Filmmaker Michael Slee was in the back seat of an Army Humvee, camera running, when an anti-tank mine reduced the vehicle to a shattered hulk on the streets of Mosul in northern Iraq. The date was Nov. 18, 2007.
A freelance filmmaker who grew up in Lakewood, Slee was in Iraq to make a documentary about front-line troops patrolling one of the most dangerous cities in the country. He wound up embedded with the soldiers of Alpha Company of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Bliss, Texas. He lived with them, went on missions with them and got to know them very well. And on that November day, he came close to dying with them. Twice.
Slee and his camera emerged unscathed from the explosion, its bright orange flash etched dramatically on his videotape. But the Humvee driver, Pvt. Russell Ladwig, was badly wounded in both legs. (He has since recovered, Slee said.)
Ears ringing from the concussion, Slee resumed filming as Ladwig’s fellow soldiers dragged him from the wreckage, tended to his wounds and loaded him into a truck. After about 20 minutes, the patrol was ready to move out. As Slee climbed into the lead Humvee, he had a premonition. "I just went cold," he said, "because I knew we were about to hit a second IED (improvised explosive device)."
Sure enough. The Humvee rolled barely 5 feet before a second mine "blew off its back end."
Slee’s luck held. He escaped injury again. But the unit’s Iraqi interpreter, a man named Paul who was sitting right next to him, lost his right arm in the blast.
A frightening day in the war zone. But it was hardly the only one during the months Slee spent in Iraq.
"I was knee-deep in hands-and-knees combat on quite a few occasions," he said. "We got blown up and shot up and torn up quite a bit."
But Slee expected that. "I’ve made my living by being in the wrong place at the right time," he said.
Admires the military
A 1979 graduate of Lakes High School in Lakewood, Slee, 47, broke into the film industry after moving to Los Angeles in 1985. Now a resident of the Southern California city of Fontana, he’s done a lot of TV, shooting segments for ESPN, Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. He’s shot industrial films. He’s shot footage for police reality shows. "I’ve done years of law-enforcement ride-alongs," he said.
In the ’90s he befriended Mike Norris, Chuck Norris’ son. The son introduced Slee to his father, and Slee later worked as an associate producer on the elder Norris’ 1992 feature "Sidekicks." In September 2007, he traveled with Chuck Norris when the actor made a morale-boosting trip to Iraq to visit the troops in Anbar province.
By that time Slee was already far along in production of his documentary about Alpha Company. He’d spent 45 days from October through December of 2006 with the unit, went home to the U.S. and then returned with Norris the following year. When Norris’ visit ended in mid-September, Slee flew to Mosul and rejoined Alpha Company. Two months later, his Humvee hit the mine.
Born in Zaragoza, Spain, the son of an Air Force major, Slee came to the Tacoma area at age 4 when his father was assigned to McChord Air Force Base. He grew up around the area’s military bases. "I shot my first buck" on fort property, he said, "I camped there with the Boy Scouts and the Cub Scouts."
He grew up admiring military people, their culture and their courage. Slee said he didn’t think that any films made so far about the Iraq war have adequately captured the positive qualities of the country’s men and women in uniform, so he decided to make a movie to set the record straight. Actually, he made two.
Before Slee started work on the Alpha Company documentary, he went to Iraq in 2005 to shoot a film about a Stryker unit from Fort Lewis. That picture, not yet released, is called "The Long Road Home."
Company C, 3rd Battalion of the 21st Infantry Regiment of the 25th Division’s Stryker Brigade was also assigned to Mosul. The core incident of the film comes at the end of the unit’s yearlong deployment when a platoon of Stryker soldiers take a perilous three-day, 560-mile convoy journey down the highway from Mosul to Kuwait City. At the end of the trip was the jet that would take the troops back to the states.
The highway was called "IED Alley," Slee said, and "the pucker factor was very high" during the long drive south. The platoon Slee rode with was lucky. Their vehicles weren’t hit by roadside bombs. But they saw blast holes on every side, mile after mile.
Platoon Sgt. Corey Meyers, one of the soldiers prominently featured in "The Long Road Home," recalled an incident in which a convoy of Humvees two or three miles ahead of his platoon hit an IED. Other soldiers went to the men’s aid, and Meyers and his convoy kept rolling.
