U.S. soldiers and their loved ones recount an Iraqi ambush.
When veterans of the First Cavalry Division, an Army platoon that deployed one year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, recently toured a TV set constructed at Fort Hood, Texas, they were amazed by what they saw.
“Most were struck silent,” says Mikko Alanne, a writer–executive producer of The Long Road Home, an eight-part series premiering November 7 on National Geographic Channel.
That’s because the set — which took months to build, fanned across 13 acres and was comprised of more than 80 true-to-life structures — chillingly rendered the dusty Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City where, 13 years earlier — on April 4, 2004 — they were ambushed while on a peacekeeping mission.
Many soldiers lost their lives or limbs. The bloody siege and perilous rescue operation, known as Black Sunday, was assiduously reported by Martha Raddatz, the chief White House correspondent for ABC News. Her resulting bestseller, The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family, served as the foundation for the series.
Both the book and series chronicle the conflict through the eyes of the soldiers (none had engaged in direct combat before) and their families. “How do you get up in the morning and wonder if your spouse is going to die that day?” says Raddatz, who went to great lengths to ensure that the heroism and sacrifices performed there and back home were recognized.
“It’s one of the most remarkable books of war reporting ever,” says Alanne, who took Raddatz’s vivid narrative and conducted 70 more interviews with soldiers and family to augment his teleplay.
The series features Michael Kelly as Lieutenant Colonel Gary Volesky, the resolute battalion commander; Jason Ritter as Captain Troy Denomy, who led the rescue convoys; and Kate Bosworth as Denomy’s wife, Gina, who gave birth to their first child days before before her husband departed for Iraq. Gina let Bosworth borrow the pin she wore when she said goodbye.
E.J. Bonilla plays Lieutenant Shane Aguero, who led the platoon that embarked on what they thought would be a benign mission escorting three sewage trucks through the normally bustling corridors of Sadr City. That the streets were oddly empty was the first sign of something amiss. Unforeseen road obstructions next cropped up.
“Kiosks, refrigerators, engine blocks, axles, rolls of concertina wire, wooden furniture, heaps of debris and piles of rotting meat now made for a deadly obstacle course,” Raddatz recounted in her book. Swarms of shooters with heavy-duty weaponry materialized on rooftops, in doorways and windows. Trapped in an alley, the soldiers fled their vehicle and took refuge in an Iraqi home while continuing to battle it out.
Some scenes were shot with drones to give viewers a geographic perspective of the ensuing quagmire. To prepare for the rigors of the shoot, the actors underwent a two-week boot camp with two Army Rangers and two veterans from the First Cavalry.
“It was amazing to have the real-life soldiers there,” Alanne says. “I felt a solemn responsibility to tell the real-life story.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2017