Alive Day Memories : Interview with a Soldier

"Alive Day" refers to the day a soldier is wounded and narrowly escapes death. To date, more than 25,000 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq. Though 90 percent of the injured survive, many of them suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and amputations. In HBO's Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, executive producer James Gandolfini interviews 10 wounded soldiers and marines about their experiences in Iraq and back home. First Lieutenant Dawn Halfaker was 24 when she lost her arm in an explosion in Baqubah, Iraq. I spoke with Halfaker about how her life has changed since 6/19/2004 -- her "Alive Day"-- and why she refuses to let her injury define her. Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq premieres Sunday, September 9 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.2007-09-07-dawnfinal.jpg

How did you get involved in the project and what was the process like.

Jim Gandolfini is a great guy. He's funny, you feel comfortable with him. He's just an everyday guy. And that's what makes him the perfect person to do this. I think what they were trying to do, which surprised me and which hasn't been done until now, is give a sense of who the wounded are and what they were like before they got injured, using home videos, anything that portrayed their character or hobbies in a way that people could relate to. You need that to show the drastic changes that happened.

You and several of the other soldiers talk about the dramatic shift in identity that occurs when you go from being a highly independent mobile service person in Iraq to being wounded and "high maintenance." How do you cope with that?

I think one common thing among all of us is we don't want to let our injuries run our lives or be the deciding factor of what we do and don't do. At the same time, am I going to be the basketball player that I was before I got injured? Absolutely not. But I do other sports instead, like tennis, to find fun and meaning. There's also the aesthetic part that impacts what you do and don't do. I grew up in southern California on the beach. I don't necessarily look forward to going to the beach any more and wearing a bathing suit. But do I want to never go to the beach, something I very much enjoy, just because I know people are staring at me? And that's a decision I have to cope with.

You want to raise awareness about the reality and the challenges faced by wounded soldiers. At the same time, you don't want people to view you as ruled by your injuries. How do you strike a balance?

That's interesting, no one's ever asked me that. Having to keep telling the story over and over helps you initially, it's therapeutic, but eventually you need to go on and you need to have other things in your life rather than just dwelling on the fact that you were in the war and got injured. Much like the alive day concept, it's not the day you die but the day you got to keep living.

The story of the wounded, whether military or civilians, seems to fall through the cracks and is ignored by the media and the world at large. I have to admit, when I hear about an accident, whether it's a car accident on the highway here or a bombing in Iraq, I focus on the number of people killed and am relieved when I hear that some people were "only" injured. How do you raise awareness about these issues, show the inspiration and heroism of the wounded, without whitewashing the painfulness and seriousness of their story?

I agree. People hear about something happening and the people that died and then they'll go, "thank God not all of the 20 people on the helicopter died." But they won't find out about all the injuries or the fact that one of the injured is now a quadriplegic who has lost what some people would consider their life in some sense. The film puts a face on that population and shows how this has impacted their lives in a physical sense. But I don't think anyone can appreciate what it's like to be an amputee without being one. Nobody saw me try to get ready in the morning. So there's a lot more to it but the film does a good job.

You, along with most of the wounded soldiers in the film, say you would do it again. Why?

I think it's the life experience you get and the personal growth you're forced to undergo in order to be able to move on with your life. The big thing for me was getting a chance to see how many people care about you, are willing to support you and be your friend and be there for you, regardless of what you look like or what happens to you. And to able to experience that and see the positive side of the human condition was very powerful for me and something that will stick with me. Not everybody gets that, and certainly not at 24, which is when I got injured. But there's a life-long process for all of us. The tagline for the film is "the fight has just begun." And it really has in a lot of senses and it's not something we're ever going to really get used to. It's something you consistently work through. But it gives you a different perspective on life. You can look back and say I learned so much, I grew so much. Granted, on any day you could ask me would I trade all this to get my arm back and I would just say well you know I don't ever have to make that decision. That decision was made for me. So I just do the best that I can.

How did you wind up a first lieutenant in Iraq?

