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'Baghdad ER:' The Wounded and the Healers

The new documentary Baghdad ER goes inside the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Iraq, the Army's premier medical facility in Iraq. Shot over two months in 2005, the film tells the stories of the hospital's doctors and wounded soldiers. The film debuted on HBO last week. Filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill discuss their project with Terry Gross.

42:19

Other segments from the episode on May 29, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 29, 2006: Interview with Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill; Interview with David Douglas Duncan.

Transcript

DATE May 29, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill discuss their new
documentary "Baghdad ER"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

On this Memorial Day, we're going to hear the story of wounded soldiers and
their doctors at the 86th Combat Support Hospital, the army's premier medical
facility in Iraq. The hospital is the subject of the new documentary "Baghdad
ER," which debuted on HBO last week and will be shown again this evening. It
was shot over the course of two months in 2005. My guests are the filmmakers
Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill. Alpert, the senior member of the duo, has won
12 Emmy Awards for his documentaries.

Over 2,000 Americans have been killed in Iraq since March 2003. But over
17,000 have been wounded. This film graphically shows the condition of the
wounded soldiers, many of whom have had limbs blown off or amputated as a
result of IEDs, improvised explosive devices. Here's a short scene from the
film in which we hear two wounded soldiers at the hospital calling home to
break the news.

(Soundbite from film "Baghdad ER")

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, mom.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hey, how are you?

Man #1: Um...

Woman #1: Where are you at?

Man #1: I'm in a hospital.

Woman #1: Where?

Man #1: I don't know where the hell I am. I'm in a hospital somewhere.
Yeah. I got hit by an IED today.

Woman #1: OK. What's wrong? How are you?

Man #1: I'm not too bad considering the way the vehicle looked.

Unidentified Man #2: Honey?

Unidentified Woman #2: Hey, honey.

Man #2: How you doing? I'm doing, you know, fine, but guess what? I got hit
with IED. Well, I was gunning. Yeah. All it did was, you know, I was on top
of the vehicle like where Davis is at, and all I heard was the explosion. It
happened so fast.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Jon Alpert, Matthew O'Neill welcome to FRESH AIR.

Jon why did you want to make a movie about an emergency room--about a combat
hospital in Baghdad?

Mr. JON ALPERT: I thought it might be a way to be able to show both the
horror of war, which I think people really always need to know about if the
country is at war, and also the heroism of the people that we're sending over
there to fight that war. I thought we might find those two things
intersecting in the emergency room of the hospital in Baghdad.

GROSS: Would you describe the combat hospital that you ended up filming?

Mr. ALPERT: Yeah, it's easy for us to describe in words because we weren't
allowed to film the exterior for security purposes. That was one of the
conditions of our embedded agreement, that we couldn't do anything to
compromise the safety of the soldiers. And we followed that agreement to the
letter. The Army's obligation on their part was to give us total access to
the hospital, and they followed that to the letter.

This is a hospital that's not very big. It has an emergency room that has
four beds in it, and it has an operating room that has four beds in it. And
sometimes you can't fit all the people in and the helicopters keep coming.
The bodies are loaded off the helicopter with limbs dangling and blood
spurting out. And it's one of the most frightening things I've ever seen in
my life, but also one of the most heroic when you see these doctors go to work
and try to save lives.

GROSS: Well, you show a lot of violence in the film. And, I mean, you don't
show the violence, you show the results of violence. You're showing a part of
war that the public is usually protected from, a part that soldiers are
reluctant to talk about when they return home, and referring to really
grotesque open wounds. Amputations, we see part of an amputation. We see one
of the doctors, or perhaps a nurse, taking a removed limb and discarding it in
a special trash bag. How did you decide how graphic you would allow the film
to be?

Mr. ALPERT: We actually decided that we couldn't show the reality of that
hospital because it was too graphic. If you've never seen an amputation, it's
something that scars you forever. And we backed way off. The first cut of
this program was so violent that it sent people screaming out of the room.
And we wanted to show the reality of war, but we just couldn't. And the
soldiers are actually surprised because they said, `Wow, this is nothing
compared to what was going on there every single day. You're just showing the
pinky on the amputated hand.' And we just had to do that because we wanted
people to be able to get through the whole program and to be able to
understand the horror of the war without saying, `I can't watch this' and
tuning in an "American Idol" program instead.

GROSS: When you were actually in the hospital shooting, were you shooting
everything, and did you decide that later you would figure out what was too
graphic and what you wanted to include, but in the meantime you'd shoot it
all?

