Monday, May 28, 2012

High Ground: A Review

I rose this morning and intended to sit down and write a remembrance of Memorial Day that reflected on those whom have given their lives in the service of all of use who live under the flag of the United States. I pondered some past posts, 2011 2010, then remembered an email I had gotten last week from good friend and fellow blogger, Kanani Fong offering to let me view a preview copy of a new film she was helping to publicize. The film, was about a group of wounded warriors who took on the challenge of scaling 20,165 foot Lobuche Peak near Mount Everest in Nepal. Retiring to our study/library, I put on headphones to keep the sound from disturbing my wife, taking the opportunity from her busy life to sleep in. That turned out to be fortuitous, in that I found myself inserted into the story as it unfolded; where the only sound was that of voices of the dozen souls, accompanied by the sounds of war, bleeping horns as they traveled the rural roads to the airport, and a short but hair raising flight, before beginning their trek up the ever inverting slope of Lobuche.

High Ground:The Journey Home is an Uphill Battle was produced by Don Hahn, directed by Michael Brown, five time climber of Mt. Everest, and led by Blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer and his history making team of Everest climbers, led by Jeff Evans.

The film opens by introducing each team member, with scenes of chaos caused by IED's and gunfire, to add understanding to how they came to be at this point in their lives. Some were missing limbs, others suffered from traumatic stress and brain injuries, one was a Gold Star mother, and most remarkable of all, one was blind, and had a severely injured left hand. Each brought their own reasons for taking up this challenge that went far beyond what even the film makers might have hoped for. Beneath the physical effort to traverse the rock strewn pathways, and vertical stairs built against inclines that would bring vertigo to anyone pausing to look back down the steps that seemed to slide off into the valley floor, was the pain that many of those drawn this mountain, related during the outtake interviews that helped setup the next leg of the journey, but added insights into what happens to a warrior, when there are no more wars to fight.
Dan Sidles

One of  those moments came when former Marine Dan Sidles related that he felt making a warrior was similar to creating a nuclear bomb, where training to kill was like releasing nuclear fusion to be an effective soldier. He went on to explain that after the fighting was done, someone had to put out the fire to keep if from bursting into flame time after time. Listening to his reflection on how difficult that transition had been and how it affected his own life, gave immeasurable insight to how thousands of men and women have come home from past wars and felt the same sense of disconnect from society.

Steve Baskis
Chad Jukes

Joining Dan as a vividly memorable member of the team was Steve Baskis, blinded by an IED in Baghdad, who indelible desire to see (feel) the world, and experience all life has to offer, will make you marvel at how strong his heart and spirit shines. And then there is Chad Jukes who bears not only a slight resemblance to actor Owen Wilson, but conveyed the same uber-optimistic joy at being in the mountains, in a voice and delivery you would swear was Wilson's. You will see what I mean when you hear him exclaim in profane joy as he marveled about who had built the steps up the side of an almost vertical incline.

The film allows the viewer a very small window with which to understand that just because your don't wear scars that you are not wounded. Examples abound throughout the film of those who suffered the stress of not being physically injured but came to have what can't be fully understood by many including the military. It seemed that when the summit was at hand, it was the mental challenge that was harder to overcome than the physical challenges of missing limbs and sight, when the final assent was at hand.

For me there have been two really good documentaries made about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first, Restrepo was about a platoon in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, that captured men at war in a gritty portrait, told in much the same format as High Ground, using post combat interviews to support the story. High Ground, is the bookend of what happens to those soldiers who come home, wounded inside and out, and how they feel trying to belong and sensing that as Dan Sidles noted. "Thanks for your service, now go away." I can reflect that much of the same happened forty some years ago, when I returned from my own service. I did not display overt symptoms, but little things occurred to make me in hindsight, feel and act different. I can also reflect back on my fathers service in World War II; with five amphibious landings, and service later on an aircraft carrier off Japan in the final months of the war, left him different and feeling out of place when he returned. Confronting those times, takes awareness that you need to find a way to cope. They say that when one is an alcoholic or an addict, that you are never really cured, only learning to cope. Former soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines know that feeling; the forging of a warrior and the imersion in war, that Dan Sidles said was like nuclear fusion; that leaves spent fuel rods radiating inside even the most stoic warrior until their last breath.

I would strongly recommend going to see High Ground. Watch it, and let yourself join this fine group of Americans as they make their journey home by seeking the high ground.

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