by Jonathan Flora
In Washington, DC, this past Memorial Day weekend I had the
privilege and honor to participate in an event recognizing a holiday whose meaning and origin is all too often overlooked
and falls a distant second (if that close) to burgers and charcoal fires, picnics, and the Indy 500.
The brainchild of Brandon Millet and his wife, Laura Law-Millet
(a Major in the Army Reserve and West Point graduate), the inaugural GI Film Festival was held. It’s mission, “To
honor the success and sacrifices of American soldiers.”
I realized the magnitude of what all of us attending were about
to experience by sitting in the dark in the Ronald Reagan Building and listening to country western singer Michael Peterson
perform his song, I Remember, America. It was if I were listening to Norman Rockwell painting! It took me
back to a time when being patriotic was not a political issue, it was an American lifestyle. It reminded me of a time
when an event such as this would not be so unique. But now in this day and age, it is the only one of its kind.
As a producer with Disney (BVHE) I attend several Hollywood
events or film festivals where we “insiders” pat ourselves on the back and tell one another what geniuses we are
or how brilliant our work is. This festival however, showcased films that were truly important and significant. Why? Because
of the subject matter and whose stories were chosen to be told, past and present. These were tales of the heart, the
heart of a nation and so many generations to which so much is owed.
While there were plenty of Hollywood celebrities such as Gary
Sinise (Forrest Gump, CSI: NY), directors John Dahl (The Great Raid) and Ron Maxwell (Gettysburg, Gods and
Generals) Captain Dale Dye (Ret.) (Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers), R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal
Jacket, Mail Call) and film/TV star and Korean War veteran, James McEachin, there were even more unsung celebrities in
An example… I was walking from my hotel to the Reagan
Building and struck up a conversation with a gentleman who told me he teaches Junior ROTC. Of course we quickly spoke
of how in San Francisco Junior ROTC has now been banned. (This is not the America I remember!).
We mingled with others in the lobby before entering the auditorium
to watch the first film of that day, a documentary entitled Shakey’s Hill. This is an excellent documentary
by Norman Lloyd as he followed the 5th Battalion/7th Cavalry into the Cambodian jungle in 1970. And whom do I see on
the screen? Several of the men I was speaking with in the lobby. And the gentleman I was walking with from the hotel
was later the unit’s commander, Lt. Colonel (Ret.) Mike Rauer. Just goes to show once again, you just never know
in life whom is standing next to you and what their story might be.
So many powerful films and documentaries were screened from
the Civil War to Iraq. In all, the GI Film Festival featured 22 film screenings. One of my favorites was by Steven
Karras and Rose Lizarraga, About Face: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Soldiers of WWII. This documentary tells
so many previously untold stories of thousands of Jewish immigrants. These brave individuals fled their beloved Germany
in order to survive only to return in American and British uniforms to fight against the nation that betrayed them and slaughtered
millions of their families and countrymen.
One of the most moving films was a short film by a soldier on
his way back to Iraq called, Unwelcome Home. Everyone should see this movie and remember it before they walk by
a man or woman in uniform and act like they don’t see them.
For pure adrenaline and to be truly impressed by what it takes
to be a Naval fighter pilot, you have to see Speed and Angels. This documentary is the ultimate high stakes reality
show as it follows two pilots, a man and a woman, from flight school, to the decks of air craft carriers, to actual battle
There were fan favorites screenings of Forrest Gump, The
Great Raid, Verna: USO Girl, and too many others to mention, but all so powerful in their own right.
Not only were many films presented but also a couple spirited
and motivated panel discussions. I had the honor to be a part of one of them along with John Dahl, Dale Dye, Ron Maxwell,
Lou Reda (producer of many, many documentaries), Gary Shrout (Naval Aviation Enterprise) and hosted by Movieguide’s,
Dr. Ted Baehr. We discussed the history of “Hollywood and the Military” and the responsibility that comes
along with our choices in how and what stories we choose to tell. (You can read more in my column, “The Real Talent
Is In The Choice”)
Another panel not to be missed was, “War Stories: Untold
Tales of Heroism from the Front Lines.” This panel consisted of, best-selling author Andrew Carroll (War Letters),
R. Lee Ermey, Brigadier General (Ret.) Steve Ritchie (the only Fighter Pilot Ace since the Korean War), John F. Baker, Jr.
(Vietnam Medal Of Honor winner) and Army Colonel (Ret.) Robert L. Howard (Medal of Honor winner and the only person in history
to be nominated for the award three separate times). There were several riveting moments when Colonel Howard stepped
to the edge of the stage as he passionately “discussed” the challenges we face when American politicians do not
support our men and women in uniform. He had the crowd on their feet and they would have followed this man anywhere!
Retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers (former chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff) and his wife Mary Jo Myers, presented actor Gary Sinise with the GI Spirit Award, which honors the
entertainer who most embodies the spirit of the American G.I., and his work. Without question, this describes Sinise.
Sinise was truly touched saying, "Some actors might choose to
run away, put the roles behind them or get mad about being identified so much with one part. But because that character has
so much significance in terms of how it has been received by our Vietnam veterans and our veterans around the world, that's
something I can never run away from." He of course is referring to Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump. Sinise certainly
is not hiding from it as he performs with the Lt. Dan Band on his many trips to visit troops on the front lines in Iraq.
There were so many layers to this weekend. Along with Michael
Peterson, there were also emotional musical performances by Pat Boone, Valor, a group of three incredibly talented and all
around great guys whose voices flow together as seamless as stars and stripes. Their version of God Bless the USA
left goose bumps on my arms that remain today. Scott Sturla sang a moving tribute, 8 Days, to his brother who
was wounded in Iraq after being in country just over a week. And like so many other courageous soldiers, Scott’s
brother recently returned to the fight. Angela Lashley also sang a loving song dedicated to her son, So Brave.
For an entire weekend of film, conversations, songs, laughs
and tears, I was reminded of an America where all of this was common ground. It took place on every Main Street in the
nation, where flags hung in honor of our fallen and still serving heroes.
I look forward to an America where once again, soldiers in uniform
can walk proudly through airports and hometowns where complete strangers walk up to them and shake their hand, thanking them
for their sacrifices.
I look forward to an America when leaders in Washington DC do
not declare the war lost while troops are still in the field and politicians running for president claim the global war on
terror does not exist, that it is only a “bumper sticker slogan.”
I look forward to an America when Hollywood is quick to point
out what is right with our nation, not only what is wrong.
I also look forward to when the GI Film Festival celebrates
its 10th Anniversary and beyond. I salute the Millets for being so bold, dreaming and accomplishing something
that so right and so long overdue.
God bless America.
Jonathan Flora is a veteran of
the 82d Airborne Division, a producer with The Disney Company’s Buena Vista Home Entertainment and the writer/director
of the award-winning movie, A Distant Thunder. For further information go to www.adistantthunder.com
The GI Film Festival is sponsored
by a number of organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, Disabled American Veterans, The American
Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, The National Memorial Day Parade, and many others. For further information go to