Mr. ALPERT: We shot more than 200 hours of tape over the time that we were
embedded with the 86th Combat Support Hospital. And there was no way we could
ever share the volume of surgeries, amputations, cranial injuries, the volume
of horror that we saw through our cameras. And really what we tried to
capture was the essence of the challenges these doctors faced every day, and
boil it down so the audience could feel like they were in the center of this
hospital, that they understood both the horror they confronted and their day
to day lives.

When you see any person come in in a shape that really doesn't look like a
person anymore, dismembered and bleeding, it's very, very hard to take. And
for a moment you don't know how you're going to be able to do this. But we
had a job to do. It's the same job that the doctors had. You know, we can't,
but we can't stitch anybody back together again, and we're not soldiers. We
don't know how to fire a gun, but we do know how to hold cameras. And our job
was to hold a camera up to that reality and make sure we brought that back.
There have not been a lot of images of this type of thing coming back from
Iraq, and it was really clear to us that the Army wants people to see this.
They gave us permission to go there. They let us stay there. They helped us.
And when the saw the film, they thanked us.

GROSS: Yes, but at the same time there's been a little bit more negative
reaction subsequent to that. The Pentagon, from my reading of the newspaper,
cut back its participation in screening of the movie. A couple of the top
people declined at the last minute to go. And military spokespeople expressed
their concern that the movie could lead to post-traumatic stress symptoms on
the part of soldiers who watched it. The secretary of the Army declined to
attend the screening. Another reaction on the part of the military is that
the movie could be demoralizing. Were you surprised to hear those responses?

Mr. ALPERT: Well, the response we've heard from every person who wears a
uniform, like from the chief of staff of the Army on down to every private
that's seen the film, has been nothing but positive and supportive. So I
think the surgeon general's right to be concerned about post-traumatic stress
syndrome. I think we all need to be concerned about post-traumatic stress
syndrome. And I think that this film will help Americans understand some of
the images, some of the flashbacks that our soldiers may be suffering through
because you see both the physical anguish and the mental anguish here. And I
think it's important for everyone to understand that the soldiers are coming
back with, as one soldier says in the film, wounds on the outside and wounds
on the inside.

Mr. MATTHEW O'NEILL: And if you don't mind me adding something. We
consulted with a number of psychiatrists about this. And what they told us,
and what we believe and what the soldiers told us, is that post-traumatic
stress doesn't come from television programs. It comes from war. And it
comes from what you experience over there. And that's what needs to be
treated, and it is being treated by the Army. But to pretend that there's a
war without blood, that there's a war without amputation, and a war without
death is more dangerous than anything we might be doing.

GROSS: Yeah. You know, one of the things that you witness up close in the
movie is the vulnerability, the frailty of the human body. I mean, we see
bodies really torn up. And I guess I wonder if you asked yourself is during a
war a bad time to be focusing on how vulnerable the human body is in war?

Mr. ALPERT: I don't think there is a more appropriate time to focus on the
vulnerability of the human body. I mean this film shows you the horror of
what man can do to man. And it's important to recognize that any war, and
this war in particular, involved a lot of frail human bodies getting hurt by
very crude instruments of destruction. You know these IEDs are put together
with spit and bubble gum wrapped around nails and whatever other detritus that
the insurgents can find to create a bomb. And that's part of the reason why
the wounds are so dangerous and so many infections come from them, because
they're not coming in with bullet wounds, they're coming in literally
exploded, blown up.

GROSS: Could you talk a little bit more about why these wounds are so
problematic to treat?

Mr. ALPERT: When the soldiers come in injured from an IED attack, they often
don't look like people anymore because, as I said, the improvised explosive
devices are put together sometimes from garbage. So they cause all sorts of
horrific infections. And that's part of the reason that the combat support
hospital works so hard to get the soldiers out of the war zone as quickly as
possible.

One of the things that I found very interesting was the speed with which they
would move a soldier from the site of his injury all the way out to Landstuhl,
Germany, where they have their first class, first world medical facility. And
you could get injured on a street in Baghdad and in less than 10 hours be in a
German hospital.

Mr. O'NEILL: It was interesting because you can actually get better and
faster care in Baghdad if you're a soldier than if you're somebody like me in
New York City. I road up and down Route Irish, the most dangerous road in the
world, and was lucky enough not to get hurt, flying around in Blackhawk
helicopters, didn't get hurt. Come back to New York City and crash my
motorcycle a block from my house and broke my foot in four places. And it
took me longer to get to the hospital there than it takes for them to pick up
somebody in the field and get them into the Baghdad ER. And that's really
amazing. The resources that are put to try and save the lives of, not only
American soldiers, but injured Iraqis and, in many cases, the people who are
trying to kill our soldiers, the enemies of our soldiers, is just amazing.
And the hospital was filled with as many Iraqis as they had wounded soldiers.

