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To 'Hell And Back,' With A Marine And His Wife

Originally published on October 18, 2011 9:28 am

One Marine had been killed. A dozen had collapsed from heat exhaustion. It was 130 degrees, and their supplies of water were running out.

"That's when Sgt. Nathan Harris handed me his last bottle of water," says Danfung Dennis, a filmmaker and acclaimed combat photographer. "We first met on Machine Gun Hill."

With two deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt, the 25-year-old Harris was "an exceptional leader," Dennis tells NPR's Renee Montagne — the Marine chosen to be first off the chopper in an assault on a Taliban stronghold that would become a brutal firefight. "'He was this courageous platoon leader who was at the tip of the spear of this entire battle."

Six months later, watching a contingent of returning Marines step off the buses in North Carolina for a reunion with their families, Dennis realized that Nathan Harris wasn't among them. He'd been hit two weeks before — shot in the hip by a Taliban machine-gun round. He had nearly bled to death.

"He was in extreme pain and distress," Dennis recalls, "and feeling very guilty for having left his men behind."

Harris' agonized struggle to transition back into a society that didn't much understand what he'd been through became the focus of Dennis' documentary Hell and Back Again, which won a World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Daily stresses that get under everyone's skin — paying bills, finding parking at a Walmart — proved overwhelmingly distracting for Harris.

"It makes me want to lose my frickin' mind," Harris says in the film. "It's just like, 'My God, I would rather be in Afghanistan, where it's simple.' When you come home, it's almost more difficult than doing that stuff."

Simple? In a sense.

"Back in Afghanistan, it's simply walking, fighting and do it again the next day," Dennis explains.

But not uncomplicated. Embedded with Harris' unit, Dennis went through multiple combat engagements with the Marines. His camera captures the chaos of battle up close — dirt sprays the lens when a rocket-propelled grenade detonates nearby, and the day darkens when an IED explodes, enveloping the unit in dust and uncertainty.

"When you're exposed to that much violence and that much trauma, it's a very natural response for your body to go into this emotionally numb state," Dennis says. "You have to. When you get home, that's when it comes back — and so I'm trying to blend these two worlds, Afghanistan and North Carolina, and seamlessly create one experience to show that the fighting doesn't stop when you get back."

To create that "one experience," Dennis overlays footage from Harris' daily life in North Carolina with audio from battles the two went through in southern Afghanistan. In one scene, Harris' wife orders corn dogs and fries from a fast-food drive-through, as the roar of jet engines, the beat of helicopter blades and the chap-chap-chap of machine-gun fire slowly drowns her out.

Those scenes aren't literal depictions of what was going through Harris' mind in those moments. They're more impressionistic.

"Sgt. Harris and I never sat down and looked at the footage I was shooting," Dennis says. "He just had to trust me to tell his story. And so I think I brought in a lot of my own personal experiences of what it was like to come home from war — of how that war stays with you, the things that you've seen stay with you. And they change you."

Much of the film is literal, though — a chronicle of how the war changed Harris. In a pharmacy, picking up her husband's powerful medications, Ashley Harris speaks of the stranger she sometimes sees behind Nathan's eyes.

"He gets so mad, he turns into a different person almost. ... It's like I don't even see my husband; it was almost like someone had taken over him," she says.

Wounded though he may be, Nathan Harris is still an active-duty Marine, part of the Wounded Warriors Regiment at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Dennis says he wants to go back to the battle — "he wants to be a leader of men."

It's unlikely to happen, and Harris eventually realizes that. "So Ashley, in one way, is relieved," Dennis says. "But at the same time, I think they both wonder, what is he going to do? Nothing really seems to have the same sort of purpose or meaning once you've been over there. And so he's sort of in this transition still, two years later, [discovering] what it means to come home from war where there isn't a clear spot for you to land."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Ten years after the fighting in Afghanistan began, the clear signs of victory everyone looks for in a war often aren't there. And for those fighting in areas controlled by the Taliban, it's often not clear who the enemy is. There was a moment of promise, back in 2009, when the U.S. began a surge, putting 30,000 more boots on the ground.

A new documentary begins, as a company of U.S. Marines prepares to take on a Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province. Here, their commanding officer calls them to battle.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HELL AND BACK AGAIN")

LIEUTENANT COLONEL CHRISTIAN CABANISS: Forty or 50 years from now, when you're sitting around with your grandchildren, they're going to ask you what you did in the summer of decision in Afghanistan. The world will remember what you do here this summer.

MONTAGNE: Photojournalist Danfung Dennis was embedded with those Marines. He was shooting footage and not exactly sure what he'd do with it. Then he met a man who would become the subject of his new film, "Hell and Back Again."

