How to Fold a Flag
When the American flag is folded at a memorial service,each fold is said to represent a virtue: liberty, unity, justice, perseverance, hardiness, valor, purity, innocence, sacrifice, honor, independence and truth. These are the things soldiers are said to fight for.
Then they come home.
When we filmed GUNNER PALACE in Baghdad in 2003-2004, all our soldier/subjects ever talked about was home. Sitting with them late at night, they’d conjure up this idyllic vision of home. In their minds, everything would be all right when they got home: all they had to do was get there.
By the time their 15 month tour was over in July 2004, four of them were dead and five dozen were wounded. Some left the army and other stayed in. Those that got out returned to an indifference best expressed by the weathered yellow ribbons on so many cars. By 2007, when American forces were suffering the greatest monthly losses of the war, network news coverage had been reduced to mere minutes per week. For the viewer at home, the war was all but over.
We were asked to believe that the war was over.
We laughed, for we were the war.
Ernst Jünger, 1920
In early 2008, as the presidential campaign unfurled and the airwaves sounded out with pundits arguing about who loved America more, we received a note from Javorn Drummond (a former soldier who would later become a character in the film) imploring us to visit him at home in Fayetteville, North Carolina to “see how I live”.
Having just finished a film, it was the invitation we were waiting for– to what we didn’t know–but with all the talk of “hope” and “change” colliding against equally loud calls for “country first”, we knew that the year would see America’s colors on full display. Filmed over 15 months and 100,000 miles in 2008-2009, HOW TO FOLD A FLAG was a homecoming of for us and a fitting bookend to our three previous films about the war. More than the war, this was a film about a country at war.
Javorn Drummond wants what he never had. He says it’s something called normal. In Fayetteville–home of Ft. Bragg– you are either going to Iraq or going to jail. Normal is something that you see on TV.
He never knew his father. When he was six, his grandfather took him from his chronically ill mother in the Bronx and brought him to Fayetteville, North Carolina to live with his aunts. They lived in a shack without potable water near the fields where his great grandmother picked cotton 80 years ago. In high school, he was good at football–good enough to be a state champion–but his GPA was somewhere south of 2.0. When he was 17, he joined the army. By the time he was 19, he was kicking-in doors in Baghdad.
He hated the army. He hated his superiors. Most of all he hated the fact that even when he left the army nothing had changed. His first few weeks home from the war, he was brutally beaten by policemen at a football game. In court, even with eyes swollen shut, the judge told him to write an apology to the officers who beat him.
Using his GI Bill, Javorn started going to school to pursue a degree in criminal justice. At night, he worked at Smithfield Farms in Tar Heel, NC, the largest hog processing plant in the world. In July 2008, he learned that his mother was dying of terminal cancer in New York City, so he traveled north to help her. When he arrived, he found his mother at the mercy of an indifferent system.
Jon Powers’ upbringing reads like a Frank Capra film. The son of an insurance agent and teacher, Jon was an Eagle Scout, football team captain and alter boy who grew up believing in community.
As an ROTC officer, Jon never thought he’d see war, just the beer halls and beaches of Europe. While stationed in Germany, his unit trained for a war in the Fulda Gap that never came: instead, they were sent to the desert. In Baghdad, he quickly learned how to lead. Within three months, he was asked to write the standard operating procedure for the dead. Two months later, they were using it. One of his jobs was to send the personal effects of the deceased home.
In 2004, he came home to suburban Buffalo, a place more broken than when he left it. Working as substitute high school teacher, he wondered how it was possible to liberate Iraq, but not his own city. In 2008, he decided to run for US Congress as a 29 year old Democrat in a district where you simply can’t question the patriotism of a genuine war veteran.
However, his opponents, all millionaires, launched a “Swift Boat” campaign against Jon centered on a non-profit called War Kids Relief that Jon started in 2005 to provide help for Iraqi youth. They claimed–falsely–that Jon “lined his pockets” with funds raised for the charity. In the end, they spent nearly five million dollars to defeat him.
Michael Goss signs his emails, “Fear is temporary, but regret is forever.” In 2003 ,he was manning a late night traffic checkpoint in Baghdad when an Iraqi sedan came barreling towards him and his squad. They fired warning shots, but the car didn’t stop, so they all opened fire. When the car came to a halt, he opened the backdoor and Mirvet–all of 8 years old–fell out of the door. He remembers what he said when he called in the SITREP, “Sir, we fucked up. The back seat is full of dead kids.”
On his second tour of Iraq, he was charged with aiding the enemy after he gave some Iraqi boys scrap materials for their village. He says he was just trying to help. CID investigated. He fell into depression and went to mental health where the psychiatrist asked him about his tour in 2003 and started scratching at old wounds. Mirvet came back. Within a few weeks he was on suicide watch. He was put on four different medications, but she wouldn’t go away.
Today, he’s a cage fighter. He works the circuit in Texas and Louisiana . He enters the ring wearing a shirt printed with the names of soldiers who were killed during his tours as well as that of Mirvet the girl he killed at the checkpoint. For Michael, there is no peace. He is a fighter looking for a fight.
Stuart Wilf never took much seriously. When he was 17, he trashed a house his realtor mom, Becky, had just put on the market. His father gave him the choice of joining the Army or going to jail. He joined the Army, went to Germany and partied more than he ever could have in Colorado Springs, but then the war found him.
