[Editor’s Note: No Film School invited Nathan Fitch to write about embedding in Afghanistan for his documentary ‘Island Soldier,’ which is making its New York Premiere at DOC NYC.]

Body armor?
Multiple hard drives to back up and duplicate media?
Insurance in case my leg gets blown away by a landmine?

Almost a decade after my first experience embedding in a foreign culture as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was preparing to embed once more in a foreign country, this time under vastly different circumstances. The road to the approval of my request to embed with the United States Army to film in Afghanistan for my documentary production, Island Soldier, was hardly a swift one. Ultimately, its success depended upon relationships forged during the time I spent living in the community in Micronesia five years earlier.

Island SoldierAn aerial view of Micronesia, a region comprised of thousands of small islands in the western Pacific.

The first taste of Micronesia—and making videos

Following my graduation from art school, I decided that I wanted to have an extended time living away from America. After an interlude of researching options online, I determined that the Peace Corps program would be a good way to achieve my idea of community immersion outside of the US. As fate had it, my assignment took me to the remote island of Kosrae, in the Federated States of Micronesia.

Deplaning after more than 24 hours spent in cramped airlines and vacuous terminals, I was met by a lush island landscape ringed by a vibrant coral reef teeming with fish, and the endless blue of the Pacific Ocean extending beyond. During my ensuing Peace Corps service, I had my first taste of media production, as my assignment was to work at the Historic Preservation Office on the island, tasked to document cultural and community events in still photography and video.

Nathan FitchVolunteering in the Peace Corps in Micronesia.

It always begins with questions

Over those two years, I saw first hand the impacts of the American led wars in the island: the veteran amputee teaching at the local elementary school, the multitude of “Army Strong” stickers festooning cars around the island, and the young people leaving the island in droves to enlist (including my newly made friends). Most Americans are likely unaware of this fact, but Micronesians serve at higher rates per capita in the US Army than American citizens do.

Witnessing the effects of this raised questions in my mind: What is it like to go from one of the most peaceful islands in the world to the battlefields of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? As a non-US citizen, why were these Pacific Islanders going off to fight for America, when I was not? How was their service and sacrifice being rewarded by the United States of America, in this far-flung former US territory?

“I decided to make a documentary. How hard could it be, right?”

How the story became a doc

After the completion of my Peace Corps service, I proceeded to immediately blow my readjustment allowance (a small sum of money that Peace Corps volunteers get at the end of their service) on an amazing couple of months hitchhiking in New Zealand! Back in the US, and broke, I found a job teaching skateboarding at a Boys and Girls Club in Rhode Island, but I was having trouble letting go of the Islands.

The story of Micronesians fighting for America stuck with me, maybe because it represented the reverse of what I was going through, as I re-acclimated to a wealthy society with a different set of values from the one I had been living in. At first, I thought the story would become a graphic novel. But, I realized that I did not know how to write authentically about war, as someone who had never inhabited such an environment.

A few years elapsed; I photographed for small newspapers in Rhode Island (only $30 per assignment, but I loved the work and access into people’s lives that I was given with a camera), moved to New York City, worked for some accomplished photographers, was accepted into the Integrated Media Arts program at Hunter College and the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, and decided to make a documentary.

How hard could it be, right?

Island SoldierAn Army soldier holds a folded American flag during the funeral of Sgt. Sapuro Nena in Kosrae, Micronesia.

The long road to embedding

About a year into the production, one of the characters who I was following got news that his unit had been given orders to deploy to Afghanistan, and I began the process of seeking permission to embed with them. I sent a multitude of emails to journalists seeking advice, reached out to an assortment of publications for support, and plied the Army lines of communications with my request. In order to be considered, there was a checklist of things that needed to be in place, including having press pass credentials and an organization willing to pay to have your remains shipped back to the US should you be killed during the embed (gulp).

According to the Army protocol for embed requests, I submitted a treatment for my film, along with other pertinent materials for the film (broadcast outlet, budget, etc). To be allowed to embed, I would be entering into a Production Association Agreement (PAA) on the project with the US Army.

