Thursday, May 5, 2011

God and War

The breaking news of Tim Hetherington's death, left the worst sunken feeling in my gut, one that baffled me because I had no idea that my own body would let me know how I felt about this great war Photojournalist/documentarian's death. Sometimes, we are unaware of how something impacts us until our body lets us know. From the moment I found out until just about an hour ago- I had finally stopped crying. I lay in bed most of the day feeling so emotionally ill. Restrepo was an important film and the impact of Tim's death hit me because of my personal connection to the subject. I had done my best until this point to avoid or minimize discussing my direct connection to war, our military forces, and or my own personal feelings. Not just for the need to pack for Syracuse and get ready for S.I. Newhouse, Graduate school for film. But specifically because of politics, the sensitivity of the subject and film community. I have always tried to be careful, always tried hard to never bring up the fact that I am married not just to a soldier, but to an Army Officer- especially being a filmmaker. Most people look at me confused because the two careers seem to be extremely different. Polar opposites even. Most people automatically assume that they know my political and religious views once they find out that my husband is an Officer. They would assume that I am a conservative Christian, a right-winged Republican, a pro-war Army wife and a die hard Fox fan.

What people do not realize is that there are levels of these things, variations and degrees so that not all individuals fit specifically such stereotypes. If anything, I consider myself to be more or less independent with regards to my political beliefs and having grown up Christian, I tend to shy away now from fundamentalism and organized religion where there is a pressure to attend, join or congregate with only a group of individuals within a specific building. So, my choice is to worship God my own way and what I have found most effective is attempting to set an example in the work that I do as an artist, writer, filmmaker and fellow creative. It is in the subjects I choose to film, the reasons I pick them, and my sincere love and compassion towards them. I am not a war-hungry individual or one that lives a typical military lifestyle, an obedient Army Wife that just follows her husband around and has babies and lives on post. I change my hair color and style a lot. I cut 10 inches of hair recently and died it purple and black, just because. I have 2 dogs at 34 and my husband and I do not have kids yet and this is by choice. We do not live on post and he allows me the freedom to live where ever I want and he respects the fact that film is important to me and respects my having to travel to NYC or LA and other places to film stuff. If it was not for David's (husband) and his successful "Army" career as a Commander in the Army, I would not have the film equipment, the time, and the freedom to film as much as I do.David is the reason I am able to film anything at all and has been my biggest fan and supporter. Without my experiences with him, I would never have written my book Scars of Valor. A book still in the revision process and I hope to get published. It is based upon a true story- our lives, from the view point of the wife. It chronicles two wars and how it effects lives, families, and describes the sacrifices that military families have to endure, most of which no one has ANY idea the challenges and the real sacrifices military families endure on a regular basis. Yet, my husband's Army Career does not have to interfere with my dreams. He does not allow it and neither do I. We support each other and our careers. He is a Republican and I am more independent. He watches Fox and I watch it with him too some of the times. I have also watched NBC, ABC, CBS, and BBC to get an objective view, I tend to flip through all of them and also I rely on honest filmmakers such as Sebastian Junger and the work of Tim Hetherington to get the best objective reality of what is taking place in the world. Now, being Korean/Puerto Rican, and female filmmaker and writer- I am unique in that I have a diverse pool of friends. I have extreme liberal friends, extremely conservative friends. I have Christian friends who go to church regularly and constantly send me bible verses, they are the same that disagree with gay marriage and etc. But for me, I do not fit in one box. Like my little film company American Mutt Studios. That is what I am. I am an American Mutt, a mixture of 2 ethnic cultures and even more cultural diversification surrounding me because I have traveled so much, having grown up a military brat and now a military wife.

Today's soldiers are misjudged, misunderstood and rarely have an objective party in the media or film community to expose these misjudgments. Here, I address a couple of examples. First, one main component that is often missed in media today are our women who serve in our military. Where are their stories and how often are they covered? Rarely. Their stories are often glazed over, missed, and never recorded or reported. They are incredibly strong female soldiers who have to deploy (2 or 3 times or more just like our men) despite their children at home and they sacrifice so much to serve our country. Second, most male soldiers are still depicted as crazy dudes with PTSD, shaved heads, a beer in one hand and screaming at their wives. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a real disorder, one that most, if not all individuals returning from war go through. One who serves in traumatic situations such as having to endure war, does not return unaffected by what they experienced. Whether you are a soldier in the military or a reporter, anyone working and experiencing severe chaos and extreme events, are bound to be effected by such events in some way.

