To 'Hell And Back,' With A Marine And His Wife Sgt. Nathan Harris was part of the unit where photographer-filmmaker Danfung Dennis was embedded in Afghanistan. After Harris was wounded in a firefight, Dennis realized the story of his recovery was inextricable from the story of his war.
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To 'Hell And Back,' With A Marine And His Wife

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

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

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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.


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.


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.




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.


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


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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