The Reno News & Review

May 21, 2010

Embedded

Local videographer Tyler Elliott embeds with fellow Nevadans to document the lives of soldiers in Afghanistan

By Clarissa León

Using his body armor as a pillow, Tyler Elliott attempted, once more, to rest in the Afghanistan desert. The night before he had slept outside, huddled on a small square of gravel flooring. Even then, as he rolled across the floor he realized his midday mistake. Afghan tea made with untrustworthy Afghan water made for a well-known symptom—diarrhea.

This afternoon, he was dozing off after hours of “chasing ghosts” of Afghan insurgents. This day, August 19, 2009, was the day before the much-anticipated Afghanistan election. As part of a TAC—a Tactical Action Cell—Elliott was traveling with a troop that provided security to Afghan polling places.

Afghan police would inform his platoon of an attack at a polling place, and the unit would rush over to secure the area. They did this a few times, but nobody attacked when they arrived. A soldier told Elliott earlier that although the insurgents could attack, they most likely wouldn’t attack a place where the U.S. Army was stationed. The U.S. soldiers would beat them every time.

By 4 p.m., the elections had come to a close, and the unit headed back to the Alishang District Center compound. Elliott tucked his body armor under his head and began to doze off. Everyone around him did the same.

Not five minutes into sleep, Elliott jolted alert. He grabbed his body armor and equipment and began running to the rear of the compound. Bullets cracked over their heads. Each bullet whipped through the sound barrier, and landed, it seemed, right by Elliott’s ears.

Just as another bullet flew, Elliott dove into a ditch, covering his boots in crusty urine. “Is that them or us?” he yelled, not knowing whether their allies, the Afghan police, were returning fire to the insurgents.

The platoon ran down the side of the hill, and Elliott remembered his particular route. The whole way down the hill, there was no cover.

As he hung back alongside a dirt wall on the way down, a single bullet flew by.

“Did ya shit your pants?” soldier Christopher Owens said with a laugh.

Military record
Anderson Munoz looked Elliott over. As a first impression, Elliott was a “goofy, white guy” who was going to get in the platoon’s way. Elliott, 24, stood 6-foot-2 with red hair and beard and hazel-green eyes. He had no Kevlar on him—no armor. He walked around with a camera. As leader for the Hooligan Platoon, Munoz didn’t look on Elliott with any excitement.

“This is going to suck,” he thought. Elliott had no experience with the platoon’s lifestyle. He looked like someone who had a brief stint in the army and decided to try journalism for a change.

Elliott told Munoz he’d be with them for a couple of days. He had, out of pocket, paid his way to go to Afghanistan to film a documentary. He said he wanted to do a documentary on the “real life” of soldiers. What soldiers went through. It was an opportunity—if nothing else—to preserve history. Munoz didn’t buy it. He was a moving target, and he had no experience; Afghan forces would see that.

Elliott, however, had been excited about his idea for the past year.

Growing up in Sparks, Elliott’s grandpa would tell him stories of his beach invasions. He’d hand him his army uniforms, and Elliott would go off and play soldier in his grandpa’s old helmet. Elliott’s father served in the Air Force, and both his grandfathers served in the Navy. Not surprisingly, Elliott grew up with the intention of one day joining the military.

Hardly out of high school, he and his best friend, Jeremy Daniels, decided they’d join the army together. Not a week after taking his Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), Elliott broke his elbow in a car accident, and as his friend went through basic training, Elliott was home recovering. Then, Elliott was injured again—this time it was his neck. Paramedics rushed him to the hospital. His chances of joining the military were over.

Elliott describes himself as a man of tradition. He doesn’t try new food. He doesn’t travel. He could live in Reno, he says, for the rest of his life. Elliott would suffer from general anxiety and have panic attacks when talking to people. He’s not a person to ask for anybody’s help. So, when he wanted to join the military—to prove himself—he figured out a way on his own.

When Daniels returned home later in the year, they caught up. Elliott had been working as a videographer with Jeff Dow. Unfortunately, Dow couldn’t keep him much longer. Now officially unemployed, Elliott jokingly threw out a suggestion to his friend. “Why don’t I follow you as a documentary filmmaker?” he asked. They laughed.