DANFUNG DENNIS: Shortly after landing, this company of about 130 men was surrounded by insurgents and attacked. And the fighting focused around this pile of rubble that later became known as Machine Gun Hill. And the fighting was extremely heavy. In my years of working there, this was one of the most dire situations I'd been in. After the first day, one Marine had been killed, a dozen had collapsed from heat exhaustion, and nearly all of us had run out of water in this 130 degree heat.

And that's when Sergeant Nathan Harris handed me his last bottle of water and we first met on Machine Gun Hill.

MONTAGNE: Who was he? Who were you then talking to there?

DENNIS: He was an exceptional leader. He'd already done to deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He had been chosen to be the very first Marine to step off the helicopters. And he was this courageous platoon leader that was at the very tip of the spear of this entire battle. And I didn't know the film would be about him or even about coming home from war until about six months later.

When I was back in North Carolina waiting for the Marines to come home, the Marines step off the buses and reunite with their families, and there's crying and cheering. And I soon realized that Nathan didn't step off the bus. And so I asked the guys where is Sergeant Harris? And they said he was hit two weeks ago.

MONTAGNE: That was just two days before his deployment was done. Sergeant Nathan Harris had nearly bled to death after a Taliban bullet ripped through his hip and tore up his leg. That's led to a long and excruciating, painful rehabilitation. And when Danfung Dennis reached Harris, the Marine invited the filmmaker to his home in North Carolina.

DENNIS: And there he introduced me to his wife, Ashley, his friends and family as this guy was over there with me. And I essentially lived with Nathan and Ashley during his recovery and his transition back into a society that had very little understanding of what he had just been through.

MONTAGNE: Let's play a clip of Sergeant Harris where you really get a strong sense of his alienation.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HELL AND BACK AGAIN")

SERGEANT NATHAN HARRIS: Look at this. There's not a single parking spot in this gigantic parking spot or any restaurant. Look at Chuck E. Cheese, unbelievable. So you come home and you're constantly stressed out because of all this crap. It makes you want to lose my frickin' mind. Just like, my God, I would rather be in Afghanistan where it's simple. And then when you come home it was more difficult than doing that stuff.

MONTAGNE: What was going on there?

DENNIS: In that scene, he's simply trying to find a parking spot at Wal-Mart. And it's these normal civilian daily things - bills, relationships, work, - they're very disorienting to come back to. Back in Afghanistan, it's simply walking, fighting and do it again the next day. And you get quite used to that, even as difficult as it is.

MONTAGNE: One thing you do in this film, to communicate what is going on in Sergeant Harris's a mind, here and there, is that you sometimes overly the sounds of war in Afghanistan when Sergeant Harris is sitting in a car back home in North Carolina. In fact, let's listen to one of those moments in the film where he and his wife, Ashley, are at a fast food drive-through. She's ordering food.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HELL AND BACK AGAIN")

ASHLEY HARRIS: A corndog with fries and a small Dr Pepper...

HARRIS: Hold on.

HARRIS: And a quarter...

HARRIS: Hey, Will Abrader, where's Spring?

(SOUNDBITE OF A HELICOPTER)

HARRIS: Sergeant Spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

HARRIS: With hush puppies and fries.

HARRIS: Where's Spring.

HARRIS: With a water and add a fancy vanilla shake to that.

MONTAGNE: How did you know what was going through his mind in those moments?

DENNIS: Sergeant Harris and I never actually sat down and looked at the footage I was shooting. He just had to trust me to tell his story. And so I think I brought in a lot of my own personal experiences of how that war stays with you, the things that you've seen, they stay with you. And they change you.

MONTAGNE: I should just say here, when you see the film you see that you, the filmmaker, are right there. You're running when they're running. Dirt is hitting you when a rocket-propelled grenade hits the ground, obviously so close it hits the lens. So you are in these fights.

DENNIS: I went through everything they went through. And so I think it because I had been through that with Sergeant Harris, he was willing to show me something that I think most people don't see - that very personal battle of coming home. And when you're exposed to that much violence and that much trauma, it's a very natural response for your body to go into this emotionally numb state. You have to.

And so I'm trying to blend these two worlds, Afghanistan and North Carolina, to show the fighting doesn't stop when they get back.

MONTAGNE: And he wants to go back.

DENNIS: Yeah, Nathan is still an active duty Marine in the Wounded Warriors Regiment. And the only thing he wants to do is go back. He wants to be a leader of men. But he eventually realizes that he's not going to be able to do that. And so Ashley, I think, in one way is relieved. But at the same time, I think they both wonder, well, what is he going to do?

Nothing really seems to have the same sort of purpose or meaning once you've been over there. And so he's sort of in this transition still, two years later, of what it means to come home from war, where there isn't a clear spot for you to land.

MONTAGNE: Danfung Dennis, thank you very much for joining us.

DENNIS: Thank you so much for having me.

MONTAGNE: The documentary, "Hell and Back Again," is in theaters now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR news. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.