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IRAQS HONOR GUARD

Documentary following Oregon troops earns top award for filmmaker
by: COURTESY OF Lucky Forward Films, Spc. Sean Sherlock of the 

'This is War - Memories of Iraq' is a documentary film about the involvement of Oregon National Guard troops during and after the conflict.

You might have heard of it. 'This is War' won several film festival awards.

Then again, you might not have heard of it. As is the case with most documentary films, 'This is War' was not shown in theaters and was not distributed in retail stores.

'The system is in place where it doesn't enable a large majority of people, especially in Oregon, to see the film,' director Gary Mortensen, of Tigard, says. ' It's frustrating.

'The VA (Veterans Administration) is using it as reintegration film … because it's the most accurate and honest (depiction) to show family members and to use for staff training.'

But 'This is War' has a nice story behind it. Filmmaker Suzanne DeLaurentiis became involved after seeing the film and invited members of the film's crew and Guard personnel to her Cinema City Film Festival in Los Angeles in September 2008, where 'This is War' won an award for outstanding achievement in documentary filmmaking. The visitors got the red-carpet treatment and the opportunity to visit with former Marine (and talk show sidekick) Ed McMahon, who has since passed away.

An impassioned DeLaurentiis, who has dozens of films to her credit, has stayed heavily involved with her support of the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. And, on June 26 at Clackamas Community College, as part of a day-long veterans gathering, the Yellow Ribbon Career and Benefit Fair, DeLaurentiis will be one of the few civilians to ever receive the Oregon National Guard Commemoration for her tireless work.

Sgt. First Class Phillip 'Vince' Jacques, who appeared in 'This is War' and was injured in battle, nominated DeLaurentiis for the award.

'It's such an honor for me. I adore our heroes,' says DeLaurentiis, a distant cousin of fellow filmmaker Dino DeLaurentiis. 'I've been in the movie business for 30 years and it means the most to me. Being able to help these men and women, it's wonderful when somebody has a big 'thank you' for you.'

'When somebody like (DeLaurentiis) appreciates what my soldiers and I did, it's very humbling,' Jacques says. 'She was impressed with (the film) and what we do, and she's really impressed with what we've done after the war with the reintegration team. She's a strong advocate for us. She's been a good friend.'

Mortensen welcomed the involvement of DeLaurentiis with 'This is War.' She is a producer with her top movies being '10th and Wolf,' 'Out of the Black' and 'A Month of Sundays.'

On the subject of military personnel and veterans, 'you can tell her passion is for these guys, she loves these guys,' Mortensen says. 'It's neat.'

Non-political film

The film followed members of the Guard's 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry Regiment, headquartered in Eugene, which endured nine deaths and more than 80 injuries in action in Iraq's Sunni Triangle in 2004 and 2005. Jacques, from Salem, was injured when an IED, or improvised explosive device, hit his Humvee; right next to him, Spc. Kenny Leisten died. Fighting ensued after the explosion.

'It's the worst thing that can happen to a leader, next to failing a mission - losing soldiers,' Jacques says. '(Leisten) was just starting life, a bright young man, incredible soldier.'

He adds, of the Guard's action: 'It's kinda weird. I hate to say that what we did was no big deal, but we just did our jobs. America told us to go and we did. You look back on it, yeah, it was a big deal. We were focused on keeping our buddies alive and completing our mission.'

Another soldier featured in the film, Sgt. Luke Wilson of Hermiston, lost a leg in Iraq.

The '2/162' was also featured in the John Bruning book 'The Devil's Sandbox.'

Mortensen is working on a second Iraq war documentary, 'The Shepherds of Helmand,' about a 17-man all-volunteer Oregon National Guard team deployed to Afghanistan. The team was sent there to train Afghanistan troops and ended up engaging the Taliban near the Helmand River.

With both of his films Mortensen has tried to take a neutral approach.

'It's non-political. It would be arrogant to imbue another political strike on this,' he says. 'For me to go out and say it's a right- or left-wing film, I wouldn't be a very good historian or documentary film maker.'

'This is War' took home honors from film festivals in L.A., Miami, Boise, Idaho and Walla Walla, Wash.

Mortensen is frustrated with the plight of documentary films that get little or no theater run and retail sales. Then again, 'The Hurt Locker,' another Iraq war film, cleaned up the Academy Awards, including winning 'Best Picture.'

'The only reason 'Hurt Locker' got the attention is it was really nice that Kathryn Bigelow was married to James Cameron,' he says.

The Yellow Ribbon Career and Benefit Fair will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 26, at Clackamas Community College, 19600 Molalla Ave., Oregon City. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is scheduled to attend. It's the largest event of its kind in the state, with about 3,000 veterans expected to attend.