At last all the application materials were in order, and a pivotal moment came when the Army asked the Micronesian soldiers in the unit if they were OK with having me go to Afghanistan with them. After all, it could make their lives harder to have a camera guy hanging around them in the dangerous environment of rural Afghanistan. While I was not present for this conversation, I sighed with relief when I heard that they had said “OK”.

Island Soldier'Island Soldier' director Nathan Fitch on location in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

What gear do you bring to a war zone?

Once the approval had been granted, there were suddenly a million things to look into. Since Island Soldier had a shoestring budget, I had to decide what I could afford to buy. More importantly, I decided what I could not afford not to buy.

I got a vest from Bulletproofme, got insurance through Reporters Without Borders in case I died or had my legs blown off, which was a sobering moment. I borrowed an extra GoPro camera from a friend and bought a medical kit. My gear included two camera bodies (Canon 7D), some Zeiss glass (50mm 1.4, 85mm 1.4), and some Canon glass (24mm 1.4, 17-85mm). In case I would need to change lenses in a sandy situation, I took a film developing changing room bag (Paterson), although I never ended up using it.

I proceeded to cram everything I could into the two bags I would be bringing.

Island SoldierSleeping quarters (and gear) for 'Island Soldier' director Nathan Fitch in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Shit got real on the ground

Over the course of my embed, there were any number of moments that will be forever seared into my memory: My terror of being kidnapped as I walked out of the Kabul Airport and was mobbed by taxi drivers tugging at my sleeves, the jubilance of an incredible view of Kandahar’s rugged mountainscape aboard an Army helicopter en route to forward operating base FOB PASAB, my first night patrol looking for IEDs in the murky dark in the wee hours.

It was on my last patrol that the war became the realest for me. We had not been out on patrol in several days due to a shifting military strategy that was being implemented at the time. While the soldiers had not objected to a few days to catch up on rest, it also meant that the Taliban had had the opportunity to lay down larger IEDs than normal. The kind of bomb that might completely annihilate the protection of the steel vehicles we rode in, killing us all in a matter of moments.

“In that instant, I had a glimpse of what it means to dress in the morning not knowing if you will be undressing in the evening.”

On that patrol I was listening to the soldiers’ conversation in my headset, and hearing the quiver in their voices, I felt a chill run down my spine. These were men who had been in the war zone for many months; several had been in vehicles that had been blown up by IEDs. Until that moment, I think I had been protected from the reality of the situation by the demands of the production: how to try to compose the best image and get usable audio amid the deafening roar of generators.

In that instant, I had a glimpse of the reality of what it means to dress in the morning not knowing if you will be undressing in the evening. While we returned in tact from that mission without encountering an IED (improvised explosive device), I also had the realization that had we, I could not have even photographed the moment while strapped into the back of a tank clutching my camera with clammy fingers. A few days later I left the FOB, and in less than a week, I surreally found myself back in New York attending IFP Film Week.

If you want to film in a war zone...

While this only represents my experience, and I would readily admit there are many more experienced war journalists and filmmakers, here are some lessons I’ve taken away that might be useful for other filmmakers wishing to make a production trip to a war zone.

  • Do your homework on the place you will be embedding. Things like climate and environmental considerations will affect the kind of rig you’ll be best suited to shoot with. It’s also good to know as much as you can about the culture and history of the country, which can only help ground your presence and filmmaking with a stronger sense of place.
  • If you can try to take a hostile environment training course like the one offered by RISC, do it! This could make the difference between life and death, for yourself and others.
  • Start requesting permission early to give yourself a buffer to allow for the time of processing all the paperwork needed to secure an embed.;
  • When putting in your request to for the embed, try to set up an in-person meeting with the media liaison. Show them how passionate you are about the story you are requesting access to tell and why your presence would offer more than a liability and an inconvenience.

Island Soldier will have its New York City premiere at DOC NYC, including a screening on Veterans Day, November 11th. On a day on which country shows respect to the patriotic Americans, and their families who have sacrificed so much, it seems appropriate to also acknowledge the sacrifices being made by Pacific Island communities without the full benefits of citizenship, veterans benefits, or the right to vote for the commander and chief who may order them into war tomorrow.

See all of our coverage of the 2017 DOC NYC Festival.