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Tim Blagg

Blagg: ‘Korengal’ worth seeing

After the Civil War, Union veterans formed the Grand Army of the Republic, and posts — which offered convivial settings where members could reminisce about the war and offer support for each other — were established all across the country. Greenfield’s was Post No. 174, named after Edwin E. Day — who had been a captain in Company G of the 10th Massachusetts — and it stood at the corner of Main and Hope streets, where the county courthouse is now.

There was a social aspect to the GAR, to be sure, but there was also what we would see as therapeutic value in talking to others who knew, in the phrase of the day, what it was like to “see the elephant.”

No civilian could possibly understand what it was like to stand in a regimental line and load and fire your musket at a not-too-distant enemy while on each side your friends writhed in pain or slumped in death. None of your neighbors could call up the nightmare vision of dozens of amputated limbs piled outside a battlefield surgery or hear the screams of men being operated on.

So the vets gathered and talked and drank a few beers and tried their best to cope with the demands of family and the workplace ... and the nightmares of what we now term post-traumatic stress disorder.

After World War I, the American Legion was founded to perform the same services, but also to lobby for better treatment for veterans. Other groups, ranging from the Veterans of Foreign Wars to Vietnam vet motorcycle clubs are well known.

What these groups have in common seems obvious, but there is something else going on there that is not easily discussed.

The fact is that experience in combat — experience that can scar a man or woman for life, both in body and in soul — can also be the time when a person feels more alive, more important, more connected than they will ever feel again.

This dichotomy, the love/hate relationship that combat veterans can have with their time “at the sharp end” of the military sword, has been explored in some depth by documentary filmmaker Sebastian Junger in a new move called “Korengal.”

After Junger’s successful book “The Perfect Storm,” about a doomed fishing crew out of Gloucester, he went to Afghanistan in 2010 to make “Restrepo,” the story of a small observation post in the mountains manned by a unit of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. His partner in that effort was a veteran war videographer named Tim Hetherington, who was later killed by a mortar round while filming in Libya.

Interspersed in the day-to-day events at the OP, which was named for a unit medic killed nearby, are interviews with the men who manned it under 24-hour-a-day sniping and attacks. Facing the camera, they talk about the days after they returned from Afghanistan, and the difficulties they faced in trying to reintegrate themselves into civilian life — surrounded by Americans who not only cannot understand their experiences, but who are, for the most part, totally unconscious of the sacrifices they’re asking of their military.

Now Junger has expanded those interviews in “Korengal,” using extra footage shot earlier in an effort to paint a psychological portrait of soldiers.

“I really thought of it as an inquiry,” he says. “‘Restrepo’ wasn’t an inquiry. ‘Korengal’ is an inquiry into the experience of war and how it affects people. Civilians really need to understand the experience. We sent them out there in the first place, and now we have to bring them back. The more we understand about what they went through, the better.”

Junger says he hopes the film can act as a bridge to understanding between the general populace and the reintroduction of nearly 3 million combat veterans from the past two wars back into society.

“I think people should go see this movie out of respect for themselves, not because of what I did or other soldiers are doing,” said Michael Cunningham, a member of the platoon chronicled in “Restrepo.” “Whether you like it or not, you’re an American citizen, this is your country, so you might as well get the best understanding you can from something that I think aptly sums up the experience.”

There have been many scare stories about returning vets, or sob stories about how bad they have it. But “Korengal” offers a chance to see a film based on fact and from the lips of the men who lived — and are living — the real story.

It’s worth the time.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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