Meyers had only 25 troops in four Stryker vehicles to guard 40 semi trucks loaded with the rest of the brigade’s heavily armored Strykers. That meant each man pulled long hours of duty. "You’re standing up out of one of the hatches, pulling guard … with all your stuff on for about 15-18 hours" each day. The temperature was between 90 and 115 degrees.
And all the while Slee was filming.
He filmed alone. He works as his own cameraman, sound man, editor and director. "I’m the ultimate one-man band," Slee said.
Using four cameras, including one equipped with night-vision technology, Slee recorded the mundane activities of soldiers in the war zone as well as the combat. His role models, he says, are famed World War II war correspondent Ernie Pyle and writer George Plimpton, best known for his role-playing journalistic stunts like suiting up as a backup quarterback for the Detroit Lions and sparring with boxers Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson.
Slee sees himself as a man in their mold, a "guy who believes that you have to walk a mile in a man’s shoes before you should be allowed to tell his story."
Boots on the ground
Of the soldier subjects, Slee said, "I allow them to depict and explain what it is that they do and what they’re going through. It’s up to them. They tell me what part of their story they want me to tell.
"I don’t have an agenda. I let it happen, and as it happens is what I film."
The men he’s filmed say he’s told their story accurately. "He goes to that first-line level, boots on the ground," said Rusty "Doc" Mauney, the platoon medic seen in "The Long Road Home." Unlike other journalists who covered the unit from time to time, Slee was never reluctant to go out on patrol with the troops. Mauney said when other journalists would say, ‘Hey, when you get back off patrol, then I’ll stop back and talk to you about what happened.’ When Mike got there it was like, ‘Let’s go.’ "
Mauney, a newspaper sportswriter and editor in civilian life before joining the military, said there were some gung-ho correspondents who would walk backwards taking pictures and asking troops to describe their feelings as they warily walked down Mosul’s streets. That kind of behavior was a distraction that put everyone in danger. Slee wasn’t like that either, Mauney said. He knew how to get his footage without getting underfoot.
Robert Hartline, a private who got to know Slee during the filming of "Alpha Company," said the filmmaker "understood where to stand. The only difference between us and him was that he didn’t have a rifle. He had a camera." Otherwise, "he was just like another soldier out there."
Hartline, shown in the film helping to pull the wounded Ladwig from the Humvee after the IED attack, said Slee "maintained his composure. He never skipped a beat. He was extremely professional, and I’d actually like to go back with him."
Mauney, who has seen a 14-minute trailer of footage from "The Long Road Home" said he was impressed by the fact that "it seemed less focused on bang-bang, shoot’em-up, ‘tell me how bad it was,’ " aspects of the soldiers’ time in Iraq. "It was more positive," Mauney said.
Taken together, the two films offer a comprehensive look at the lives of troops sent to Iraq. There’s footage of their stateside training, of their off-duty moments and of their homecomings and funerals.
The homecoming sequence in "The Long Road Home" is particularly poignant. When the troops arrived at Fort Lewis, they were met by Allen Hoe, the father of Stryker 1st Lt. Nainoa K. Hoe, 27, of Hawaii who was killed by sniper in Mosul in January 2005. "It was probably one of the most agonizing, gut-wrenching things that I had to do, " said Meyers. "I was scared to have to stand there and face Mr. Hoe. But once I saw him, he came up to me and gave me a big hug and said everything was fine. And that got me to relax because he understood, being a veteran who served in Vietnam (he was a medic), what I’d been through."
"He shouldered that weight unlike anybody I’d ever seen," said Mauney. "He came at with the approach, ‘Yes, my son died, but are you guys OK?’ "
Slee said he’s putting the finishing touches on "The Long Road Home" and hopes to have send it out onto the film festival circuit after the first of the year. He said he’s in negotiations with the History Channel about airing "Alpha Company," but as yet there is no broadcast date for the film.
What did he learn during his time in Iraq? "There is nothing that an American fighting man can’t do," Slee said. And telling their stories in his two films "was the most important thing I’ve ever done."