“Then I thought about it,” Elliott said. “I said, ‘I should totally do this.’ And they weren’t leaving for a year or eight months, so I started looking into it.”

Elliott wrote a plan and sent it to officials at the Nevada Army National Guard office. If accepted, he would be stationed in Afghanistan for one month, following a unit whose mission was to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan villages also known as PRTs: Provincial Reconstruction Teams. It was a unique idea, Elliott thought. All this time growing up in a military family he had never heard of PRTs. His view of war was like most people’s; on the news, there were scenes of combat gunfire, suicide bombers—people killing each other and not much else.

“I didn’t realize there were civilian contractors, septic-tank people getting hired, people rebuilding and paving the roads, building schools, going out and doing humanitarian missions,” he said. “You don’t hear about that in the news. It’s boring. People want to see people getting killed and guns going off, so I thought that would be a good story.”

Even if he couldn’t find a good story, Elliott wanted to preserve history. It would meld his two loves together: the military and video. Ideally, he would come home with a story of which he could be proud. But he wanted, above all, to reveal a side of Afghanistan that few had ever seen—the Afghanistan where any exits required being “built out” and not “shot out.” He wanted to understand what soldiers went through and to portray the experience through video. He loved his country, and he wanted to share what these men’s experiences.

When he told this to the Nevada National Guard Lt. John S. Cunningham of the 1st Squadron, 221st Cavalry, he received a short answer: No.

“Basically, what I told him,” says Cunningham, “I didn’t have any trouble with him coming over. But it was going to be on him to come over; there wasn’t a lot I could do to make it happen for him.”

By June 2009, Elliott asked person after person to secure clearance for his documentary film. It was a familiar pattern. He would bullshit his way past a clearance and then find he needed someone else’s approval. After weeks of calls, he was finally approved by the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C.

On July 6, 2009, Elliott received his acceptance letter from the Department of Defense and the Public Affairs Office from Bagram, Afghanistan. He had one month to pack.

Elliott read over the letter again. He had only planned this first step. Now what? He didn’t have enough money. He didn’t have the proper equipment or clothing. He didn’t even have much of an idea for his film except that he would be following this unit.

“For a split second I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he recalled. “This whole time I wanted to go, but when they approved me, I was like, ‘Do I really want to go?’ I mean, ‘What if I get hurt, what if I get killed? Is it really worth it for a documentary that people will watch once and be like, ‘Oh, whatever.’ ”

Elliott had kept this secret from his mother. His father knew his plans, but breaking the news to his mother would be the same as telling her he had enlisted to go to war. He would not go as a trained soldier but as a documentary filmmaker. In this sense, it was an unnecessary danger. He had never been outside of the United States and had only been to the East Coast once. Now he would be flying across the globe to discover the “truth” about those serving in Afghanistan.

The day after he received the letter, he sat down with his mother. His parents were busy moving his sister to Las Vegas for law school, and the stress of moving was building up.

“Mom,” he said. “I need to read something to you.”

He began reading the letter aloud. He stopped and then silence. He could see his mother’s tears.

“I was just … fuck man, what am I doing?”

Platoon
“Did ya shit your pants?” Soldier Christopher Owens looked down on Elliott in a gleeful, be-careful-what-you-ask-for tone. A bullet had narrowly missed his head when the compound was under attack.

The night before, he had barely swallowed the MRE (meal ready to eat) with the crew, and today he witnessed his first gunfight. Two days earlier, his liaison Capt. Blaine Holmes told him he could go with the Hooligan Platoon for the next four days as a temporary visit before heading to the PRT unit that he planned to film. After four days with the platoon, Elliott would reach his final destination and film the PRT squad.

But as this was his first experience with Hooligan Platoon, and an exciting one at that, he began to rethink his plan. When he caught up with Capt. Holmes, he told him his second thoughts. For the next month, he would be embedded with the Hooligan Platoon—15 soldiers from Nevada and Arkansas.

