Live to Tell: True Stories From Soldiers Who Made it Home

 History Channel

"I think most Americans have difficulty knowing what to say to a veteran," says Michael Baumgarten. In the throes of the longest war our country has ever known, with young servicemen and women returning home every day from Afghanistan, it's a lamentable conclusion, especially in the wake of yet another American casualty.

In person, Baumgarten is smart and engaging, a courteous listener, exactly the kind of charming guy you'd want to strike up a conversation with at the bar. But it is an unfortunate fact that in our war-sheltered society, assumptions are made about him because of his former job, serving as part of the Army Rangers. All too often in the conversations of helping our veterans, political allegiances come into play, and the humanity of the person being discussed is lost or skewed. The immediate association with pro-war sentiment and the stigmatization of PTSD are still a regretful reality for our returning military.

It was in the interest of changing this narrative that director Peter Berg conceptualized History's upcoming documentary series Live To Tell, presenting the stories of special operations veterans, including Baumgarten, in impactful one-on-one interviews. These are the men regarded as the "tip of the spear," the first forces deployed into the most dangerous operations overseas. And in order to address the sensitive subjects necessary, he enlisted former Navy SEAL Ray Mendoza, whom he met while directing Lone Survivor, the 2014 war drama starring Mark Wahlberg and based off of Marcus Luttrell's novel. Luttrell had suggested that Berg hire Mendoza, at the time still serving as a SEAL, to consult on the film, and the two formed a bond of respect from the start.

"I wouldn't have been able to get the stories out of these soldiers that Mendoza was able to," Berg says. "They are part of a very tight-lipped community, and to be honest, some of the guys are still pretty intimidating to me." But through his involvement with projects like Lone Survivor and The Kingdom, based in the military culture, he was able to gain trust of the soldiers who provided that bridge between him and the stories he wanted to tell.

During a conversation with Mendoza and Baumgarten, it becomes clear that while the series is, on its surface, entertainment, there's a greater purpose being served for them, an effort to close the gap between our nation's veterans and the citizens they risked their lives to protect.

What does this show reveal about the military experience that other films or series coming out of Hollywood don't?

Ray Mendoza: This show addresses subjects that we don't normally like to talk about. The "touchy-feely" parts of what we went through. The emotions that have to be dealt with when one of your guys gets hurt, or someone passes on. Typically we're inclined to push that down, deep inside when you come home. Everyone processes it a little differently, but most of us tend not to share that part of what we've been through. I think, as soldiers ourselves, we were able to tap into that a bit better and show that part that most people don't get to see. Sharing that common ground. We're more like everyone else, more than everyone else thinks. We just have a certain skillset but we suffer and are traumatized like any other person. It was about humanizing those guys a little better.

Michael Baumgarten: The unique part of this story is there is no special intermediary, or special effects in this movie. There is no fluff. It's as close as you're going to get to know the story of what one of these soldiers goes through without being a close friend of a special-ops team member. I'm not going to approach a person I don't know and share this amount of my personal story, because I know that they're probably not going to truly understand what I'm talking about. But what the show does is important, because it's letting the public know what these guys are going through, and you may know someone, whether it's your neighbor or coworker, that's going through the same thing.

Were there any stories that were especially difficult to tell, or dig deeper into?

RM: There are only a few stories where a guy passed. So I would say Mike's episode or Mark Lee's, because he was the first SEAL to die in Iraq. I just remember that moment, it was so significant in my career, and I remember the place I was when I heard. It sent ripples through our community. You get to hear about who this guy was and hear his mom talk, it was a special experience.

MB: You get this interesting effect where you put a lot of selfless people together and you have them not talking about themselves, but about the guys that they were there is. The letter "I" is really avoided. Talking about yourself doesn't feel natural. When Ray asked me to come on the show I had a bit of an ulterior motive, and that was to have my friend's story told, about Rob Sanchez, who got killed on one of our missions. No, whether another season happens or not his mother got a chance to speak her piece and she had some very insightful things to say about the experience of losing Rob because she's had a lot of time to reflect on it. We're not superheroes, we had an unusual job.

How did you get these normally very reserved guys to get into these difficult subjects?

RM: I'm not going to say that there aren't any special operators that like to brag, but most guys hate talking about themselves. They'd rather praise their brother in arms, and the soldiers they fought side by side with, so we tried to approach it like that. We asked them to share stories about one of our fellow comrades. They will talk about that all day, because they want to give the ultimate respect to them.

Did you find any opposition from the community about this project? Soldiers who didn't want to get into these subjects?

MB: Yeah we absolutely did. We were trying to shoot an interview with some of the guys, they were very hesitant, and didn't want to do it. We ended up screening one of the previous interviews for them just so they knew what we were trying to do, and then they agreed. They appreciated what we were trying to do.

What do you hope that the general public will take away from watching this?

RM: There is a lot that I hope people take away from this but I think what will be most surprising is that they are going to be able to connect with us a little easier than they thought. We hope that they are going to discover that we're just another human, dealing with the same problems that they are for the most part.

MB: We're trying to humanize and bridge this gap that is expanding between us. Most people don't have to know about the war, and they don't want to know. If you're not digging for information, you're not going to hear about the war, because it's not here. We're trying to bring that face home, and into your living room. It's important that they see the effects. These guys may not look like anything special sometimes but damn if they didn't do some incredible things. We're trying to rebuild a relationship between them and the public. We stand at the mercy of our collective communities for doing this, and so did every guy who gave an interview. It's a taboo to do anything like this.

I'm also curious about your thoughts on what America could be doing better for its returning soldiers. Where is the country most lacking?

RM: I think they're playing catch up. It's our longest war ever and guys are surviving injuries that people in another day and age wouldn't have survived. They just weren't prepared. Hopefully it gets fixed.

MB: I agree. This is the nature of the beast and it's not like I didn't know this when I signed up, but they take six months to a year to physiologically prepare you for your job overseas. And then when it's time to get out, they pretty much just let you out without any help to acclimate out. There are a million issues with the VA right now. I'm not sure they know exactly what to do. I think a lot of guys have taken it into their own hands, and through social media have been able to stay connected. Rangers have done a good job and so have the SEALs. They see their buddies killing themselves, and they've learned that just creating a community to support each other is so powerful. I know it's saved lives. I've seen posts on our community boards where they will post saying that someone is giving the warning signs and are at risk. They will step up. They will drive out and be there for that guy. If no one is going to take care of us, then we will find ways to take care of ourselves.