Now, the level of each individual's trauma, how they cope, and if they have to receive medical treatment is unique on a per case by case basis. Each person is different, each unique and everyone's level of coping and their ability to cope varies. So, while yes there are soldiers that return from war and break the law or act dangerously (being a harm to others and themselves). There are also soldiers that reach out to family loved ones or they cope privately in their own way. Most generic stereotypes are just that, they are not the majority or overall every day reality for most military families coping with returning Veterans.

Many Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans are not ashamed to seek out the help they need. Some do deal with it by internalizing all of it, tucking it away in their hearts, they silently never speak of the pain or the horrors they experienced and they are able to function despite their repressed emotions. Another false overused stereotype of our military men and women serving today is the frequent depiction of poverty and that individuals go in to the military because they could not afford to go to school, they do not have money and do not know what else to do with their lives. Wrong. Today's military men and women are very different. They have their Bachelor's, Master's and even Doctorate degrees. They are scientists, logisticians, lawyers, business men, musicians, artists, and more. Our military men and women are more than just a uniform. They wear their uniform as a part of their job, but they are more than just their job.

No one understood the misconception of our military or experienced the war and the soldiers better than Tim Hetherington. This is why the death of Tim Hetherington was so sad and such a tragedy. It hit me so hard, that I cried as if I had lost my own husband. I cried as if I had known him my entire life. Tim connected not to the "soldier," but to the human inside, beyond the military gear. Tim was known for his bravery and most recent work with Sebastian Junger as co-director and photojournalist of the amazing documentary Restrepo. What was amazing was that no one understands just how brave he was for having lived with our soldiers at Out Post Restrepo in Afghanistan. Since the film, OP Restrepo has been closed and if most poeple do not know- out posts in Afghanistan or Iraq are usually named after fallen soldiers. If you watch interviews with Tim Hetherington, you can see a rare quality that most filmmakers, most famous people, most Christians- do not have and most humans LACK. He had a reflection of true humility. He was able to be great and yet so humble. He was able to bond with the soldiers at OP Restrepo and live with them for an entire year. At one point he had broken his leg filming Restrepo, it was either jump and break his leg or get killed. He jumped and still remained filming with his broken leg. He wanted to get to the heart of the men that serve our country. He wanted to bring to the world something authentic and unbiased and realistic. He wanted to bring a human story to his audience because truthfulness and authenticity mattered to him as a filmmaker and photojournalist.

And as most people that truly knew him, stated that Tim was the real deal. I did not have the honor of knowing him or meeting him personally, but following him and Sebastian Junger's work, I watched enough interviews on Tim and knew his work intimately enough because he had that effect on me. He forced his audience to be intimate with him, he was unguarded in that way and honest. Watching his interviews again and again, I could not help but see so much of my husband in Tim. David is someone who runs 7 miles in the rain, who trains physically to endure situations no human should ever have to experience. Someone who will be sent again to Afghanistan- this will be our third deployment. Someone who wears a silver arm band with our friend Tyler's name on it- someone that we both knew that died last year in Afghanistan. David takes off that arm band only to take a shower. He wears it everywhere, and just as I hold the memories of those that have fallen in my heart. I was asked by close friends recently and often- "How do you do it?" or "Why do you do it? Why does HE do it?" If not for the Tim Hetherington's and David's of the world- then who? Which photojournalists should we send to Japan, to Egypt, to Iraq, to Afghanistan? When our Country was attacked on 9/11- which soldiers should we send? Who should go out there? IF our country was attacked TODAY- who should we send? Whose husband? Whose brother? Whose father? I prefer for most religious individuals and non-religious individuals to show with their actions that they care for our soldiers, that they care for the faces fighting for our Country rather than express generic statements of prayer.

