Soldier brings the war home

SUN JOURNAL

Recording: A young man who carried a camera as well as a rifle documented the excitement of a high-stakes raid and the tedium of daily camp life.

March 30, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

KINGSTON SPRINGS, Tenn. - Before the Army troop truck moves an inch, Darren Takayesu is already rolling. With an eye to posterity, he turns on his digital video camera and trains it on the other soldiers piled into the 5-ton with him.

"I want to say hi to Mom," one of the soldiers says.

The truck lurches into the baking heat, and now Takayesu speaks into the camera.

"Here we go," he says, his face glistening with sweat. "Making history, oh yeah."

It was July 22. Takayesu and his unit of the 101st Airborne Division were about to get a small piece of a huge moment in the Iraq war: the raid in Mosul that killed Saddam Hussein's sons, Odai and Qusai.

Takayesu, naturally, intended to film the historic event. Who needed two canteens of water, anyway? He'd leave the water and stash the pocket-size JVC camera into his canteen pouch until the moment was right to film.

"T," as friends call the 23-year-old private first class, cut short his studies at Chapman University outside Los Angeles to join the Army. He enlisted in 2002, moved by patriotism after the Sept. 11 attacks.

When the war began in March, he shot only with his M-4 rifle. But when June arrived and it was clear his battalion wasn't going home soon, he asked his mother in Honolulu for a video camera. She mailed one, along with extra batteries and digital cassettes.

So the film student-turned-soldier entered another phase. He became a soldier documenting the war he was fighting. Now safely back in the United States after his 11-month deployment, he is watching his films for the first time.

His images add to the vast store of war footage from Iraq. News crews, especially those "embedded" with military units, recorded the conflict from the start. And many soldiers had video cameras of their own.

What sets Takayesu apart is that other soldiers, at least those in his company, left their cameras behind during patrols or raids. He often didn't. And experience has shown that troops act more naturally around a fellow soldier than they do with, say, Ted Koppel, giving his work a purer sense of authenticity.

Watching his own footage for the first time last month after returning from Iraq, Takayesu was not sure how to react.

"Words are failing," he says at the home of a family friend here, not far from the 101st Airborne's base at Fort Campbell, Ky. "It's a good feeling because you're alive enough to see it. Right up to leaving, a mortar round could have prevented it."

Takayesu is no Fellini. He doesn't aspire to direct. To him the fun is in producing, and his hero is Jerry Bruckheimer, the force behind violent action movies such as Armageddon. When he gets out of the Army in 18 months, he plans to resume his film studies.

Takayesu's infatuation with movies began with a ninth-grade project on special effects. In Iraq, of course, things actually did blow up. The bullets were real, as was the blood.

He didn't focus on combat, though. His snippets captured a cross-section of life for soldiers who spent most of past year in Iraq. He documented them, and himself, manning checkpoints, mounting raids, shooting the breeze and sleeping.

"I wanted to record things for the platoon, to make a video just of our life there," he says. "It was going to be something for posterity, the most mundane things. I wasn't trying to make a movie."

Even if he had wanted to, there would have been obvious limitations. He could not set up scenes or pick his lighting. The most he hoped for was a pleasing angle here, nice framing there - the kind of thing his film professors might like.

Through it all, he never forgot why he was in Iraq. "Soldier first, cameraman second."

If the 12 or so hours of footage don't quite add up to a movie, they are revealing nonetheless. At one point Takayesu showed soldiers riding in the back of a Humvee facing inward. It was last summer in the northern Iraq city of Mosul.

"This is how we used to pull security before things got serious," Takayesu says, sitting in front of the television in his friend's basement. "Everyone's focused inward, like, `We've been there, done that.'"

When attacks mounted on the 101st, he says, soldiers began facing out so they could look for potential assailants.

With danger an ever-present reality in Iraq, particularly in the autumn, soldiers sometimes made light of what they could not escape. One day, Takayesu and his buddies filmed a mock ambush.

"Nothing is going to happen to me," Takayesu says blithely on camera, seconds before another soldier pretends to shoot him with a pistol at close range.

"Oh, no!" Takayesu cries, moaning like a bad actor in a bad movie. They weren't belittling the risk they faced, though. Takayesu, after all, lost two close friends in the war.

Downtime turned out to be primetime for pressing the record button. In one segment, a smiling young Iraqi man who worked with the troops is pictured shouting out every American curse word he'd learned.

The unprintable outburst ended with him triumphantly demanding, "You wanna talk?!"

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