FORT HOOD, Texas -- While filming continued here for the National Geographic miniseries "The Long Road Home," veterans from 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division Task Force Lancer reunited to mark the 13th anniversary of the battle in eastern Baghdad known as "Black Sunday."
The production details events of April 4, 2004, when a platoon was ambushed in Sadr City, and the rescue missions to save them just days into their yearlong deployment.
Those trapped on the roof and interior of a Sadr City home on a narrow alleyway and the men who fought their way in to rescue their pinned-down brothers came together at Fort Hood this week to reunite and remember.
Filming for the miniseries ceased for a moment of silence in remembrance of the eight Soldiers who lost their lives on April 4, 2004. Afterward, the vets of the battle toured the sets that replicate the streets of Sadr City and Camp War Eagle in Baghdad.
Production began March 27 on the installation for the miniseries, based on the New York Times bestseller by Martha Raddatz. It tells the story, not only of the battle that claimed the lives of eight U.S. Soldiers, but also the effects on the home front to present a 360-degree view of Soldiers' and their Families' experiences at war.
The project, which is slated to premiere later this year, will star Michael Kelly, Kate Bosworth Sarah Wayne Callies, Jason Ritter, Jeremy Sisto, E.J. Bonilla, Patrick Schwarzenegger and Noel Fisher, National Geographic announced last month.
Eric Bourquin was in the platoon trapped in an alley April 4, 2004, as the streets around them exploded. He is medically retired, after serving 15 years and now is a military technical adviser for the miniseries. He said the experience of working on the production has been strange.
"It feels weird," Bourquin said. "It's crazy because I never thought (the story) would make it this far."
Working on the film has been emotional for him. The physical aspect of working has been easy, but the emotional aspect has been draining.
"It's like being back in the middle of it, living in the moment," Bourquin said, adding that it also has been helpful to him. "The more I tell the story, the easier it is."
Those around Bourquin have made the experience easier for him, he added, noting that the film crew and cast members have been invested in the story and working hard to keep it as authentic as possible.
Carl Wild, Justin Bellamy and Benjamin Hayhurst, who also were trapped in the alley in Sadr City, said they are happy about the miniseries.
"I'm happy that our brothers' stories are being told," Wild, now medically retired and in college, said. "I want that sacrifice to be shown."
He said he thinks about that day and the deployment every day, but finds strength in the sacrifices his brothers made.
"Knowing they gave their lives for us gives us the strength to go on," Wild said.
Hayhurst said the miniseries is a sort of closure.
"For me, it makes it part of history," Hayhurst, who left the Army in 2005, said. "Now it's time to move on."
Bellamy said the fact that they were regular Soldiers put in such an extreme position makes this an interesting story to tell.
"I think it's a great story getting out there not about SEAL Team 6," Bellamy, who was medically retired in 2013 and working as a project manager, said. "It's about everyday people facing stuff for the first time."
SEEING THE SET
Bourquin said the set is "pretty spot on" in depicting Sadr City.
"They got everything but the smell," he said.
At the Fort Hood training site that has been transformed into the sets for Sadr City and Camp War Eagle, Bourquin led several of those who were with him 13 years prior into the replicated house where the platoon took cover. They walked the roof and recalled that day, exactly 13 years ago.
The realism was a bit overwhelming for some.
"It made me confused," Bellamy said. "It was real to the point of making me think about it."
Wild was also caught by the realism.
"The rooftop was rough," he said, adding that Vietnam veterans are able to go back to see their battlegrounds. That is not an option for these veterans, as Sadr City and many other places in Iraq are still too dangerous.
For Hayhurst, seeing Soldiers in the desert camouflage while filming the deployment ceremony scenes was more jarring.
"I was numb," Hayhurst said about seeing the Sadr City set.
Many of the veterans were caught off-guard by the uniforms, as well as seeing the actors portraying their fallen brothers in those uniforms. For Bellamy, the Sadr City set reminded him of the desperation of being stuck on April 4, 2004, and the unexpected attack that day.
"I was just a small-town Indiana kid," he added.
