#NationalBirdPBS premieres on PBS Monday May 1 10/9c

A few members of the 9 Circles team attended KLRN’s Independent Lens Pop-Up Documentary series on April 13th to watch the preview of Sonia Kennebeck’s film National Bird. The documentary will premiere on PBS on May 1st, but we were happy to have a preview glimpse of this haunting story that follows the perspectives of both U.S. intelligence analysts and whistle-blowers as well as civilian Afghan victims of military drone strikes.

I’ll recommend you set your DVR and watch National Bird when it airs on your local PBS station. What was special about this preview was the panel of Veterans’ service professionals who spoke and answered questions after the film. Moderated by SA2020’s Molly Cox, the panel included Kat Cole (LCSW, Airforce Veteran, Director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Family Endeavors, Inc.), Luis A Cortes (active Disabled American Veteran Commander in Helotes & San Antonio, served on active duty with United States Army from 1998 – 2002), Richard Delgado, Jr. (10 years in U.S. Marine Corps, Director of Military Affairs & Army ROTC at Texas A&M University-San Antonio), and Queta Rodriguez (Intelligence Analyst in Marine Corps, appointed as the Bexar County Veterans Service Officer in 2013).

The conversation shaped up in three parts: reactions to the film, “what we are doing right”, and “what should we be doing”.

Queta Rodriguez was first to point out that the film definitely showcases what we are doing that is wrong – the lasting effects on our own soldiers, and, obviously, the victims of drone warfare are very clear. She pointed out, however, there are always multiple viewpoints on each of these issues. She referenced a quote from the film, “It is neither moral nor immoral.” There are times when using the tools at hand are necessary.

I was struck by what Richard Delgado said about the transition back home for many soldiers: “the Uniform takes away who we are.” The individual identity of a person is absorbed by the mission of “One Team. One Fight,” and, upon return to civilian life, that transition can cause a huge struggle of identity: who am I now? How do others see me? Where do I fit in? What is my purpose?

Other panelists pointed out the trauma of war affects not only the service member, but the entire nucleus of the family and community; spouses, children, caretakers, all those around the returning soldier are effected.

What we are doing right…

is to showcase films like this, highlighting and empowering individual voices and opinions. Kat Cole mentioned the extensive range of services now available for veterans and their families, and all agreed that just by articulating that war trauma and PTSD exist is a huge step forward in veteran care.

A veteran from Vietnam in the audience agreed that when he served and came home, no one talked about any of these issues. Being strong is so important to the identity of a soldier that to admit any fragility, any perceived weakness was a total taboo.

What we need to do better…

Continue to fight stigma. Continue to fight veteran suicide. Work together as non-profits and agencies to have a comprehensive system of programs and services.

And my biggest take away was the suggestion of how to approach a veteran, what to say to someone who has served…

Say thank you. Say something…

Don’t be afraid to approach someone and start a conversation, ask how you can help, listen (without pity) and share information. Say thank you to the families and communities of a veteran as well – their journeys do not end when their service ends. Volunteer. And finally, stay engaged – policies affect everyone in our community.

Here’s a bit more about the film National Bird in director Sonia Kennebeck’s words:

nationalbird2It was Ramadan and we were still six hours away from sunset when we could have our first sip of water. That day, it was over one hundred degrees and no one except a little boy in front of me had anything to drink. But in this very moment, thirst didn’t cross my mind. My thoughts and my vision had honed in on the two people in front of me: a father and his son, both dressed in light blue traditional Afghan garb. With a calm voice the man quietly recounted the most disturbing experience of his life. His son, not a year over ten, was cuddled up close, tenderly holding his father’s hand.

Over the three days we filmed the family, the boy was never more than a few steps away from his beloved father. The Taliban had attacked the Afghan parliament with a car bomb, only blocks away from us. Maybe he was still feeling the impact from the loud blast that shook all of us up the previous day. But something tugged at me, suggesting otherwise.

We were sitting in a shady waiting room with turquoise walls at a hospital in Kabul, where this man shared with me that he was studying to become a doctor when a bomb from a U.S. airstrike tore off his leg and shattered his dreams. I didn’t understand his soft-spoken Dari, but two years into my research on drones, his story was all too familiar.

Military leaders have long aspired to wage war through unmanned weapons systems that kill enemies without putting their own troops in harm’s way. Over a decade ago, this vision turned into reality, but much of it was skillfully hidden from the public. As an investigative journalist, I am drawn to secrets. So when I started this project in 2013, I was curious to understand more about the U.S. drone program that had grown so exponentially under the Obama administration and by many accounts had become the President’s weapon of choice in the global war on terror. As a firm believer in the First Amendment and government transparency, I struggled with the secrecy and lack of public discourse around such an extensive killing program.

National Bird is an investigative political documentary that explores the complex issue of drone warfare from a human perspective. Through this film, I hope to enliven the public debate not just by enriching the existing discourse with a balanced portrait of the U.S. drone program, but more importantly by illuminating the impact this program has on the people – veterans and survivors – the human side of this war. Like previous advancements in military technology, combat drones have transformed warfare, outpacing the ability of legal and moral frameworks to adapt and address these developments. A broad, immersive, and thoroughly public discourse is critical to understanding the social cost of drone warfare.

From the day I met my first source in rural Pennsylvania to that moment in Kabul where I sat on a wooden bench opposite a maimed man and his son, this project has grown far beyond my expectations. The protagonists have given me intimate access to their stories and lives to educate the public about a weapons program with global implications. I greatly respect their courage and thoughtfulness, but most of all their humanity.

Catch National Bird on PBS Monday May 1 – 10/9c


Join us for 9 Circles by Bill Cain June 15 – 25 – http://www.classictheatre.org for tickets

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