‘Off to War’ Puts Viewer in Trenches

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Universtiy of North Carolina Charlotte

“Off to War,” a remarkable series for the Discovery Times Channel, tracks a group of Arkansas reservists through their 18-month tour of duty in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.

It shows in agonizing and touching detail how their unexpected military service turned their families’ lives upside down.

Craig and Brent Renaud, brothers and filmmakers from Little Rock, Ark., collaborated on the series, which began airing last weekend. The idea began with a chance encounter at a wedding.

In the summer of 2003, after the president had declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq, retired National Guard Lt. Col. Neil Bryant pulled Craig Renaud aside. He knew the Renauds had filmed in Iraq during the war, and he had a proposal for them.

“Do you know that 3,000 soldiers are about to be deployed from Arkansas?” Bryant asked. “A good buddy of mine is going to be in charge of the entire brigade. Are you interested in filming this?”

It was a proposal borne out of trust, Bryant’s son and Craig Renaud had played soccer since they were young boys. Trust would prove to be the constant through the two years the brothers spent on “Off to War.” By earning it from the soldiers and their families, they were allowed to film moments of almost unbearable intimacy, as family members learned that loved ones had been wounded, while other families broke under the strain while cameras rolled.

In October 2003, as the 39th Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard began its six-month training in Little Rock, the Renauds, who are based in New York City, were on the scene, making acquaintances.

“We spent a lot of time getting to know the families,” Brent Renaud said. “We had to make sure we had the families on board.”

They selected a compelling handful of soldiers and their families to film. One of the first we meet is Sgt. Ron Jackson, a turkey farmer forced to turn over a staggering list of chores to his wife and father while he and his stepson, 19-year-old Tommy Erp, go to war.

Friends of the Renauds, or friends of friends, turned up among the 2,800 reservists deployed. They made further introductions at the armory. In Arkansas “everyone knows each other,” Brent Renaud said. “It happened pretty organically.”

All the subjects in the series are from Clarksville, Ark., population 7,000. More than 125 members of the 39th Brigade came from Clarksville, where for half a century the Guard was made up of weekend warriors, most with no military experience.

Discovery Times aired the first hour of “Off to War” in 2004. A few months later it aired another hour, then a third. Since the story was still unfolding, the Renauds were reluctant to commit to further episodes. Vivien Schiller, who runs the network, said most producers want more hours of their work aired than she does, but this was the reverse.

In all, they made 10 hours of “Off to War,” which airs at 10 p.m., Saturdays through November.

“If you were just covering soldiers in the war, it would be an interesting documentary,” Craig Renaud said in an interview this summer. “But viewers don’t identify with Iraq so much as the families in Arkansas. The plight of the families really tugs at your heartstrings.”

That becomes clear just days after the reservists arrive in Iraq, when a rocket attack grievously wounds one of them.

But much of the drama of “Off to War” is more mundane: suffering in 115-degree heat, trying to communicate in Arabic with the locals and dealing with a way of life and political culture that these Arkansans find bewildering and absurd.

“I don’t think these people appreciate what we’re doing,” says Spc. Matt Hertlein, still a teenager as he begins his tour of duty. “I think all half of them wanna do is watch us die.”

Sgt. David Short agrees. “These people would cut your throat without a second thought.”

But other soldiers, like Lt. Brian Mason, defend the mission.

“Saddam hurt these people for 30 years,” he says. “We need to help these people and see it through.”

It’s a refrain heard throughout “Off to War”: the almost mechanical recitation of democratic platitudes by some reservists, paired with the cynical rebuttals of others. And really, who can say which point of view will ultimately be proven right, or mostly right? Not the directors.

“We said from the beginning it was going to be nonpolitical,” Brent Renaud said. “We never asked our characters what their political views were. By the end we certainly know.”

Unlike the fictionalized stories currently seen on the FX war drama “Over There,” the people and situations in “Off to War” are real. The realism is enhanced by the Renauds’ preferred style of documentary-making, with no narrations, explanations or music (other than a couple of bars of John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” just before the commercials).

But thanks to the program’s simple, straightforward editing, it becomes clear how each reservist’s time away is affecting loved ones back in Arkansas. No family shown on “Off to War” is more visibly strained than that of Sgt. Joe Betts, a soft-spoken minister of a small Baptist church.

He got married to Amy, a woman with children from a previous marriage, not long before his call-up. While he is away, their relationship sours, though they make continuous efforts to save it in long-distance phone calls. According to Craig Renaud, 20 percent of the marriages in the 39th Brigade ended during the Iraq mission.

The Renauds platooned so that they could cover the war from both points of view. One brother stayed in Arkansas and was in contact with the families, while the other was in Iraq with the reservists. Every three months the brothers traded places. This allowed them, for instance, to cover both ends of an emotional phone call between the Bettses that airs in a future episode.

“This is a unique situation that will never happen again,” Brent Renaud said. “Part-time soldiers who never expected to be deployed. I don’t think you’ll ever have this kind of bombshell dropped on soldiers and their families (again), that they’re shipping out in six months.”