Four years later, he doesn’t talk about the war much. He’s stands out, especially in a town of big churches, Rev. Dobson, family values and a sea of yellow ribbon magnets. He plays guitar in a death metal band called Pestiführ. At night, he works in a convenience store.
Stuart’s younger brother joined the Army shortly after he came home from Iraq. He too did a tour in Iraq and now he’s preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. Becky, their mother, is sick with worry: all three of her sons joined the army, her ex-husband went to Iraq as a contractor and now she spends every morning scanning casualty lists. Stuart says she is “still stuck there”, meaning, she can’t let go of the war. However, under the surface, no matter how much he wants to forget, he knows that her fears are very real.
Joe and Pat Colgan had eight children. Long-time peace activists, it came as a surprise when their son Ben decided to join the army. There, he found his calling and quickly became a Special Forces soldier and soon after a member of the Army’s elite Delta Force. However, he gave up the prestige of Delta to become an officer and quickly found himself assigned to artillery unit bound for Baghdad. When Joe and Pat saw him off in 2003 he told them, “This war going to be over real soon.”
When we filmed GUNNER PALACE, we spent quite a few nights with Ben and his team and it quickly became evident that he was the rare officer loved and respected by all. When Ben was killed on November 1, 2003 by an IED, the unit was devastated by its first casualty. We contacted Joe and Pat to express our condolences shortly after Ben’s funeral. Joe wrote back, “Let me tell you how I can be so against this war but so for my son.”
Loss, is the one thing all of the characters in HOW TO FOLD A FLAG share. Sitting with the Colgan’s in their kitchen, five years to the day Ben was killed, we finally captured the true face of war.
It’s best to keep America just like that, always in the background, a sort of picture post card which you look at in a weak moment. Like that, you imagine it’s always there waiting for you, unchanged, unspoiled, a big patriotic open space with cows and sheep and tenderhearted men ready to bugger everything in sight, man, woman or beast. It doesn’t exist, America. It’s a name you give to an abstract idea.
Henry Miller, 1934
It’s been a little more than six years since we started filming GUNNER PALACE in Baghdad. That fall, our daughter turned eight and entered the third grade. Back then, the war was supposed to be over by Christmas. On November 1, 2003, the Gunners lost their first soldier when LT Ben Colgan was killed by an IED. By Christmas, they had lost two more soldiers from Alpha Battery. The holidays came and went. Somewhere in between, Saddam was found living in a hole and surely the war would be over soon: but it wasn’t.
Spring brought an uprising and Lynndie England became a household name. The Gunners lost another soldier just outside their gate. Soon after their tour was extended and they were sent to Najaf. When they came home in July 2004, the war was anything but over. By Thanksgiving, Falluja was under siege.
When GUNNER PALACE hit in theaters in March 2005, the war was two years old. By the time I made it back to Baghdad in May 2005 to research the PRISONER OR: HOW I PLANNED TO KILL TONY BLAIR, security had deteriorated to a level where a trip from the airport to central Baghdad required a heavily armed escort and lots of luck. Later that year, while in Amman to film THE PRISONER, the first of millions of Iraqi refugees were pouring across the border. By winter 2007, when the film was released, Baghdad was in a state of civil war and thousands of Iraqis were being killed every month.
That summer, we decided to complete BULLETPROOF SALESMAN, a project we had started in May 2003 when we followed a German armored car salesman into Baghdad where he later sold hundreds of vehicles. By the time we rejoined him in June 2007, he had written off Iraq as too dangerous for most of his clients and he turned his attention to Afghanistan where “business was booming”. Two days after we arrived in Kabul, as if to prove his point, the Taliban blew up a police bus killing 42 police people.
Coming back to the States a week later was like returning from Mars. Here, the war had become an abstraction – something that happens to other people. As a young soldier said in GUNNER PALACE so many years ago, “For y’all this is just a show, but we live in this movie.” What network coverage there was of the war was limited to minutes — if not seconds — per week. America had changed the channel and was Dancing with the Stars.
In 2008, five years into a war that was supposed to last three weeks, we started filming what would become HOW TO FOLD A FLAG. 15 months, 100,000 miles and a president later, we were finished with the film, and yet, there was still no closure, only the realization that the war, no matter how distant, had become part of us. Our daughter turned fourteen this fall and entered high school. For her generation, war is a constant state, free of history, politics or motives: it’s just something that Americans do.
HOW TO FOLD A FLAG is not a film about the war, rather, it is about a country at war.
a Heros Film production of a Pepper & Bones Film
in association with Impact Partners
How To Fold A Flag
Directed, Produced and Edited by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker
Featuring: Javorn Drummond, Michael Goss, Cornelius Massey,
Jon Powers and Stuart Wilf,
Cinematography: Michael Tucker
Sound: Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein
Diana Barrett for The Fledgling Fund
Suzanne Costas & Senain Kheshgi for Dyn-o-mite Pictures
Abigail Disney for Fork Films
Juliette Timsit & Caroleen Feeney
Mixed by: CJ DeGennaro at Clubhouse with Paul Antonell
Production Assistant: Matilda Tucker
Music by Dax Gary and Stuart Wilf