lasting impact on me for the rest of my life."

''It has by far the best footage I have seen out of Iraq," said Paul Reickhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and author of ''Chasing Ghosts," a blunt and edgy new memoir about his tour as an Army platoon leader in Iraq. The film, he said, does a better job of ''putting you in the boots of the soldier in the Humvee" than network news and other embedded journalists did.

''But more importantly," Reickhoff added, ''they also show when they come home and the issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and the cost of war once these guys return. I am still surprised the Army let them do it without pulling the plug."

The trio deployed to Iraq in March 2004 as part of the Third Battalion of the 172d Infantry Regiment of the New Hampshire National Guard.

Pink, now a carpenter on Cape Cod, signed up to help pay for tuition at Plymouth State University. Bazzi, a student at the University of New Hampshire and a native of Lebanon, wanted to see the world. Moriarty, a forklift driver, husband, and father of two, regretted missing combat in the first Gulf War and reenlisted after the 9/11 attacks.

They and two other guardsmen shot some 900 hours of tape as they recorded their experiences dodging roadside bombs, wrestling with an intractable enemy that had no qualms about using women and children as bait, and facing all the physical and psychological demands of the war -- all while chomping on Burger King cheeseburgers.

The soldiers' nervous but gung-ho spirit at the start steadily waned over the course of the year and the film includes moments of surprising bluntness.

Speaking of the Iraqi insurgents, Bazzi makes an analogy: ''People say they're evil and they hate our way of life and they don't see that we are trying to liberate them. Well, if Canada invaded tomorrow and they said, you know, 'We're here to liberate you guys from Bush because we think Bush is bad for you. . .,' there's gonna definitely be some people who take to those mountains and do some serious guerrilla fighting. The insurgents got their principles and we got ours. You gotta respect that."

Even at its first public screening, the film kicked up a fuss, according to a Web report covering the film festival. At the debut on Saturday, some members of the unit sitting in the front row yelled at any suggestion in the film that the United States lacked good intentions in Iraq, and police showed up afterward to to calm the situation, indieWIRE.com reported.

The three leading soldiers would not speak to the Globe before the film is officially released, director Scranton said.

But the 26-year-old Bazzi, who mounted cameras on the hood of his Humvee, shared his reasons for participating in the film in an interview with the Associated Press.

Approached by Scranton, ''I took one of the cameras because it was like, wow, cool, free camera, a $1,500 piece of equipment," he said. ''I'm energetic, I think I thought it could be a side project."

Their tour was certainly not without its lighter moments -- the constant banter, the camaraderie, the ribbing, and the jokes. With relish Bazzi describes how his mother, who brought him to Watertown from war torn Lebanon when he was 10, wanted to buy him an air conditioner to take along to Iraq. She heard other families were sending them to their loved ones deployed overseas.

''I can see myself with my rucksack on my back and an A/C above," Bazzi, a Shiite Muslim with a wide disarming grin, recalls thinking in one segment. ''I was like, mommy, what's the matter with you?"

Back on the home front -- where professional filmmakers interviewed family members for nearly 200 hours -- it was a struggle all the same.

Indeed, one of the reasons the film has received such a buzz in military circles is its portrayal of those left behind.

Pink's girlfriend, Lindsay Coletti, says Stephen ''has changed a lot since he's come back. I don't know why he says everything is fine because it's not. He can't sleep at night. . . . He doesn't like to talk about it. I feel like he thinks if he doesn't talk about it then he'll forget about it. It's still there, and it still hurts. And I still feel it, and I wanna cry, a lot."

The soldiers, for their part, are torn between duty and loyalty and cold, hard experience.

Moriarty, 35, said before the deployment that his main goal was to be a hero to his men. He says afterward that while he is ''so glad I went . . . I hated it with a God awful passion and I will not go back. I have done my part and I feel like it's someone else's turn."

Bazzi put it another way: ''I love being a soldier. The only bad thing about the Army is you can't pick your war."

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.


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