GROSS: My guests are Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill, the directors of the HBO
documentary "Baghdad ER." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guests are Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill. Their documentary,
"Baghdad ER," will be shown tonight on HBO. They shot the film over a course
of two months at the Army's 86th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad.

What did you have to do to get permission from the doctors to film in the
hospital? Or did they have to give you your permission? What about the
soldiers? I mean you have soldiers, in the beginning of the film, you have
soldiers being wheeled in on gurneys, naked, with their bodies torn up from
these IED explosions. Do they give their permission before or after?

Mr. ALPERT: Every soldier you see receiving care in this film by the 86th
cache, signed a release. And the doctors and the hospital staff and the
soldiers themselves were all very rightfully proud of the work that's going on
with the combat support hospital, and so they were, in most cases, eager to do
so.

On Monday night we screened the film down in Washington with a number of the
soldiers who were in the film and with a number of the doctors from the cache.
And one soldier came up to me afterwards, and I had been very nervous about
him seeing the film for the first time because he's one of those soldiers that
you see in a very tender, very emotional moment after having lost one of his
comrades. And when I asked him to sign the release in Baghdad, he hesitated.
And he said, are you guys going to use this for a politically manipulative
film? Is this going to be another "Fahrenheit 911?" And I promised him that
it wouldn't be. And I promised him that we would take a completely objective
point of view, and it would be an apolitical film. But I never knew how he
would feel about sharing that moment with a national audience. And he came up
to me after the film, and he thanked me because he said that we did it. We
managed not to have a political bent on this film. And then his comrade who
was there with him in the hospital said, `And you know what? I think it's
important for Americans to know that sometimes soldiers cry.'

GROSS: Well, you know, and I'm really glad you brought this up because I
think there's two times in the movie when soldiers cry. And both of those
times they're crying because of the death of a buddy. Nobody in the movie's
crying over themselves. The soldiers are so stoic about their own injuries.
I just found it amazing. When you look at what's happening to their bodies,
and they're just dealing with it. It was just remarkable to me.

Mr. O'NEILL: Before we went over, every commander we spoke to in the Army
would tell us that we would be shocked how every soldier that got injured, the
first thing he would do was ask to go back.

GROSS: Yeah. And you show that. You show that. There's a guy who's got
shrapnel in his eye, he might be blinded forever in that eye. And when the
surgeon tells him that they're going to have to send him to the United States
or Germany for the surgery, he looks very, I mean, he's controlling his
disappointment and anger because he doesn't want to leave. And that too was
very surprising to me.

Mr. ALPERT: And that soldier's actually back in Iraq. Through modern
military medicine he regained all of his eyesight. And a couple of months ago
I called his home, hoping to speak to him and see how he was doing, and I got
his wife on the line, and she said to me, `Oh, no, you now, he got 20/20
vision.' And I said that's fantastic. And there was silence. She said,
`Well, now he's in Kuwait on his way back to Baghdad.' And it's interesting.
These guys who are getting patched up after horrific injuries really are doing
everything in their power to get back into the fight. And really, I think, to
get back to their buddies because the bonds that they form with each other are
very, very strong.

Mr. O'NEILL: Yeah, there were a couple of things that really surprised me
about our experience in Iraq, and one was the adhesion that the soldiers have
for each other. And when you're over in Iraq, it's not a pleasant
environment. It's 130 degrees. It's 140 degrees. There are people waiting
around almost every corner to blow you up into little pieces. And in many
cases, if you ask the soldiers what they're fighting for, maybe they don't
even know, but their buddy is next to them. Their buddy is there to protect
them. And you're going through this together and you cannot let your buddy
down.

Mr. ALPERT: They're fighting for each other.

Mr. O'NEILL: Yep.

GROSS: What kind of training do the doctors at this combat hospital have?
They're called on to do things, the medicine's just really different than what
you'd be doing say at an emergency room in the United States. I mean, as
you've described, you have these IEDs with horrible pieces of filthy shrapnel.
And then there's a lot of amputations that are performed. What kind of
training to they have before they actually get there?

