Fighting for Life
A Review
May 2009

by Ron Steinman

"Fighting for Life" will have its U.S. television premiere in May when it starts airing on PBS affiliates via Oregon Public Broadcasting and NETA. It will also be available as a DVD on Memorial Day, May 25, 2009.

The problem the public has had with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and still has, is that there is almost no coverage of the war. By that, I mean we rarely see any combat – what war is, after all, about. We see soldiers patrolling the streets. We see the terrible effects of roadside bombings, known in the news business as "aftermath." We mostly see the results of war, of troops under pressure but rarely under fire. Though there is little combat, importantly we see the wounded, the dying and the dead. Blame this lack of coverage on war weariness on the part of the public or smaller news budgets as the economy continues to struggle. Take your pick or both. Without having reporters witness the truth of war, we cannot really make a judgment about war and the horror it inflicts on everyone.

© "Fighting for Life"
Director Terry Sanders and cameraman Erik Daarstad shooting "Fighting for Life," their documentary on combat medical care, which will air on PBS in May. A DVD of the film will be available on Memorial Day 2009.
In the Iraq War, one of the oddities has been the large number of documentaries produced by almost anyone with a video camera. Equipment is easy to use, small and generally effective. On the ground in the war zone, point a camera in any direction and the result might be an exotic scene or two. However, many of these films appear once, if at all, and then go to the graveyard of documentary films, buried forever. Filmmakers' good intentions go to waste because broadcast and cable television refuses to show many of the films, and almost no theaters offer their screens to them.

Some of the best of these films are about the care and treatment wounded soldiers receive in the war zone. Taking care of the wounded is something the American military does better than anyone else in the world. Each war that America fights results in faster and more efficient care for the wounded. Without seeming to be cynical, advances in medical science may be the only good result of modern warfare.

This exemplary care and the cutting edge medicine our wounded troops receive is brilliantly and carefully documented in director Terry Sanders' 89-minute film "Fighting for Life." Shot over two years with HD cameras, Sanders takes his cameras into a world rarely seen, that of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Services, often referred to as the "West Point of military medicine." Founded in 1972, called USU, it is where young men and women in uniform train to become career military physicians. They are the doctors who serve our troops, mostly in a combat zone. In this film, that is Iraq. The superb education these physicians receive is unique. Their training makes it possible for more wounded to survive in war today than in the past. The motto of the school is "Learning to Care for Those in Harm's Way." It is worth noting that there are frequent threats to close the school because of budget constraints. That should never happen. If it does, America will lose an important asset. USU is where the military trains physicians the United States desperately needs in war, especially now with fighting on at least two fronts.

© "Fighting for Life"
Helicopter Run
The work these highly trained physicians do is what comes though unmistakably in Terry Sanders' intense, detailed, but not frenetic film. His cameras linger on the training at OSU, and the results of the war. We witness the wounded in their first stages of recovery and then through what for many is a long and difficult rehabilitation, especially for those who have lost a limb. He skillfully juxtaposes the thoughts and actions of the doctors, nurses, and their patients. Doing that allows us to learn about both the healers and the wounded. Sanders does not pander to or gloss over the problems the wounded have as they struggle to get better and return to a life that will certainly be difficult. As one intensive care nurse says, tears in her eyes, and I paraphrase, it is great to be in on a lifesaving mission.

© "Fighting for Life"
Army Specialist Crystal Davis
Many of the wounded are teenagers and not much beyond. When first injured, their initial care is in a hospital in Iraq or Afghanistan. Within 48 hours, depending on the extent of their wounds, they fly to Germany for further treatment. Then they go to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., for the final step before their release. In the last third of the film, we meet 21-year-old Army Specialist Crystal Davis who lost a leg in Iraq when a roadside bomb destroyed the truck she was in. We follow her odyssey from the hospital in Iraq, and on through her rehabilitation at Walter Reed Hospital. We are with her as she accepts the loss of her limb and as she learns to walk and go out in public with her new prosthetic despite the severe wounding and heavy scarring on her other leg. Crystal is proud and tough, determined to survive and create a life that is possible because the doctors who treated her helped give her hope for the future. As she says in the film, "My scars to me are battle wounds and I'm not afraid to show them off."

Despite Crystal Davis' wounds, her words bode well for her future. A future in part made possible by the dedicated men and women, the combat physicians, who are graduates of the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks at Ron Steinman's