By Elizabeth M. CollinsNovember 10, 2009
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Nov. 10, 2009) - MTV will honor America's veterans and servicemembers Wednesday by following a young noncommissioned officer as he returns to the battlefields of Iraq.
"Return to Duty," scheduled to air at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on MTV, follows Sgt. Ryan Conklin, who starred on "The Real World: Brooklyn," through his recall as an Individual Ready Reserve member and his return to Iraq.
"Our goal was to tell a personal story of a Soldier and the impact on his family and other personal relationships when sent overseas to a war zone," said Jim Johnston, "Return to Duty's" producer, in an e-mail. "We did not want to politicize our story, but instead show the sacrifices that every Soldier and his family make regardless of the war or the country that he/she fights for. We wanted viewers to experience the pain, the sand, the heat and the emotions that all Soldiers feel."
Called to serve
Like many who were compelled to fight for the defenseless, Conklin - who is a specialist throughout the film - initially joined the Army after 9/11, and deployed to Iraq as a HUMVEE gunner, but he had other dreams for his life and felt one tour was enough.
"Though I cursed it daily," he said of Army life via e-mail, "at the end of the day, I always felt proud of what I was doing," adding that "I lived years in this uniform, so it wasn't a shock to see myself in a mirror wearing it. Something inside of me secretly missed it, so it was nice to put it back on."
The real world
Conklin's time with "The Real World: Brooklyn," started almost as a joke. MTV was casting at a bar he was visiting and he decided to try out on the spur of the moment, figuring he didn't have anything to lose. He was shocked when he made the final cuts.
"I found it comical that they kept calling me back and I was advancing," he said. "I kept asking myself what they saw in me. I went in every interview thinking it would be my last. Eventually, they called me up and said they had settled on me. I was totally shocked and excited at the same time.
"Living normal in such an abnormal environment takes some getting used to. I went in and embraced the whole experience and ignored the cameras as best I could. I tried to make the best out of every day. I did, saw, and lived with events that I would never experience if it wasn't for the show."
At first, most of his castmates didn't even know he was a veteran, and just got to know "crazy, random, sarcastic me," as Conklin said. All that changed with a phone call from his brother Aaron, who is in the Army National Guard and actually deploys during the documentary as well. The Army needed Conklin, who was still in the IRR, back.
It hit him like a "ton of bricks," Conklin said, remembering that he hoped it was some kind of April Fools joke, and the "Real World" cameras captured his shock and his tears.
"The entire crew was moved to tears by this emotional and unexpected turn of events. Every one of us at the time had the desire and thought to continue following Ryan's story in his return to Iraq," said Johnston.
Sharing his story
Conklin was reluctant to do the documentary at first, but decided it would be a good way to help other families going through a deployment. He started filming himself with a small hand-held camera and an MTV video crew later joined him in Iraq, also filming his family at home.
The hour-long documentary that resulted explores the emotional devastation and strength of the Conklin family and Conklin's first few months back in the Army and Iraq.
"I want people to see more of what it puts a family through," Conklin said. "My parents were kind enough to open their emotions with cameras around, a feat that is not easy. It displays a side that I never saw of what deployment does to a family. I was always on the other end, so I never saw that side of my family. Even I learned something from this documentary."
"I'm really pleased with how it all came together, both with the footage I filmed and what they filmed of me and my family. It all gelled. The power of film... My family has all seen it and are very proud. It's hard putting your life and tough emotions out there for public consumption.
"I give them credit. It was very emotional to watch. I made sure I watched it alone first and am glad I did. The guys I serve with don't need to see me all glossy-eyed, but that's how I was when I first watched it. I saw a side of my family I never had to see while being deployed," Conklin added.
Throughout the week, MTV, MTV2 and mtvU (an MTV channel available online and on college campuses) will also air a short feature and three public service announcements on veterans who have gone from war to college and the challenges they face. They are also available online at