Mr. O'NEILL: In many cases, unfortunately, there is nothing that can prepare
anyone for what they wind up encountering. It's like being dropped off into
the middle of the "Chainsaw Massacre." And there's nothing that can prepare
you for that. And the doctors say that. How in the world can you prepare
somebody to amputate two legs and two arms every single day? You can't.
There's no training for it. And often there's no cure for the disturbances
that you suffer, except that you know that you're doing the right thing and
that you're helping people. And that's what gets them through it. They wake
up in the morning knowing that they're going to save somebody's life that day.
And it helps them deal with the really scary things that come in the door.

Mr. ALPERT: And the unfortunate fact that they'll probably lose someone that
day, too.

GROSS: You know, you told us a little bit about getting the permission of the
doctors and of the injured soldiers. Was it hard to get permission from the
military to make the movie in the first place?

Mr. ALPERT: The military was astonishingly cooperative. We became
officially embedded, and there's a 13-page embedded agreement that has some
fine print in it. But basically it boiled down to just a couple of very
simple things. We couldn't to anything to compromise the security of any of
the installations and the security of the soldiers. So in this film you won't
see any nice exteriors. You have really no idea where the hospital is
located. And that's to make it difficult for people to drive bombs into the
hospital.

And our obligation to the Army was to give them the film, so that they could
look at it and comment on it, but not so they could censor it. We weren't
obligated to do anything in reaction to their viewing. And the Army was
obligated to facilitate our trip, to give us access, to feed us, to protect
us. And in the almost 40 years of filmmaking, I have never received such
cooperation from anyone. They let us film anything we wanted. The only thing
we couldn't film were some of the enemy combatants who came into the hospital.
And that's only because the Geneva Convention doesn't allow you to parade
prisoners in front of cameras. Otherwise, they would have let us film it.

GROSS: But let me stop you there. So the doctors were treating enemy
combatants?

Mr. O'NEILL: A lot of them. You know, I mean, they, I got really excited
because this was one of the few different things that happened. You know,
normally you hear the chk, chk, chk, chk, chks from the helicopters, and you
go, gosh, here it comes again. And in comes a half of a body on a gurney with
somebody desperately pumping on their chest trying to keep them alive.

But one day this guy in an orange jumpsuit came in. He was manacled hands,
manacled feet, and he had these really weird goggles on. We're like, `Oh,
this is different.' I go running across the room with my camera and almost got
tackled by the public affairs officer. And I said, `Oh, gosh, why don't they
want me to film this?' And she explained, `This is an enemy combatant and the
Geneva Convention does not allow us to let you take pictures of him.'

But there were a lot of them. And it's really strange. You'll have on one
bed an American soldier who's blown into smithereens, desperately trying to
keep this guy alive. And on the other bed is the guy that was trying to kill
him. And they're trying to save both of these guys' lives. And they're
working just as hard on both of them. That was amazing.

GROSS: How did the doctors feel about that?

Mr. ALPERT: I think they had some pretty complicated emotions when it came
right down to it. It didn't stop them from doing their best job
professionally, but I think it was one of the more difficult things they
wrestled with. I remember one operating room nurse telling me that after a
certain insurgent came in and they saved his life, and they saved his life by
replacing the blood he had lost with American blood, with the blood that they
had in their blood bank there. And she said she waited until that insurgent
woke up, and she grabbed one of the translators because she wanted him to know
that the blood that had saved his life had been the blood of American
soldiers.

GROSS: Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill directed the documentary "Baghdad ER."
It will be shown again tonight on HBO. They'll be back in the second half of
the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

On this Memorial Day, we're talking about the documentary "Baghdad ER" which
was shot over the course of two months in 2005 at the 86th Combat Support
Hospital in Iraq. The film premiered last week on HBO and will be shown again
this evening. My guests are the directors Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill.
Here's another scene from the documentary in which a wounded soldier in the
hospital is visited by a major general.

(Soundbite from "Baghdad ER")

Unidentified Man #3: This is for like one of the things we don't like to do
is see anybody hurt, we issue a Purple Heart. It's one of the nation's
richest, most valued and respected awards given to those that are injured in
combat. Be proud to wear this for the rest of your life. On behalf of the
president and a grateful nation..

Unidentified Man #4: OK.

Man #3: ...we present you the Purple Heart...

Man #4: All right.

Man #3: ...for wounds received in combat.

Man #4: All right.

Man #3: Your mission, get better.

Man #4: All right.

Man #3: You get better quick.

Man #4: All right.

Man #3: And we'll see you soon.

Man #4: OK.