It was never a life-long plan for me. I was about to graduate high school and I was fortunate enough to get recruited by a bunch of different schools, including West Point. There's an eerie kind of romance about West Point that you get when you're not going through it. I was 17 and I thought this is a future, it's interesting and different. And then you get to graduate and go in the army and that all appealed to me. Getting to Iraq was the natural course. We graduated just before 9/11. And since 9/11 it's been non stop for military folks.

You say in the movie that you were naïve, that you never anticipated being wounded and that you struggled with accepting your injury. What was that process like?

When you're lying in your bed and you can't do anything, you're not even walking, you don't really think, "I'm an amputee. I can't do anything." Even after being injured and getting med-evaced, it didn't set in for me until I walked into a room [at Walter Reed] with 30 others amputees and thought, "Oh my God, this is what's going on in this ward. This is the population of the world that I fall into." This is a side they don't talk about, you don't know about even being in the military. I mean, anybody who thinks they know about combat before going into the military, they have no idea.

You also talk about your fears of the future, specifically making a family, having kids you won't be able to pick up. The film shows how being wounded complicates people's family lives. One soldier attributes his divorce to his injuries, another one cries because he can't remember the names of his children because of his brain damage. But we also see a soldier who gets married after he comes home, and a marine whose young children brag about their father's "robot legs" and tell him how proud they are of him when he ice-skates for the first time on his prosthetic legs. Was the film comforting and inspiring to you?

When I watch the film I am so inspired by everybody else. And that's what makes it so powerful, the fact that I don't really even think about the fact that I'm in it. I'm watching it and I'm just in awe and inspired by the things other people say, especially the scene when the marine is ice-skating with his kids.

You were adamantly opposed to wearing a "hook." And then you got a very realistic prosthetic. Yet during the interview you don't wear the prosthetic. Why?

I wanted to present myself to people as myself. I don't have an arm and to be quite honest I don't really wear my prosthetic that much: it's uncomfortable, it's cumbersome, it serves no function. When I talk about my experience I want it to be me. I want people to see me with one arm. Not wearing the prosthetic comes with the experience of moving on and being more comfortable with that. It's also being so busy and not having time for it.

And what are you doing now with your life now?

I run my own security business and I'm in school part-time at Georgetown getting a masters in International Security. I sit on a few boards and am on a couple of committees. I do a lot of interviews. I don't think I'm a spokeswoman, nor do I want to be one. I'm just like every other soldier. I went over there, I did my job, I gave it my all. If there are people who can learn from my experience, I'll do whatever I can.

What do you want people to learn from you and the film?

I think that just being able to give people a better understanding of the reality of war. It requires training, going over, executing your mission and having the privilege of working side by side with some great Iraqi people. And then all of a sudden not being able to do what you love anymore but figuring out a way to move on with your life and get a sense of purpose and become a productive member of society in another way. I hope people see the film and my situation and say, "It can be done." I think there's a lot of leadership lessons that need to be learned. Being a leader and getting injured and having soldiers injured under my watch, it's a huge burden to carry around and I think that's something people don't understand about war unless they've been there.

And there's a human face to war and every time anyone dies, whether they're Iraqi or someone from Coalition Forces or anything, they're somebody's mother, daughter, sister, brother, son. That's so hard for people to understand. The far-reaching affects of the individual, it affects everybody's life somehow and those are the stories that never get told.

Do you think there's an inevitably political message in the film which warns people to think about the consequences of war more than they are.

I think the film is so much more powerful because it's apolitical. And by being apolitical, it's being political, it's sending a message. It's saying this is what war is, regardless of whether you're a Democrat or a Republican.

I would say the film gives more visibility and recognition to the human side and how people are forced to move on with their lives after war. It's representative not only of the people who are in the film, but, in my opinion, all people who are in the service. Whether or not somebody gets injured, they've sacrificed, they've been away from their family. And it's representative of the nation. There are going to be some long-term affects from this war.

What are the long terms effects?

The healing that a nation goes though after it's been at war for an extended period of time.