Lone Survivor

It was dark early that day as we were nearing the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. By five o’clock the streets of New York City were peppered with commuters rushing to their trains to head home. I was headed the opposite direction, into Midtown for a night out with my husband. We were attending the New York premiere of a movie.

I was so excited. How did I get to attend a real movie premiere, with real movie stars, a red carpet, and an after party at some hip warehouse on the West Side? Surely, this is what dreams are made of.

We arrived at the Ziegfeld Theater amidst the hubbub that precedes a premiere. We watched as multiple media outlets interviewed the actors during their stroll down the red carpet. Captivated and fascinated, I managed to be so excited about attending the premiere that I neglected to even look up what movie we were about to see was about. I knew the basics: it was a movie that depicted a particular mission of a SEAL team and that Mark Wahlberg was in it.

We took our seats. I fidgeted nervously. The place was packed and we were seated in the balcony with a bird’s eye view of the entire theater.

The movie began and what unfolded on the screen, I was completely unprepared for. The scenes of the ill-fated mission that resulted in Marcus Lutrell’s becoming the Lone Survivor banged and exploded around me in high definition and surround sound.

Unbeknownst to me was that as the theater filled and the lights dimmed in anticipation of the New York premiere of Lone Survivor: Live to Tell the Story, the seats around me held some of the bravest people I have ever met.

Dressed in their suits, cocktail dresses, high heels, and jewels, these moviegoers looked like the rest of the assembling crowd. It wasn’t until the movie was over and the director asked them to stand did I realize who was sitting around me-the mothers, fathers, and wives of the actual fallen SEALS depicted in the movie. Tears steamed down my face uncontrollably as I began to comprehend the magnitude of having them all there watching the events unfold that took their precious family members from them.

I don’t know that I could have done it; sat there and watched a movie of the brutal killing of son or husband. That alone would have been hard enough, but then to stand bravely in front of crowd of hundreds as the applause roared over me. That might have broken me: all the eyes on me, and the sound of their applause echoing in my ears.

As it is, I am of no relation to any of the frogmen and the movie caused me to ugly cry. In a matter of a few scenes it opened wounds and fears that I didn’t know I had.

It could have been me- I could have been one of those spouses whose husband left for Afghanistan and never returned. This was my most prevalent thought as I stood to applaud those family members.

Other thoughts of fear and conflict entered my mind as the premiere came to a close. The dichotomy of life for many in Afghanistan was depicted so clearly on screen; extreme fighting and hatred contrasted overwhelming love and honor.

This love and honor closed out the movie as a Pashtunwali is invoked to save Marcus Luttrell. A Pashtunwali is an ancient code of conduct that requires a tribe to harbor and care for the sick and wounded no matter the cost to its own people.

No matter the cost.

I watched in awe as an Afghan took in a US Navy Seal. He cleaned him, changed him, and fought for his return to the US at the expense of himself and everyone in his village.

These closing scenes left me simultaneously humbled and baffled. My husband often speaks of his Afghan counterparts and the lengths they went to protect and aid the US servicemen and women, but seeing it onscreen broke the dam holding all of the emotions that colored my Afghanistan experience.

As I moved into the warehouse turned party palace on the West Side, I wiped at my eyes frantically trying to remove the mascara smears left behind a few moments before. I could not attend a swanky movie premiere party with mascara on my face. Never mind the emotional fog I could not escape.

The whole night was surreal. A movie premiere in NYC about a group of real people who are no longer alive, but their families were chatting with the actors who portrayed loved ones in the mission that took their lives. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it all.

My want to meet the actors and take a bunch of glitzy selfies drew us to the lower level of the party. On this level each table was named for the fallen SEAL and the actor who played him. Amidst these tables the actors mixed with the families and partygoers alike. It was the report the actors and families had with each other that caught my attention. There was an intimacy present in the air around them. And I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in the presence of greatness, and not flashy Hollywood greatness, real greatness. To have half the resiliency and joy the families did as they conversed with the men who looked and acted like their departed loved ones would be a great accomplishment.

These families were real. They were just as funny as they were raw. There were glints of tears during discussions over the challenging childhood years and thanking my husband for his service. But there was also laughter, so much laughter, over snitched cigarettes, ridiculous grandchildren antics, and the absurdity of the Hollywood glitz and glitter.

Quite honestly it has taken me a long time to digest all that I heard and saw that night because it left me raw. The sheer adrenaline with which I had run on since our move to NYC was zapped that night. Watching that movie left me open and susceptible to all the thoughts and fears I had harbored from my husband’s year in Afghanistan. And there were so many, they almost sunk me.

The day after I attended this premiere I wrote down most of this story. As I reread and reflect on it today I am struck by the way I closed this particular writing:

I do know this. I aim to be real. To not let Afghanistan change me negatively. I want to be kind like the Afghan man who saved Marcus, and real like the families. I am truly humbled by this experience and so much more proud to be a part of a community so full of love and support. I want to embody the movie’s tagline: “Live to Tell the Story;” to face the fears and live: kindly, gently, bravely.

I wrote those words on December 4, 2013. Five years later I can see that my words scrawled across the page of my journal were indeed the seeds for who I am today. Truthfully, I don’t remember writing them. Yet, vowing to myself that I would not allow fear and hurt to change me for the worse and vowing to myself to not only be kind, gentle, and brave but to LIVE has brought me to this place to tell my story.

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Photo by Matthew Stroup of Ad Hoc Fotography

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