That's one award I never wanted to see me get.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: There's an image, and this isn't at all gory, this image I'm about to
describe, but it really sticks with me. You know, I always thought when a
wounded soldier gets a Purple Heart that, in my mind, it was always like after
they'd recovered a little bit and they were in their military uniform, that
the Purple Heart is then pinned on the uniform. That was the image always in
my mind. In your movie, you show a man who's on the gurney, who's just been
injured, he's not wearing clothes, he's bare chested. And the Purple Heart is
just placed on his bare chest. And he might still be kind of in shock because
he's not showing a lot of emotion. And I just found that...

Mr. ALPERT: Well, you know what's happening...I'm sorry.

GROSS: ...a very, very moving moment. Go ahead.

Mr. ALPERT: What's interesting about him at that moment is that he has one
of the largest tears that I've ever seen rolling down his check because he's
still remembering his friend who had his face completely blown off and was
killed right next to him in the humvee. And that's sort of an interesting
irony that he's being praised for his service while he's weeping for his lost
comrade. And then as the scene continues, they wheel in his other buddy,
who's also on a gurney, also half clothed, and they basically hold each other
and weep.

GROSS: Did every soldier who came to that hospital have the Purple Heart
placed on their chest like was done to this soldier?

Mr. ALPERT: No. Not all Purple Heart ceremonies are performed that way.
Although, walking around the hospital, you will see a lot of Purple Hearts
pinned to pillows. Purple Hearts are awarded in the field sometimes, back at
hospitals in Germany and the United States. It really depends under what
circumstances they think it's best to give you that award. And I think in
some ways it's linked to something that struck me about the entire military
structure was the attention to emotional well-being of the soldiers. So that
if a commander thought that it somehow would be helpful in healing to receive
that award, he would present it still as they're recovering from the wounds
that they received in combat. And a lot of decisions were made in those
moments to try to help soldiers find closure with the horrors they were
experiencing. And another thing you see in the film along those lines is the
constant presence of a chaplain inside the hospital. Now, that chaplain was
responsible for every soldier that came in the door, plus the 350 members of
the combat support hospital who were witnessing that horror every day. And he
just worked double shifts for every day he was in Iraq. And the Army places
as much importance on the spiritual care and the mental care of these soldiers
as they do on the physical care. And that was another unexpected thing that I
witnessed there in Baghdad.

GROSS: You mention the chaplain. At the end of the film, one of the soldiers
in the hospital dies, and the chaplain says a prayer over his body. And what
I'd like to do is actually play that prayer, play that scene.

(Soundbite from film "Baghdad ER")

Chaplain: Was he Catholic?

Unidentified Man #5: He is no religious preference, sir.

Chaplain: I see. So we won't do any...

Man #5: Last rights.

Chaplain: Right. Offer just a prayer for his life and...

Man #5: I'll pray with you.

Chaplain: Yeah. Let's pray. Heavenly Father, gracious God. We did
everything we could to save his life. The EMT worked very hard and the
surgeons, and, Lord, we did everything we could. Lord, we pray that his life
and his death would hasten the cause of peace of this senseless war, this
violence here would end...(unintelligible)...the last. Lord, again, we pray
for Your comfort and Your peace on his family and friends. And we say thank
you for his life. In Christ's name I pray, Amen.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's a chaplain in a combat hospital in Baghdad from the new
documentary "Baghdad ER." You know, the film is--it's an a political film.
It's about what life is like in this hospital. And the only perhaps political
moment is when the chaplain refers to this senseless war. And I wasn't sure,
listening to it, quite how to interpret it, whether it was all war seems
senseless or this particular war seems senseless to him. Did you ask him
about this phrase and what he meant by it?

Mr. ALPERT: I asked him very specifically about that for two reasons. And
one thing that he said is that I don't think there's anybody here that likes
war and celebrates war and likes what war does. And I also asked him if the
things he saw in the hospital ever challenged his faith in God. And there was
a second where he couldn't talk. And he sort of looked at me, and he seemed
to be at a loss for words. And then he said, `Well, you know, there's always
some meaning even in horrible things like this. But I have to tell you, when
you see what war really is like, it shakes you down to your core and makes you
question everything that man does to man. And you also look up at the sky and
say how can something like this be happening?' It certainly shook me.

GROSS: You don't have like people having long discussions in the movie about
whether the war is succeeding or failing or whether it was a just war to begin
with. Were there conversations like that happening away from the camera? Is
it something that the doctors or the soldiers talk much about?

