As we honor all who have served on this Veterans Day, let us also remember those who paid the ultimate price during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. April 4, 2004 – the day America’s reconstruction and peacekeeping mission in Iraq took a savage turn began like any other. The four-vehicle convoy of Comanche Red Platoon (2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment) rode through the streets of Sadr City on a routine security mission protecting a fleet of sewage trucks. Suddenly, its 18 soldiers and Iraqi translator came under intense fire from insurgents and were pinned down in an alley. The gunner in the lead vehicle, Sgt. Eddie Chen, was the first casualty, but he would not be the last. Before the 8-hour siege was over, seven more of his brothers would be gunned down and 65 wounded in the ensuing battle as hundreds rushed in to help. The ambush later came to be known as “Black Sunday” was just the beginning of the insurgency effort …. 80 days of sustained fighting would follow.
ABC’s Chief Global Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz chronicled the ambush in her 2007 best-selling book “The Long Road Home” after interviewing many of the soldiers and their families. A year ago, NatGeo brought to life the horrors of that day in a gritty and nerve-rattling 8-part miniseries by the same title.
Sgt. First Class Eric Bourquin (Ret.) was one of the men pinned down during the ambush and served as one of the technical advisors on the series. We talked about how his technical advising team helped showrunner/writer Mikko Alanne’s production bring every painstaking detail to life.
This was your first role as technical advisor on a film or TV series. Why did you want to be a part of making this series?
How many people get to participate in the accurate retelling of their story? Just being a part of that process was fantastic. It was very healing for me because so many things transpired around me that day, but all I had was my own viewpoint before we all, including the families, heard about each other’s experiences when we came together for the series.
How did first you get involved?
Martha had interviewed me several times after the attack. Years later, as they were prepping for the show, she introduced me to Mikko. I took him around and introduced him to some of the guys, and that’s how I became the technical advisor.
The production famously recreated every detail right down to the Ranger tab on Capt. Troy Denomy’s uniform. Does that mean he’s with the 75th Ranger Regiment?
No, Denomy got that because he went to Ranger school, which is different from the Ranger Regiment. Typically officers in infantry units have to be Ranger qualified; sometimes we are lucky to have some NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] who also went to Ranger school.
You had to make sure the actors knew how to fasten the chinstrap on their helmets properly, how to salute, how to handle weapons and conduct themselves with military bearing. What was that like?
Just like the Ranger tab you noticed on Denomy’s uniform, we wanted to represent every soldier the best way possible, right down to the uniforms. The men have put a lot of time into earning each tab and shoulder patch, so we made sure an E-4 had the correct Specialist insignia on his uniform. Other details included the bumper numbers on the vehicles, the right type of equipment and weapons system inside/on each vehicle and the procedures in use in convoy and service at that time. That’s where I got to put my knowledge to good use. Besides Aaron [Fowler] and myself, two Army Rangers also did a fantastic job advising production. We were very fortunate that Mikko was so open to our input.
Were there any aspects that took you and the actors a little more effort to nail down?
I really can’t think of any. Everyone was eager to learn and committed to bringing out the best representation possible … because they knew this was about real people’s lives; there are still many people alive today who were a part of those events.
I love the headline on your personal website under Technical: “A bridge between reality and entertainment.” With this story, the conflict, tension and drama are inherent. Were there instances during production where real-life details had to take a backseat to service the story?
That’s an excellent question. Before getting involved with this project, I had no idea what it took to guide the audience through an emotional journey. Knowing a little more about the storytelling process now, there’s nothing that I would say was embellished or made more dramatic than it actually was. If anything, certain things were downplayed. The whole experience was horrible, so there was no need to exaggerate or embellish.
To recreate the road in Sadr City where Comanche Red Platoon were ambushed, set design had to recreate over 80 buildings at the Elijah urban training site in Fort Hood where the series was filmed. Were you involved at this stage?
I was involved with set decoration and the art department. They turned a big warehouse into a museum exhibit of the attack and rescue mission – it was surreal to see pictures of my friends up on a wall, the vehicles we were in and different types of weapons. They had samples of various types of sand, wall structures and building materials that we had in Iraq. The design team went all over the world looking for different textures and materials to match where we told them we were in Sadr City based on our collective memories.
I showed the costume department how to put the patches on and where they could find them online. One of the coolest things was how the props and costume departments made equipment and uniforms look old because it was rainy and hot [in Sadr City]. I remember my uniform was dirty that day because I had dripped mustard from the MRE [Meals Ready-To-Eat] I was eating, so they replicated that. I also advised on the different types of body armor and weapons. The only thing that was different was the smell – because where we were in Iraq, there was a lot of raw sewage; everything else was extremely authentic.
Since you were filming on base, what vehicles were loaned by the Army?
Production purchased a few LMTVs [Light Medium Tactical Vehicle] and Humvees, so we had to do a few things to make them specific to the ones that we actually used. The Army allowed the production to use the Bradleys (under-armored fighting vehicles), M1A1 Abrams tanks and aircrafts (i.e. Black Hawk helicopters).
Besides the gruesome ambush scene in the pilot, one of the most visceral scenes comes at the end of Episode 5, where Miltenberger’s soldiers were fully exposed in the unarmored and open-bed LMTV truck as they thundered through with gun fire and RPG’s raining down on them from rooftops on both sides. What went into making sure that sequence was as realistic as possible?
I was there for some of the filming that night, it was tough just being there. Some of the veterans who were in the real battle were actually in the vehicles in that sequence; I don’t know how they had the strength and fortitude to handle that. We were able to pull in a lot of the guys from the actual battle who were still in the local [Fort Hood] area.
What was harder for you to coach: the physical and tactical aspects of a scene, or helping each actor tap into the emotional and mental qualities of the characters so that the essence of each soldier came through?
The hardest part was watching the actors pretending to be the real guys. I still remember Jon [Beavers] joking around reenacting some of the things that we had done in real life; it was surreal. Being a part of the production, dealing with it and reliving it through the series, I’ve gotten a lot of healing out of that. The only reason I’m alive today is because eight of the guys died going out to rescue us that night. It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot.
Actor Jon Beavers has talked about how he was nervous portraying you on camera while you’re standing ten feet away, but he found a way “in” – he played a character on a Nickelodeon show that your kids love (Twist from the “Fresh Beat Band”). How did you approach getting to know him so that he could bring out your emotions onto the screen?
I was very honest with him about who I am; what you see is what you get. I just told it like it was and let him use whatever he could.
You’ve all worked really hard to give audiences a taste of what it was really like out there on that catastrophic day. What do you hope civilians will walk away with once they’ve experienced the series?
The real cost of war. For me and the guys, it’s something we’ll always have to live with, it’s something that’ll always be a part of our lives.
After “The Long Road,” what type(s) of projects are you looking for?
Whatever comes my way, particularly projects that deals with Afghanistan. Knowing how healing it was for me to have been involved on this project, I’m hoping to get the same type of healing by working on other projects that deals with the time period when I was stationed in Afghanistan.
Click here to revisit 21CF’s first premiere event for the miniseries in D.C. when it was launched a year ago.