The word Prayer I find is as overused as the word Love. It is so overused that it is often thrown out there, from just about anyone. I suppose even people of no religious preference can pray, this is not what I mean. What I mean specifically is the laziness of most humans today that lack the real dedication and the discipline it takes to follow through with statements they make. It ought to not be simply tossed about without completely understanding the weight of its meaning by individuals of such religious or otherwise non-religious backgrounds misusing the word. Most of the time, the first reaction when people find out about deployments, war, and my husband- their immediate reaction is pity. It is a reaction that makes me ill because people do not understand. Extreme religious or political people and when I say extreme- I mean just this. Extremists I avoid, those that endlessly debate topics of religion, politics, the rights of gay marriage and on and on. Regardless of which side you are on, I prefer to remain independent and have never taken a side on the above. But, what I do find most disturbing is plastic sincerity of any kind, superficial kindness and overused or misused terms or phrases that are not delivered in its authentic states and more used as a means to fill up space in a conversation. Phrases such as "How are you?" and "Love ya!" and "Praying for the soldiers!" and "Will call you, we'll do lunch some time."

There are people that say such things and they mean what they say. But, then there are those that almost always use generic statements without the knowledge of its true meaning or the awareness that now they have just committed in words a sort of promise to another person they are speaking to. I have thought deeply on my own words, went back and revised this article simply because I understand the weight of words and I am sensitive to those that request for me to revise and rethink my words. Words are very powerful, social media and the internet is a strong tool to be used carefully. So, as I rethink what I say here, I equally request my readers and audience to really think deeply when asking questions and to understand the right question to ask. When I say that my husband is a Captain, a Commander of the United States Army- and yes he will be sent out again to Afghanistan. It is wise to think about the question you are asking because most people will ask me why? Why was Tim Hetherington in Libya? Why did he risk his life numerous times? Why do most photojournalist do this? Why do reporters risk their lives? Why do fire fighters? Why did Tim break his leg while filming Restrepo and still continued filming, then went off to go to Libya? Was it that he wanted to help Sebastian Junger deliver to the world one of the best and most accurate and objective documentaries on war ever done? Was having integrity in his work as a filmmaker and photojournalist that important to him?

Why does Anderson Cooper risk his life and reporters like him? Why did Tim do it? Why does my husband David do what he does? 3 deployments with a degree? A smart guy who is planning on getting is Master's degree soon. Is he an idiot? Are they all just STUPID? So, as most people ask and continue to over and over and over. WHY??? Maybe in the most ideal world, we could all say what we mean and do what we say. In the most ideal world we could all believe what ever we feel about someone else, their religion or politics and no one would get offended. In the most ideal world we would not have to go to war and in this perfect Utopian world, Fox news and NBC would get along and everyone would never feel sorrow or ever cry or there would never be any drama and REAL LIFE and there would not be any heartache or suffering. But readers, here is the truth.

Drama in life is inevitable. WARS, they exist and they always have and the world we live in will never stop fighting. Conflicts exist and it always will. I hate to say it. It does not make it right and I am not saying I agree with war or that I like drama. I want life to be easy too. Unfortunately, sometimes these real dramas in our lives need to be experienced, reported, announced, and brought to the world in order for us to not ignore national or international issues. I am not an advocate of lying in our bed crying all day- but we need to as a part of the human race that feels this tragedy in our gut and thus care. We ought to care more about other people and what is going, not just in the United States but around the World. It is unfortunate for those that say "I don't want any drama in my life." Then fine- good luck trying to find your Utopian society, because it does not exist. You can minimize drama in your life and if you want to avoid people like me or Tim who aren't afraid of scary situations and drama, then maybe avoiding ruffling the water in your life will work for you. People learn from crisis. People grow and gain character through tragedy. People overcome circumstances they never thought they could and muster strength they did not know they had and all through the dramatic elements in their lives. Some people prefer humorous movies, comedies, jokes, lighter moments, and absolutely fluid waters without the ruffles or waves or conflicts. There is nothing wrong with wanting a smooth existence. There is nothing wrong with wanting to live a life what is full of fun vacations. But, in my reality and in most- vacations do not last a lifetime.