Mr. O'NEILL: They don't talk that much about it because there really isn't
much time for talking. By the time the day is over they're so exhausted and
so covered in blood they just want to go to sleep. But there is one really
interesting moment in the film, and it follows another amputation. A person
is losing his arm, and another doctor's looking in the room and he says, `You
know, I hope what we're doing over here in Iraq is helping somebody because if
not, this is just sheer madness.'

Mr. ALPERT: If we ever tried to engage any of the doctors in a political
conversation, person after person would not discuss the politics of this war.
But what they would say is that we'll never find a war surgeon who likes war.
They see the worst of it, and they see the worst of it every day. So they
know the real cost of war. And in that sense, of course, they're anti-war.
But they're not interested in discussing the politics of it.

GROSS: My guests are Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill, the directors of the HBO
documentary "Baghdad ER." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guests are Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill. Their documentary
"Baghdad ER" will be shown tonight on HBO. They shot the film over a course
of two months at the Army's 86th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad.

There are times when you went out with the medivac crew to shoot them rescuing
injured soldiers. You went out with one group of soldiers looking during the
night for IEDs, trying to, you know, find vehicles or people that might be
carrying them. When you were traveling with soldiers who were out doing a
mission, what did you try to do so as not to get in their way? And at night
so as not to have, the lights that you needed for your cameras either get in
the way or betray their presence?

Mr. O'NEILL: Well, when we shot at night, we shot with a camera that worked
with infrared light, and so we had no lights. And so those pictures were
produced in total darkness and didn't compromise the safety of the soldiers.
We were very careful not to do anything that would jeopardize any of the
missions that we were on. The interesting thing is that, even though we were
patrolling up and down what's supposed to be the most dangerous street in the
world, I felt that that was a lot easier than actually being in the hospital.
When you're out on the street, the violence is not certain. You aren't going
to get shot every single day. Most of the days you'll get through without
getting blown up. And you're riding around, you're with soldiers, and there's
a sort of feeling of camaraderie. But when you're in the hospital, absolutely
every single day that helicopter is going to come in over the horizon, and
it's going to bring you just horrific carnage. And the relentless delivery of
those broken bodies is so psychologically damaging and challenging to people
who have to witness it. But actually got out of the hospital, and I wanted to
ride around on Route Irish rather than be in that emergency room.

GROSS: Do you think that having the camera in front of your eyes helped
distance you in some way from all the carnage that you were seeing in the
hospital and enabled you to see it? Like would it have been harder to see
without having the camera between you and the injuries?

Mr. ALPERT: I don't know if it was so much the camera or the job because to
have to stand in that room without having a job to do would be humiliating
because everyone around you was moving at a hundred miles an hour trying to
save somebody's life. And I think it deepened our sense of purpose and
responsibility about the story we were going to tell because this camera that
we were holding in our hands was our tool to do something about this
situation. And you felt so acutely your responsibility because you were
surrounded by doctors who felt responsibility for saving that life. And as
far as the technical use of the camera, it was so much easier to worry about
how my shot was framed and whether or not I had two channels of audio coming
through the camera than it was to actually think about the 19-year-old that
was dying in front of the lens.

GROSS: Do you have nightmares after having seen so much suffering and so many
amputations?

Mr. O'NEILL: You know the entire time I was in Baghdad, I never had any
trouble sleeping because I was so tired whenever I had the opportunity to hit
a pillow. But when I got back, I couldn't get some of the images out of my
head. And it's one of the things I think about all the time when I think
about these soldiers because I was there as an observer for two months. And
they spent 12 months of their life there in Baghdad. And in all likelihood it
was either their second time or they'll be going back again. And I can't
shake the images that I lived with for those two months, and they come back to
me at the strangest times. And that's why I think it's so important that we,
as a country, recognize that these are the images our soldiers are living with
when they come back from this war and recognize that we have to give them the
support to deal with these images and deal with these memories for the rest of
their lives.

Well, you know, Terry, everybody gets affected in different ways. And I like
to think I'm a tough guy, and that I can take all this. But I was flying back
on the airplane, coming off of Iraq, and they were showing a movie. I hadn't
seen a movie or a television in two months. And it was some cartoon movie
called "Stripes" about a zebra that competes in the Kentucky Derby and the
little girl that took care of him. And as the movie's reaching its
conclusion, as the zebra wins the race and the little girl hugs him, I began
weeping. I'm actually starting to cry now. I began weeping uncontrollably,
and everybody who was sitting next to me on the plane began to wonder, `Why is
this guy crying about this cartoon movie?' And I came back and I told Matt
that story, and he had a similar experience on his plane.