Elliott’s story, although changed, would carry the same theme. While with these “hooligans,” he would become a part of the platoon. He would follow them wherever they went, filming whatever he could. He would do what they did. Eat what they ate. See what they saw. The film would eventually be called Hooligans at War.

Before he arrived at the Hooligan Platoon base, he was stationed at the Bagram Air Field. Nicknamed “Ameristan,” Bagram Air Field came across more as a small city than as a base. Those staying there—be it media or soldiers heading home or moving into action or recovering from injuries—could rest easy. Here they could eat Burger King or Dairy Queen. There was a Pizza Hut, and at night, a jazz band performed under moody Christmas lights.

In Bagram Air Field, Elliott first experienced being part of “the media.” Journalists were stationed in “Hotel California.” In some respects, Ameristan was a hyper version of America. Here was fast food, ESPN, free wireless internet. But Elliott knew that this was where soldiers could rest. “You don’t feel like you’re in any danger at all,” he said.

He met other journalists who’d been embedded, some from AOL, the New York Times and CNN. Cami McCormick, a CBS Radio correspondent, asked him what he was doing and he asked her the same. She was documenting the increase of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). McCormick confided that she felt differently about this trip. Although she had gone to Afghanistan numerous times, something felt strange. McCormick was a seasoned journalist with decades of experience but still felt nervous. Weeks later, Elliott found that McCormick had suffered a severe leg injury when her group ran over an IED.

After deciding to stay with the Hooligans, Elliott documented—and only documented—what the platoon did. This was real life and nothing more. “I told them right away, ‘I’m only here to document what happens,’” he said. “‘I’m not trying to portray one side or another side. I’m just here to portray you guys,’ and like I said, my goal was to really transform myself, become one of them.”

Was Elliott’s documentary film compromised because he was so closely associated with the platoon? He thinks not: To “preserve history” or tell “the truth,” Elliott needed to become one of the soldiers. Even before he decided to film the Hooligans, he wanted to film a story that was not only filled with the reality of war’s casualties, but also filled with the humanitarian efforts. Bias? Most likely, but he didn’t think the bias made a difference.

“I’d eat with them,” explained Elliott. “I’d go on patrols with them. I was with them all the time, so I guess you can say that you do get a little biased because you get to know the guys, and you just kind of become part of them, but I think that’s what I was there to do—I was to become part of them and get an inside look at a platoon in Afghanistan.”

After the gunfight on the first day, the platoon had other missions. Each mission became part of the documentary. They handed out pencils to students. They disarmed a bomb. Elliott pulled a trigger in one episode. They lifted a truck from a steep ravine. They checked the latest deaths from a suicide bomber. Each mission was met without any political bias, says Elliott. In fact, many times he filmed another brutal truth of war: boredom.

In between missions, as the Hooligans awaited the next assignment, Elliott captured soldiers’ downtime. “Welcome to my crib,” said Capt. Anderson Munoz on the documentary trailer, showing off his bunk bed. Posters of scantily clad women embellished the walls. Down the hall, soldiers played pool or video games. This was a soldier’s real life. This was what Elliott had come for.

Homecoming
When Elliott returned to Nevada, it had only been one month since he had left home.

It has now been almost exactly a year since he first set foot on Afghanistan soil. The film nears completion. He captured nearly 40 hours of video footage for his documentary to fit into an hour-and-15-minute timeframe. As he finishes his documentary, he’ll send it to film festivals across the country.

Today, he says, the one-month experience has given him a greater appreciation for life. “It’s not like I saw a whole lot of things, like bad things,” he says. “But I saw enough seeing people hurt, and it kind of really makes me appreciate life more and plus, I have a greater appreciation for the military. I think they’re really extraordinary.”

Ultimately, there is just one lesson, one truth, in war.

“I mean, you know, whatever the conflict is, politics set aside, our soldiers are pretty awesome people, I mean, they are just regular people,” he says. “They are all in it for different reasons. But on a mission, on a patrol, it comes down to one thing—protecting their souls, protecting their buddies.”