We were on patrol in Ganjagal Valley in Afghanistan when our interpreter signaled a halt.
He leaned toward his radio. We’d been spotted, he said. The Taliban was coordinating an ambush. The interpreter smiled: “They say we have a reporter with us.”
“There’s no reporter,” I said. “What are they talking about?”
We were infantrymen, a couple of medics, and me, the chaplain. Then it dawned on me. I was holding a camera, and I had no weapon.
“Wait,” I said. “Did they say to shoot the reporter or not to?”
The guys laughed. The interpreter laughed. I was serious, but since we all were targets that day, it didn’t matter. We headed into a nearby cornfield to look for the ambush.
People ask me why, as an Army chaplain, I carried a camera into battle. Or why I went on missions in the first place. For two different reasons, I say, but both led to “No Greater Love,” in theaters this Veteran’s Day weekend.
It started on my second day as Army Chaplain to my unit in the 101st Airborne Division, when a soldier in my unit committed suicide. A week later, another suicide, A few months later, another. And then another. For my first six months on active duty, every week brought suicide attempts and gestures. In 2009, our battalion was one of the most suicidal in the military.
Our high rate might be unusual for one unit, but among service members, suicide is the number-one killer. Among veterans, the rate is 20-plus a day. For the men and women who serve, this quiet epidemic is the foremost threat. For the No Slack battalion, it was overwhelming.
So what to do? Suicide is not a germ or an enemy combatant. It’s a person who has lost hope. How to regain it?
Our approach became to help soldiers connect and talk, and it worked well. This meant I too had to open my life more, and every soldier kept my phone number on speed dial #7, a good chaplain number.
Across the next months, suicidal ideas and other problems lowered . . . and then came a difficult deployment.
Sidelining with First Sergeant Randy Wright, my mentor at the time, I asked how I should go about the deployment.
“For the guys to connect with you, you go out on a patrol at least once with each platoon and stay near the front for chaplain stuff during major operations.” he said.
In the 101st, Randy had an insane level of respect. He was tough and, like a father, he loved his soldiers. For all of us, connecting was mission critical, and now my mission was laid out: every platoon, near the front.
As for no weapons, this was a carryover from the Geneva Convention, when the enemy withheld shooting at medics and chaplains. The current enemy is less gracious, but orders from the Chief of Chaplains office stand. I asked my commander, LTC JB Vowell, if I could carry a camera.
“Just don’t get shot,” he said.
I have a background in photography and my second masters is in media arts and communication, with a focus in writing. Generally, if I go anywhere, I have a camera, and I’m taking pictures and filming.
And so the idea took root to document the mission, and then, in actual deployment, what I saw took me much further. Men I thought I knew, my friends, committed acts of valor I’d have never thought possible. Such selflessness–and these stories needed to be told, not for history alone, but for others to see what these men were teaching me.
Post-deployment, I circled back to interview some of the soldiers I had served with, and when the film came together, I partnered with Mike Low, a Vietnam veteran and father of a wounded soldier I had prayed over on the battlefield. Our goal was for the film to be an awareness campaign, a means to support veteran charities.
— No Greater Love (@NGL_Film) November 3, 2017
My proceeds, 100 percent, would go to veteran charities, but there needed to be more. Working with Atlas Distribution, we extended the credits: “Go to nogreaterlove.com/give and donate to support a national veteran charity or a local veteran charity.” And we aimed it for Veterans Day.
A nation can’t solve what it can’t see. Everyone must know about this war, the soldiers in it, and what it’s like to come home from it. “No Greater Love” starts the conversation. From there, it’s up to America. If you’d like to join in, please go to NoGreaterLove.com
Retired U.S. Army Chaplain Justin Roberts is the director of “No Greater Love”