'The Long Road Home' to healing: New miniseries focuses on Soldiers' experiences in Iraq
FORT MEADE, Md. -- While on the set of an upcoming TV show revolving around a deadly ambush that he and other 1st Cavalry Division Soldiers endured in Iraq, Eric Bourquin managed to get the emotional healing he had sought for years.
As a 23-year-old sergeant, he was part of a four-vehicle convoy attacked in Sadr City just outside of Baghdad on April 4, 2004 -- a day later known as Black Sunday. Over the next 48 hours, the attack left eight of his fellow Soldiers dead and wounded him and about 50 others.
Using photos, video and memories collected from Soldiers there, producers of The Long Road Home, which premieres on the National Geographic channel Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern time, recreated scenes from the ambush that sparked a four-year battle for the Iraqi city.
More than 80 buildings were erected at the Elijah urban training site at Fort Hood, Texas, where the division is headquartered, to resemble homes and streets in Sadr City. For Bourquin, who worked as a production consultant for the show, the fabricated town gave him tangible closure.
"There's no way I could just take a stroll through memory lane [in Iraq] if i wanted to," he said last week after a panel discussion about the show at the Defense Information School. "But I was so fortunate that I was able to do that and walk through it."
Based on ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz's book of the same name, the miniseries depicts the sacrifices made by the Soldiers and their families as they anxiously waited to hear news out of Iraq.
After Raddatz initially learned of the ambush while on assignment in Baghdad, she jumped at the chance to interview the Soldiers, who were assigned to the division's 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.
"Once I met those Soldiers and once I heard their stories … I knew it was something I had to keep telling," she said at the discussion.
The Soldiers told her the ambush was not just hard on them, she recalled, but also for their families back home. Captivated by the struggles at both ends of the world, she reached out to the families and also included their experiences in her 2007 book.
Years later, the book was made into a script and landed on the desk of Lt. Col. Tim Hyde, deputy director for the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs-West. Hyde's office in Los Angeles reviews film projects to determine if they can be supported by the Army. He said this one was the perfect fit.
"This is the only project that I have read a script on in the two years I've been doing the job that takes time to focus on family," he said. "That was one of the reasons why I went to my leadership and said we absolutely have to provide support for this production."
The Army assisted the film crew at Fort Hood, where producers claimed they built the largest working film set in North America on a 12-acre site.
The realistic setting of the production was not lost on Aaron Fowler, a former Soldier who was shot three times during the ambush and also served as a consultant for the show. Fowler and Bourquin helped train the actors, along with two Army Rangers, and provided insight into what they saw firsthand.
"It made me feel I was a member of a team that was [honoring] my brothers," Fowler said. "I was very thankful for being given the opportunity."
One unique aspect of the filming, he said, was that former unit members, including him, had cameos in it. "[For] the production to allow the members of the unit to do that is amazing," he said. "I think it will add a flavor of sincerity to it."
That's exactly what showrunner Mikko Alanne and others had in mind. He estimated he interviewed 70 Soldiers and family members before the production to make it as real as possible.
"I really wanted the Soldiers and families to be our guides, our teachers, in telling it right," Alanne said. "I felt like so many times Hollywood gets it wrong and we wanted to be the project that got it right."
At first, Bourquin thought the idea of discussing personal details of that time in his life to strangers was nerve-wracking. Then he realized it wasn't only about him.
"The only thing that was hard was to open up," he said, "but how can I not open up when so many men died just to make sure I can sit here and breathe?"
Only four days in country, Bourquin's platoon was on a routine convoy escorting sewage trucks when enemy gunfire pinned them down. More Soldiers from the battalion -- and the 1st Armored Division, which was redeploying at the time -- then went in to help, but also faced heavy contact.
"We were actually in transition, doing left-seat, right-seat for the first three days. On the fourth day, we went out," Bourquin said. "They hit us at the perfect time."
Actor Jon Beavers had the challenge of playing Bourquin in the miniseries. While he was intimidated by the role at first, Beavers said the former sergeant gave him the confidence to do it well.
"He believed I could do it before I believed I could do it," Beavers said.
At one point, Bourquin told the actor about his time in the Army, particularly during the ambush, when he had to make it up on the go and just rely on his military training to guide him.
"What he was saying was 'I'm just a dude and I did what I had to do and I did it for the man on the right and left of me,'" Beavers said. "I was emboldened by that."
The series also gave the actor a better perspective of how much Soldiers and their families pay in the cost of war.
"It really updated my internal understanding of what that cost is and who pays it," he said. "It's a profoundly important piece of work to me and I am privileged to be a part of it."
For the former sergeant, that cost is something he hopes more civilians can learn from the show.
"Everybody is going to be able to understand what happened out there and … know what sacrifice actually means," Bourquin said. "We were just people put into extraordinary circumstances."
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