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"Operation Homecoming": A soldier's story on PBS
Seattle Times TV writer
While deployed in Iraq, U.S. Air Force Reserve Capt. Ed Hrivnak tended to the wounded as part of a medevac crew. And he wrote about it: how the most seriously injured were often the youngest; how the gravely wounded still worried about their buddies; how the soldiers looked to him for some reassurance on those flights from Iraq to Germany. And how Hrivnak, in turn, lied to them by smiling and giving them a thumbs up.
Hrivnak, who lives in Spanaway, kept a journal throughout his deployment in 2003. And some of those journal entries were included in the book "Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families" (Random House, 386 pp.,$26.95).
Hrivnak's account, "Medevac Missions," is just under six pages. But it's powerful in its brevity, a series of vignettes embracing a range of emotions: sarcasm, regret, joy, fear. I know there are parts of his leg and thigh missing from reading his medical record, but I can't tell from the thick bandages. He looks at me and our eyes are locked. These are some of the longest seconds of my life because I know he's counting on what I say to him.
Hrivnak's journal entries appeared last year in "The New Yorker." And now his prose and the writings of others from "Operation Homecoming" (including a short story by Jack Lewis of Seattle) have been made into a profoundly moving documentary airing nationally tonight on PBS.
"Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience" combines original footage shot in Iraq with animation and still photography accompanying the poetry, journals, letters and short stories written by American servicemen and women. The film includes interviews with these mostly unknown authors — the so-called "little guys," "the grunts" in the armed forces — and literary luminaries including Tobias Wolff and Tim O'Brien.
Writings by authors Ed Hrivnak, Jack Lewis and others at www.pbs.org/ weta/crossroads/about/
Hrivnak, 38, who is originally from Pittsburgh, enlisted in the Air Force when he was 17. He was commissioned as an officer 10 years later. Along the way he went to Pierce College night school, then nursing school at Pacific Lutheran University.
He's a veteran of both Iraq wars, and after nearly 20 years at McChord Air Force Base he has decided to retire. He works as a firefighter for Central Pierce Fire and Rescue and lives in Spanaway with wife, Jennifer, a nurse in the Air Force Reserve. The couple is expecting their first child next month.
Tuesday: "Gangs of Iraq," a look at the sectarian crisis and the U.S. efforts to stem the violence.
"The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom," a profile of Richard Perle, former assistant secretary of defense.
Wednesday: "Europe's 9/11," a look at homegrown terrorism through the lens of the Madrid bombings in 2004. "The Muslim Americans," contrasting life for Muslims in the U.S. with those in Britain and in Europe.
Thursday: "Faith Without Fear," a profile of outspoken Canadian activist Irshad Manji, author of "Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in her Faith." "Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia," a look at this majority Muslim democracy, both a target and a breeding ground for Islamic militants.
Friday: "Security Versus Liberty: The Other War," a look at U.S. anti-terrorism tactics including warrantless eavesdropping on American's phone calls. "The Brotherhood," a profile of the Muslim Brotherhood, an international group dedicated to the spread of a fundamental version of Islam.
For more information including clips of all the films: www.pbs.org/ weta/crossroads/about/.
How did you start writing?
I'd take a piece of the journal and e-mail it to friends and family and I got a real positive response. And the e-mails would develop into short stories, and before I knew it I almost had a book.
My crew, before we'd fly out on a mission, we'd sit alert. Sometimes we'd sit 48 hours. During that time you're sort of sequestered, and I'd write about what I was experiencing. We'd go fly and come back and I'd be so amped up from adrenaline and I couldn't sleep, so I'd write.
Why did you decide to keep a journal?
Out of anger. I'd get so frustrated when I saw CNN or BBC World News. A newsflash. Three Americans killed. And they'd talk for 15 seconds and then go on with something else. It was such a sterile report and we knew if three people got killed, we'd always use the 10 to 1 rule. Three people. Thirty injured. I wanted my friends and family to know the rest of the story.
At a screening of the film in Seattle last month you called the 1991 Gulf War "a picnic" compared to this war.
For me it was very easy. I was in a field hospital. We had such few casualties. The war itself was 100 hours long.
And your bio says you did peacekeeping missions in Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia.
It was very much in a support role. I don't want anyone to think I was in the mix. All I was doing was bringing in relief supplies.
It seems like you don't want credit. But you're in the military. You've made a sacrifice.
I have witnessed others who have sacrificed so much more. Who have given so much more. It's very hard for me to take credit when I have been humbled by the other sacrifices I've seen other service people make.
From your perspective you see me making significant sacrifices. From my perspective, it seems like nothing. There's the Army guy who spends 14 months in Iraq in the sand, in a fox hole. I take care of the wounded. I fly to Germany and I can have a beer, a clean shower and some rest and I don't have to think about the war for 24 hours.
Talk a little bit about the current war. Your bio says all your years in the military didn't prepare you for what you saw.
There was the volume. My first mission, in March 2003, I had maybe 20 casualties. By June 2003, we had 87 patients. The size of the plane, the size of the crew didn't change.
The other thing I was struck by was the level of trauma. Keep in mind I've also been a civilian ER nurse and a firefighter. But these IEDs that we have and just what war does, how it destroys a body, there is nothing stateside that compares to how a body is torn apart. I was overwhelmed by the sheer devastation of these human beings. And they were still alive. I was a rescuer at the Oklahoma City bombing, and even that didn't prepare me for the volume of casualties I saw.
Your story includes a wide range of emotions.
From the start of the mission you fly in and the flare dispenser goes off and you see flashes and you get this adrenaline rush. Oh my god. Are we getting shot at? And then the door opens and the casualties start coming up. I've never been able to mimic that experience. The airplane's air conditioned and when that wave of desert air hits you and you see the Humvees coming. That rush. You think: This is where I'm going to make a difference. There's no going back. No second chance.
I'm proud to say we flew 800 casualties out and we never lost a life on a flight.
And you write about having to lie as part of the job.
The wounded hung on every facial expression. When you're on the plane you always knew there were dozens of eyes looking at you. You always had to keep this front up. You never wanted to show your emotion or weakness because you knew those guys were counting on you.
When I gave that guy a thumbs up [as recounted in the book] in my mind I was lying. But a part that didn't make it [into the story] was days later in a field hospital we were prepping patients and I was doing rounds and I ran across this guy. He recognized me immediately. 'Captain, come over here.' And ever so slightly his toes were starting to move.
How do you think the film captures your story?
I had dinner with the director [Richard E. Robbins] and I remember saying, "You nailed it." It brings back the smells, the visions, it makes me feel like I'm back there again.
Talking to other veterans who've also seen it, I think the film does a very good job of catching what it's like to be at war. What it's truly like. And not like the made-for-TV movies.
Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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