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TELEVISION REVIEW

From the backwoods to Baghdad

The moving, six-part 'American Soldier' follows eight Georgia Guardsmen in Iraq.

November 26, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Early in tonight's premiere of "American Soldier" on CMT, 21-year-old Christopher "Nemo" Nemier, who lists his hobbies as music, sports, racing and tattoos and is recently married, sums up his feelings about being shipped to Iraq as a private in the Georgia National Guard.

"It's a bad situation, but it's our job," he says.

It's with that sense of realism and fatalism that veteran producer-director George Moll sets out to follow an eight-man squad from their backwoods homes to the chaotic streets of Baghdad.

The result is an eye-opening look at these eight "citizen soldiers," their dazed and frightened families and their uncertain futures. Like most guardsmen and reservists, they never thought they would be deployed to a war zone.

When they reach Kuwait, several huddle in the darkness and discuss the possibility of being killed in Iraq or inadvertently killing innocent civilians as they try to defend themselves against the insurgents. It is a moment of aching intimacy.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 29, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
"American Soldier" -- The review of the television documentary "American Soldier" in Saturday's Calendar section said that the documentary "Off to War" was airing on the Discovery Channel. "Off to War" airs on the Discovery Times Channel.

Later, they discuss the horror stories they've heard about roadside bombs and U.S. fatalities. "It can't be worse than I've been told," says one.

This is not new journalistic turf. There have been plenty of newspaper stories about National Guard and Reserve units deployed to Iraq. On the Discovery Channel, "Off to War" followed an Arkansas National Guard unit.

But "American Soldier," set for six episodes, is a worthy addition to the canon. Moll has a pro's knack for having his cameras at the right place at the right time and keeping his story strictly apolitical.

As the unit is set to embark from Kuwait on a night convoy to its base in Iraq, Sgt. Steve Willis, 40, calls his wife, Angie, 44. She's just heard another story on the news about three Americans killed and three more injured.

Her emotions overflow and he tries to comfort her. But both know the truth: There are no guarantees for troops in Iraq; survival is day to day.

"Soldier" captures the harrowing nature of a slow-moving convoy along established routes, a prime target for insurgents' bombs and sniper attacks. The Georgians don't try to hide their fear. Any boyish bravado disappears when the first improvised explosive device is discovered.

One innovation of "Soldier" is its use of country and western music. (This is the Country Music Television channel, after all.) The effect on viewers probably will depend on their taste for such tunes.

If there is a shortcoming to "Soldier," it is that it does not tackle some of the thornier issues involved in the Pentagon's reliance on National Guard and Reserve troops to shoulder much of the burden in Iraq.

How well trained, disciplined and led are these "weekend warriors"? Is there a link between such things and the death toll among Guard and Reserve troops? Is the U.S. paying a price for not having enough better-trained active-duty troops?

Before the unit leaves Georgia, a top officer boasts, "Ladies and gentlemen, this brigade is fit to fight."

Unless I missed it, I didn't see him on that night convoy to Baghdad.

*

'American Soldier'

Where: CMT

When: 9:30 p.m.

Ratings: TV-PG LV (may be unsuitable for young children; advisories for language, violence)

Sgt. Steve Willis...Himself

Sgt. Larry O'Neal...Himself

Spc. Matthew Clements...Himself

Jamey Chalker...Himself

Earnest Thomas...Himself

Christopher Nemier...Himself

Billy Jo Bridges...Himself

Marcus Graham...Himself

Executive producer: George Moll

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