Tuesday, May 18, 2010
When we first pitched the idea to the Marines of a two-hour film based on one platoon in some tough forward position in Afghanistan we explained that the story would be character driven. That is to say, we'd tell a larger story by focusing on a few Marines from one platoon.
The Marine Corps got the idea right away.
We told the Marines we wanted some unit deployed as part of President Obama's Afghanistan surge. The Marines picked the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Michael Manning, handpicked the outfit we're with: 2nd Platoon of his Alpha Co.
Now in those corny old World War II movies the squad's cast of characters always included some tough-talking Italian kid from the Bronx, a muscle-bound Swede from Minnesota, a sergeant with a dark past that he never spoke about and a Harvard grad who somehow ended up in the infantry and decided to make the best of it by writing a book. Everyone calls him The Professor.
We didn't end up in that outfit.
But boy have we found some characters. Let me tell you about two of them.
The platoon leader is Staff Sgt. Keith Kesterson. Typically, a Marine platoon is led by a lieutenant. Neither Manning nor company commander Capt. Jeremy Wilkinson are in any hurry to replace Kesterson with an officer. Spend ten minutes with Kesterson and you see why.
A 10-year veteran, Kesterson, 34, seems born to lead young Marines. But he's not the gruff, foul-mouthed, bull-necked Marine NCO of Hollywood fame (though in fact since we started shooting this film the other Marines have taken to calling him "Hollywood"). Instead, Kesterson is an affable guy, quick to laugh even at his own expense.
Another of our characters, Navy Chief Petty Officer Eric Motz (more about him in a minute) calls Kesterson Chesty Puller. Puller was a World War II Marine hero and later commandant of the Corps. He was also compact. (It has been my experience that you don't call a Marine small or short or skinny -- compact doesn't seem to offend.) Kesterson is compact. How compact is he? I woke up one morning in the field and looked at where Kesterson was sleeping. He made such a compact lump under his sleeping bag I wasn't sure he was still there. But when Chief calls him Chesty Puller Kesterson does wince and say with some small bit of pain, "I wish he wouldn"t call me that."
On a recent patrol I watched Kesterson chew out some of his men because they hadn't loaded enough drinking water in their vehicle (I was riding with them and they probably underestimated how much I could drink). I have been around a lot of grunts who've been chewed out and let me tell you what they almost universally say as soon as the sergeant is out of earshot: "What an asshole." But Kesterson has the touch. He left them feeling that they had disappointed him. That truck is ready for the next patrol and I'm happy to report there is a lot more water on board this time.
Kesterson joined the Marines after what he described as dead end jobs working on the production line at a John Deere factory and at Wal-Mart in his hometown of Greenville, Tenn. His father spent 27 years in the Army.
Now about Chief Motz. The Chief is an independent duty corpsman, the Navy equivalent of a physician's assistant. (For those of you who don't know this, the Marines don't have medics, they rely on Navy corpsmen.) In his 13 years in the Navy Motz has had six combat tours. Two of those tours were with Special Boat Team 22 in Iraq and one tour was with SEAL Team 7 in Iraq. In the field the Chief carries a beefed up M-4 with a high-powered scope and a sound suppressor. He refers to it as preventive medicine.
While Motz, 37, has the resume and the physical appearance of a hard ass, he is one of the funniest men I've ever met. The other night sitting outside his little clinic a Marine limped up.
"Let me guess, you dumb ass, you jumped off your vehicle," Motz said.
The Marine grimaced and said yeah, that's exactly what happened.
"Sit down and take you boot off," the Chief said. He then sat on the ground next to the Marine, gently lifted the Marine's ankle across his own thigh to elevate it. But as he wrapped a cold pack around the ankle he began a running attack on the appearance of one toe on the Marine's foot.
"Is that a toe or a tumor?" he asked, grabbing one toe.
The Marine, who was hurting, wasn't getting it. "It's a toe, Chief."
"I don't believe it," the Chief said. "That's the ugliest toe I've ever seen. Is there a lot of incest in your family?"
By then everyone standing around was laughing but the Marine still wasn't getting it. "No Chief, there's no incest in my family."
"Well, I don't see how else you could get a toe like that."
Like Kesterson, there is military tradition in the Chief's family. His dad was a Navy corpsman in Vietnam.
Postscript: I mentioned earlier that I had packed for weather much hotter than it has been here. And that I was freezing at night in the field. Mysteriously a sleeping bag appeared on my bunk back in the rear. I've said it before, I'll say it again: Semper Fi.