|Hollywood film debut thrusts Oregon Guardsmen into spotlight
When Ryan Howell was interviewed by a Northwest film director after returning home in 2005 from his deployment to Iraq, he never envisioned that the session would take him and his fellow Soldiers to a celebrity red-carpet screening in Hollywood.
But on March 9, 2008, that's exactly what happened.
"I never thought it would lead to this," Howell said, following the star-studded event held in Hollywood, Calif.
Indeed, Howell and some of his fellow Soldiers from the Oregon Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 162 Infantry figured the video would end up as a visual "yearbook" of their one-year deployment in Iraq, with a few local showings.
Instead, the award-winning documentary, This is War: Memories of Iraq, which was well-received by local audiences in Oregon, was a big hit with the Hollywood crowd, said the film's director, Gary Mortensen.
"It was great to see the Oregon National Guard come into the city of Los Angeles and find an extremely receptive audience," Mortensen said. "It's proof that not everyone in Hollywood has a certain perspective that you could term as anti-military. There's a lot of folks down there that care about our Soldiers."
Mortensen was referring to Sgt. 1st Class Phillip "Vinni" Jacques, Sgt. Ryan Tuttle, Staff Sgt. Kris Petersen, Luke Wilson, Ryan Howell and Rebekkah Mae BrunsSoldiers who fought alongside each other in the now infamous battles of Fallujah and Najaf, during their deployment in Iraq from 2004-2005.
The special screening of the film documenting their deployment was held during the 2nd Annual Cinema City Film Festival March 9-10, at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles, Calif. According to the event's organizer, Suzanne DeLaurentiis, the showing was as much business as it was personal.
"After I watched the movie, I just fell in love with the guys," she said. "They're a great group of people and we're so proud to have them here."
Some of the celebrities who attended the event included Ed McMahon, Cuba Gooding Sr., singer Debora Gibson, Ed Lauder, "Good Times" star, Ja'Net Du Bois, and Christopher McDonald, who is best known for the character of ‘Shooter McGavin' in the movie "Happy Gilmore".
The red-carpet event was followed by a special screening of the film, and a party where the Oregon Soldiers were able to meet with and talk to some of the celebrities.
The following evening, the Soldiers took part in a special "black-tie" awards ceremony held in the hotel ballroom. Each Soldier received a plaque recognizing their sacrifice and participation in the film.
Before leaving Hollywood, entertainer and Tonight Show co-host Ed McMahon invited the group to his Beverly Hills home. McMahon and his wife Pam gave each of the Soldiers a gift basket containing their favorite books and a signed photograph of the entertainer.
"It was a real honor to meet these brave men and women back from Iraq, back from the difficult life of war they lived through, and I'm so happy to have them here in my home and share some of my military experiences with them," McMahon said as he sat behind the large desk in his study, the walls of which are festooned with a photographic record of his many years in the military and in show business.
"They're quite a group of people that should be honored at all times," he added.
McMahon, himself a military veteran, served as a flight instructor and test pilot, flying F4-U Corsairs during WWII. He was discharged as a colonel in 1966, and was soon commissioned as a brigadier general in the California Air National Guard. Not soon after, he retired from the military as his full-time civilian job of co-hosting The Tonight Show with friend and coworker Johnny Carson, was beginning to ‘take off'.
"The rest, as they say, is history," McMahon quipped.
Sgt. 1st Class Phillip "Vinni" Jacques, co-founder of "Blasted Brothers" and the impetus behind the nationally-recognized Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team, was injured by an Improvised Explosive Device attack in July 2004, which ultimately killed Spc. Kenny Leisten and severely injured two other Soldiers in their vehicle.
Jacques then turned his thoughts toward members of his battalion who couldn't be with his group, calling the experience in Hollywood "awesome, but bitter-sweet".
"I am extremely humbled," Jacques said. "We're the lucky ones out of the battalion who got a chance to be here. I wish everyone we served with could be here."
Jacques said the film is powerful because there's no political agenda, and the Soldiers featured in the movie are able to relate the ‘real story' of their experiences.
He thanked Mortensen and the film's executive producer, Scott Laney for the chance to tell their personal stories of what transpired ‘on the ground' in Iraq.
"This is the real deal," Jacques said. "This is what happened to usthe good, the bad, the funnyit's all captured in there and to me, that's what's powerful about it."
Mortensen and Laney, founders of a local film production company, Lucky Forward Films, took a cue from what had happened to military veterans returning from Korea and Vietnam.
Mortensen said all the footage captured during those conflicts were ‘distilled' through combat photographers or the news media.
"It's fascinating to be able to look at a regular infantry Soldieran Oregon National Guardsmenwho was able to take this new digital media and Velcro it to the side of his helmet and go into action," Mortensen said. "And that (perspective) is unbelievably dynamic and compelling. It tells a side and a story of warfare that's never been told before."
Jacques echoed Mortensen's feeling that Hollywood is very supportive of their fellow Americans in uniform, but he added that through it all, he and his fellow Soldiers have remained grounded.
"We've run into some people here who have been extremely supportive," Jacques said. "It's been humbling, but we need to stay real to our cause. I'm a Soldier, that's what I do, and I'm glad to do it."
Jacques added that the film's gaining popularity has also thrust Oregon's reintegration team into the spotlight.
"The war's not over after these guys come home. If we give them a hand up instead of a hand out, its going to make this country that much stronger."
"We give them a chance to help themselves," Jacques continued. "This documentary has really helped get the word out about the reintegration team and what we're doing in the state of Oregon."
For more information about the documentary, This is War: Memories of Iraq, visit www.luckyforwardfilms.com/.
For more information on the Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team, visit www.orng-vet.org/, or call the 24-hour toll-free number at 1-888-688-2264.
080310F-1639C-310: Oregon Army National Guard Soldiers who were featured in a 2006 documentary, "This is War", were honored during a Hollywood screening of the film, March 10, in Hollywood, Calif. From L to R: Ryan Howell, Sgt. Ryan Tuttle, Tonight Show co-host, Ed McMahon, Sgt. 1st Class Vincent Jacques, Staff Sgt. Chris Petersen, Rebecca-Mae Bruns, and Luke Wilson.
080312F-1639C-247: From left to right, Staff Sgt. Kris Petersen, "This is War" director, Gary Mortensen, Ryan Howell, and Luke Wilson look over Ed McMahon's artwork in his Beverly Hills home, following a star-studded weekend event in Hollywood, Calif. The documentary, This is War was featured during the 2nd Annual Cinema City International Film Festival, Mar. 9.
080310F-1639C-345: Luke Wilson points to a photo of him which was used in the cover art of the documentary, "This is War".
080311F-1639C-108: Staff Sgt. Kris Petersen pauses for a photo opportunity with Good Times star, Ja'Net Du Bois after the awards ceremony in Hollywood, Calif., Mar. 10.
Oregon Military Department Public Affairs Office
Kay Fristad, 503-584-3917
Tech. Sgt. Nick Choy, 503-584-3887