Mr. O'NEILL: And I had the same experience watching an Ashton Kutcher movie
where, in the end, he's singing to his love, you know, long lost love with a
guitar, a movie that I would usually guffaw at and make fun of and found
myself sitting on this plane with the tears coming down my face. I think, you
know, there's so much pent-up emotion from the time that we were there that
once we were out it just came flowing.

GROSS: Jon, do you think that's what it was about?

Mr. ALPERT: I have to believe that because you just have to stuff all this
stuff deep, deep inside you otherwise you get paralyzed, and this is at the
most unexpected time there's something that triggers those emotions. And I
don't cry. I'm sitting here in the studio right now with tears running down
my face, and I'm somewhat embarrassed.

Mr. O'NEILL: It's the strangest trigger. There's, whenever I smell dirty
feet, stinky feet, it takes me right back into the emergency room...

GROSS: Why?

Mr. O'NEILL: ...because these soldiers would come in injured after having
been on patrol, and sometimes they wouldn't have had a chance to take a shower
or wash their feet for over a week. And I remember vividly one big
strong-looking Marine who is in the film and who lost his life, and he was so
strong and his feet smelled so terrible, just like my feet smell like after
I've been hiking in the woods or working hard doing something. And the entire
time I was with him, as the doctors fought to save his life, I smelled his
stinky feet. And now I'm almost obsessive about keeping my feet clean because
every time I smell bad feet it takes me back to that moment and back to that
sense of helplessness that there was nothing I could do to help save this
Marine's life, while all the doctors around had all the skills to try to save
him, and I was helpless to do anything. But in the end, you know, they were
all helpless to do anything.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us about your movie.
Thank you very much.

Mr. O'NEILL: Thanks Terry.

GROSS: Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill directed the documentary "Baghdad ER."
It will be shown again tonight on HBO. We contacted the Army in hopes of
talking with one of the doctors in the film, but we were told they were too
busy to participate. The communications office from the Army did fax us a
statement saying "The Army is extremely proud of the soldiers featured in the
film. The Army sponsors approximately 200 documentaries a year, and this
documentary captures both the cost of war and the amazing bravery of our men
and women who are serving in Iraq. This film contains very real and moving
footage of the care of wounded soldiers and the evacuation process. `Baghdad
ER' also highlights the tremendous dedication of all Army soldiers."

Coming up an interview with photographer David Douglas Duncan about the
pictures he wants to serve as photographic headstones for the men who fought
and died in Korea.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: War photographer David Douglas Duncan discusses his
work
TERRY GROSS, host:

In 1999 David Douglas Duncan received a Life Time Achievement Award for
excellence and bravery from the Marine Corps for his work as a war
photographer. He was a Marine photographer in World War II. He was one of
the first photographers on the scene in the Korean War. He hoped that one day
his pictures would be viewed as photographic headstones for the men who fought
and died in Korea. His book "This is War!" collected his Korean War photos.
Many of the pictures were initially published in Life magazine. The photos
describe what was is like by focusing on the expressions on men's faces or, as
Duncan put it, the look in a man's eyes who was taking his last puff on
perhaps his last cigarette before he grabs his rifle and attacks an enemy
position. I spoke with Duncan in 1990.

I want to mention some of the photographs that I found just especially moving.
One is a sequence of portraits of a Marine who, in the first portrait there's
a...

Mr. DAVID DOUGLAS DUNCAN: Leonard Hayworth. He's in the foreground and
those Marines in the background, the four shots on the double page?

GROSS: Yeah. Actually, that's it.

Mr. DUNCAN: That's right. Well, that's, if you look at it very closely,
you'll see something quite surprising, that the only movement in that picture
is in the change of expression in Leonard Hayworth's face, the guy in front.
He's a Marine who had come back from the front line, which was about 25 feet
away actually, trying to get more ammunition or a replacement for some of the
men who had been wounded, a couple had been killed. There was nothing. It
was raining. Nothing. And he cracked up, really cracked up. And the old
Marine saw him, he'd been wounded, he sat there and forgot his own wounds and
talked Leonard out of it. He came from a lovely place called Deerpath,
Indiana, can you imagine? He was killed about three weeks later.

GROSS: Another photograph I want to ask you about, this is toward the end of
the book and a sequence of photographs of the Marines on retreat. There's a
soldier...

