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Stories of wounded Iraq vets on HBO
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NEW YORK — Dawn Halfaker remembers the clear desert sky that day in June 2004. She remembers it was quiet. An Army first lieutenant, she’d been serving in Iraq four months.
What she also remembers is, a rocket-propelled grenade tore through her shoulder and exploded just behind her head. For more than a week she hovered near death. To help save her life, her right arm and shoulder were amputated.
In October 2005, Sgt. Bryan Anderson was at the wheel of his Humvee patrolling Baghdad when the bomb went off. As he tried to wipe blood and flies from his face, his injuries revealed themselves in awful succession: a lost fingertip on his right hand; then, his left hand not there; then, both legs gone.
Halfaker and Anderson are two of 10 soldiers and Marines showcased in an HBO documentary, “Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq,” premiering Sunday at 10:30 p.m. EDT. (It will also be available on HBO on Demand, and streamed on
In soldier-slang, the term “alive day” refers to a special kind of rebirth, a day experienced by cheating death. A few such survivors tell their stories in the film. They tell about what went before, as well as the personal battles they’ve been waging since.
At the heart of the film are one-on-one conversations with James Gandolfini, who, as an executive producer of “Alive Day Memories,” sees his documentary as a way to put a human face on the cost of this war.
“I’ve been surprised, because I’m a cynical person, by the honor and loyalty and discipline that these kids have,” said Gandolfini, who visited troops in Iraq in late 2004 on behalf of the USO. “The positives of these kids aren’t put out there enough.
“I say ‘kids.’ I’m an old man,” chuckled the “Sopranos” star, who turns 46 later this month. “I mean: ‘young adults.’”
He was joining Halfaker (age 28) and Anderson (26) to talk with a reporter a few days ago. But mostly Gandolfini listened. With this-isn’t-about-me reticence, he deflected most questions to the people beside him.
“To be completely honest with you, I just thought it would be cool,” Anderson replied when asked why he took part in the film (and it has been cool, he grinned). “But now, I want people to be educated about what the film is saying.”
He recalled filming his interview with Gandolfini last December on a sound stage in Manhattan.
“I was still in the hospital when I did that,” said Anderson, who spent 13 months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and had 40 operations. “Now, I don’t go to hospitals and do therapy. I’m just living life now.”
He walks on two prosthetic legs and has a lifelike, mechanical prosthetic hand that was cast from his brother’s left hand, he explained ‚Äî down to his brother’s fingerprints molded into the synthetic skin.
“You could get him on a few things,” Gandolfini joked.
Originally, “Alive Day Memories” was going to be filmed inside the walls of Walter Reed, with Gandolfini talking to soldiers being treated there. Then, shortly before filming was scheduled to begin, military brass yanked their permission. Months later, a likely reason came to light with shocking reports of substandard care at the Washington, D.C., facility.
But the film, even in its rejiggered format, does what it first aimed to do, said Halfaker: “It gives a snapshot of a number of people at different points in our recovery.”
Those people — six from the Army and four Marines — range in age from 21 to 41 years, each with plenty to recover from.
Produced and photographed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill (who made the Peabody Award-winning “Baghdad ER”), “Alive Day Memories” strips away the purpose, or folly, of war for an hour of unobscured attention to something else: the personal repercussions.

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