The sheer intensity of the ambush on April 4, 2004, followed by 90 days of constant contact tested every one of the veterans.
"We just went through hell," James Slevin said. "We never got a chance to catch our breath. The next day, our platoon was put on an Iraqi police station for five days."
April 4, 2004, was a rough beginning, but the deployment did not get much easier.
"I was sure I was going to die that day," Hayhurst said, adding that, "it was exciting as hell at first."
Bellamy and Wild recalled a few moments of bewilderment and disconcertion when the attacks began, but not for long. As the days wore on, combat became the norm for the men during that deployment.
"It became my comfort zone," Bellamy said.
"It wasn't that we weren't afraid, we just didn't notice it as much," Wild added.
Slevin was driving a HMMWV as part of the first quick reaction forces convoy that went into the city to rescue the stranded platoon that day. He left the Army in 2013 as a staff sergeant, and is now attending Belhaven University in Houston.
"At the time, it was just like, 'Oh, this is happening,'" he said.
Patrick O'Neal was the truck commander with Slevin that day. The "old man" of the platoon, O'Neal re-enlisted in 2001 after a five-year break in service. He retired from the Army in April 2015.
Looking back on that deployment, O'Neal said he is proud of what the Black Knights accomplished, especially on April 4 and the ensuing days.
"Nobody hesitated to get their gear on and go. They wanted to go out," O'Neal said. "Some of the stories are just amazing."
Every one of the veterans is quick to tell about another man's actions that day, and all are quick to downplay their own roles in the battle.
"We were just trying to stay alive," Bourquin said.
Coming together is helpful to most of the Black Knights veterans.
"It makes it better," Wild said. "It's better to be together on this day. I feel safe."
Bellamy said there is always a lot of talking in small groups and making fun of each other. Just being with each other eases isolation and reminds them of the brotherhood they share.
"There are not a lot of others who understand," Wild added.
They also see the strides made by their fellow veterans during the reunions.
"You see how much everyone has grown," Bellamy said. "We share ideas to deal with stuff."
O'Neal continues to stay in touch with his brothers and enjoys the reunions.
"I like seeing people," he said. "I am proud of everything we did over there, so I look at it as a celebration."
For Matt Fisk, the reunion this year was easier than in previous years. For the last 10 months, Fisk said he has had no symptoms of the post-traumatic stress he carried since 2004.
"I am able to express emotions, but they aren't overwhelming," he said. "This year, I didn't run (from them)."
Fisk said the key for him was forgiveness.
"You have to forgive," Fisk said, noting he held a long-time grudge against the Iraqi militia for their actions, especially the use of children as combatants.
"I hated them for what they did," he said. "I was still stuck in that alley for years."
In the past year, Fisk has learned to move on, but he worries about others who struggle.
The men of Task Force Lancer are moving on with their lives, but it is a process. They have taken various avenues to adjust and find their niches.
"I have made a conscious decision to not make the past part of the future," Wild said.
Many of them are in school or working in their secondary careers. Most have Families and have settled into their new lives. Others have joined civic and social groups to maintain or reestablish the camaraderie they had in the Army. Losing the bonds of camaraderie is a common dilemma for veterans, regardless of their experiences in service.
Rafael Riera, who also was part of the first QRF to rescue the pinned platoon, joined the local chapter of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association.
"It helps keep a closeness," Riera said.
The Black Knights veterans still rely on each other and help each other.
"It's a brotherhood you never lose," Riera said.
Sometimes moving on means keeping a part of a painful past close.
"Keeping in touch helps," Fisk said, adding that they also talk about other things unrelated to the deployment. "Talking about the future helps us move on together. It doesn't matter how much time has passed, it's like we hadn't spent a minute apart."
In many ways, they have moved on together. To varying degrees, the men keep in touch via phone calls and social media, especially as the April 4 anniversary approaches each year.
"We reach out to each other," Hayhurst said.
When they are together, it is like they were never apart, Fisk said, noting that relationships like that are vital to recovery and coping.
"It's the guy to the left and right of you that matters," Fisk said.