Mr. DUNCAN: No, no. Wait a minute, wait a minute. They didn't retreat.
Coming down from the reservoir, that's on the border of Manchuria and North
Korea, and when you retreat you retreat from an enemy force of greater
strength which is in front of you. You put them behind you and take off. It
happened to be that there were more Chinese communist troopers in front of
those Marines than behind them. They fought their way through. They didn't
retreat. They fought their way out.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, the photograph I'm thinking of there's a soldier sitting
on the hood of a jeep, there's a rifle on his lap. And the expression on his
face, I think, will always stay with me. It looks like, well, it kind of
looks like he looked into hell and it left him numb.

Mr. DUNCAN: He was wounded and frozen and riding because that was the only
way to get him out. If you come out ambulatory, you've tied up a couple of
guys. But at least there was still a jeep running, and so he got on the hood
of a jeep. But if you look to your left, the viewer's left in that
photograph, you see another Marine who was ambulatory, also wounded, and
looking at him with sheer hatred. Can you imagine hating your friend? It's
an animal factor of survival. It just happens, and the photograph I think
nailed it down pretty well. But five minutes later it might have changed
completely, but that moment the freezing walking Marine would have liked a
lift on the hood of the jeep carrying out his friend.

GROSS: How cold was it?

Mr. DUNCAN: In the terms of a thermometer, it was about 40 below zero
Fahrenheit. And in those days, that was 40 years ago, we didn't know about
chill factor, but the wind was coming out of Siberia at about anywhere from 25
to 50 miles an hour. So I would imagine the chill factor was somewhere
between 60 and 80 degrees below. You know, sometimes it comes back at you,
and you think about it, because the guys freezing, below zero Fahrenheit.
It's really strange. It comes back and grabs you by the throat, and I'm
sitting here fiddling with a paper clip on top of your table in the studio,
and I think about those guys of another life.

GROSS: Have people ever told you that they recognize a husband or a
boyfriend...

Mr. DUNCAN: I'm still getting letters 40 years later from one of those
freezing Marines and everybody from Army, Navy, Air Force, other Marines. I
don't know exactly who he was. I know where he was on the day it was taken
the 9th of December, just at dawn just below the Yellow River. I know what
the temperature was. I know many things. I didn't ask his name. But I get,
even I was on a program a few days ago and a call came in from Florida, and
the woman was sure it was her husband. Except I was sure that it wasn't
because the lady calling identified her husband having been in the Army. This
guy was a Marine. It's impossible except for the rare case where it doesn't
seem to be injurious, I don't tell them. I let them think it's their husband
or brother, father. In fact, I got a call from a lady, I live in the south of
France, I got a call a couple of months ago at midnight. She didn't realize
how late it was where I live, and she was identifying her father, who was a
Marine, and he'd gotten a Medal of Honor, the highest declaration given by the
military. But he was killed three days before I made that picture, so I told
her so she would never be shattered when she discovered that I'd been kidding
her, so I didn't deceive her. The others I'm not deceiving, I just don't
disillusion them.

GROSS: What are the secrets of shooting in combat without becoming a target
yourself?

Mr. DUNCAN: Well, you are a target of course. It's illogical, you know, I'm
just lucky. In fact, there's a shot there of Ike Fenton--Ike's a guy with a,
somebody said a thousand-yard stare looking over my shoulder. Ike Fenton, the
captain of the assault company up in the beginning. I tied up with him about
a month later during that attack into Seoul, the second chapter of the book.
And it had been a terrible night and very cold, strange enough for September.
And I thought shallow foxhole, a lot of stuff coming in, our stuff being that
is rifle fire, a little bit of machine gun, and mortar so you try to stay as
low as you can, very low profile. If you roll over, it--you might catch it in
your shoulder. There's that shallow foxhole. And it slacked off at dawn, a
beautiful dawn, cold. And I stood up to stretch, and I thought I'd pulled a
chest muscle, and Ike started to laugh and reached down and held out his hand.
I held out my fist, and he handed a .30 caliber machine gun slug just hit me
in the chest. At the end of its flight, my dear, as far as it would go, and
it hit me, and it dropped without even denting me, nothing. So you see
sometimes you're hit, and it doesn't make any difference. Other times you get
hit, and it does make a big difference. But I've been lucky. I've just been
nicked slightly. I've never really been hit. But the other guys around me,
sure.

GROSS: Do you see these photographs as anti-war photos?

Mr. DUNCAN: You better believe it. That's why I so object to politicians
calling these guys boys. Can you imagine? Some boys.

GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. DUNCAN: Thank you for your hospitality.

GROSS: David Douglas Duncan recorded in 1990. His photos are now archived at
the University of Texas at Austin. To link to an online exhibition of his
work, go to our Web site at freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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