I am more in favor of a real display of kindness, generosity, love, respect, and genuine concern for others- even if it effects your own peaceful world. God or the "Jesus" type of humility and reflection are rare to find today. But, you can see this reflection in humble individuals who have done great things and rarely need to speak of them or announce them. I am not one that has mastered such reflection, but my husband is one such individual with a humble and quiet disposition. He is someone willing to lay down his life for his country and strangers every single day and yet most of us in the military are often misunderstood. Humility and God reflects in men like Tim Hetherington who are necessary in order to bring us real and true documentaries that are honest. Not twisted media or films that are anti-war or pro-war or pro-Christian or anti-religion. Just men who are humble and honest and when they die- we should all be in tears. It is a tragedy that some of our best photojournalists today have died along with our soldiers who risk their lives every day.

I write this today out of sincerity, honesty, and sheer frustration over some of the people in my life that claim to believe in the power of a God they have not met or still yet understand. God, the spirit of God is the very act of unselfish and raw love. It is the kind of love for human kind stripped of self. It is being there for someone through times of pain or yes shall I dare say, drama. Yes, I have not spoken about this or brought it up for some time for this very reason. Today, media and war is a necessary marriage because someone needs to report what is happening around the world. Today, media and those in film today like Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington and the few that are committed to being honest filmmakers. They are committed to reporting and can be amazing documentary filmmakers and maybe never have gone to church or an organized religion. But, they would be the first one to die for what they believe in, for truth and to report history so that others can understand humanity in an inhumane world. So, when I think of great photojournalists, I often reflect on our soldiers, and media today. Tim has given us hope, that you can still be a filmmaker and be honest and be humble and still care more for others than yourself. So, as an Army wife and one whose husband will be deploying a third time I prefer no words of prayer for our soldiers, unless you understand the meaning and the weight of those words.

That prayer, like love, are not words to be used flippantly. Love and Prayer are words that ought to be taken seriously, their weight measured by their meaning and make up. These are not words one should not use to fill up a conversation. When you say you are praying for our soldiers, that is a promise. Prayer is a commitment, like love. So, I prefer no words of love or admiration or assumption that one understands what war is like or what soldiers go through or death feels like unless one has truly placed oneself in that other person's shoes. Pity is not necessary for those who sacrifice willingly and know the consequences and dangers and love what they are doing and understand why they are doing what they do. Sorrow is good, a deep sense of loss and understanding and empathy is good. However, there are the Tim Hetherington's of this world that need to exist. There are soldiers that need to be soldiers in order to protect our country. If we all backed out of danger, there would be no documented history, no photojournalists, no news and our country- well, without men and women to decide to defend our country. We would not have one. It is better to be the kind of friend that can be strong enough to weather both the good and bad times of someone's life and not leave or become disheartened when you learn that people in your life are flawed. People are not perfect. It is better to be that kind of friend that can sit down with someone and make them laugh, watch a movie and see that despite circumstances. There are many things that can be achieved regardless of where a person is at in life great things can be achieved so as long as you understand what real love for others mean.

Tim Hetherington understood real love. He had that kind of love and compassion for all of his subjects that he captured behind his lens. They were not just faces to him, they were human beings. He connected with those soldiers when filming Restrepo and as Sebastian Junger stated "Couldn't finish his speech- because he started to cry." Tim cried and wept for those that he connected with- that is more than art, it is more than simple media and filming people to make money or have fame. It is unique to be an artist, a filmmaker and be as humble and caring as Tim. I strive to be like him. If I can strive to be as great and humble as he was and yet make amazing films. It would be the perfect balance. Sometimes we want to ask why people do dangerous things? Sometimes we want to know why there is conflict or violence or natural disasters or things we can or can not control? But, I think the better question is not in the why of such things. It is in the "Who?" Who will go? Without the Tim Hetherington's and fire fighters and soldiers, and reporters who do dangerous jobs, our world could and would not exist.

Sonyo Lee Ferstl

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