The Long Road Home: We’re On Set As Martha Raddatz’s Moving Tale Of Military Sacrifice Comes To National Geographic

Long Road Home National Geographic Jason Ritter National Geographic/Van Redin
Jason Ritter portrays Capt. Troy Denomy on set of The Long Road Home at U.S. Military post, Fort Hood, Killeen, Texas.

It’s 1am on a stifling, central Texas June night and a life-or-death battle is being waged in a remote area of the sprawling Fort Hood military base. Fifteen soldiers hunker down in an open-sided tactical vehicle that is no match for their assailants’ firepower. Some fire frantically into the hostile darkness. Others bellow from the pain of fresh wounds. And one, their leader, does his best to mitigate chaos.

No, war hasn’t come stateside. Nor is this an elaborate training exercise. Instead, I’m in the midst of a rending, pivotal moment on the set of National Geographic’s event series The Long Road Home.


Based on ABC News Chief Global Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz’s 2007 bestseller of the same name, Home spotlights the human impact of war via a cadre of American soldiers, their Iraqi interpreter and their terrified families awaiting news during April 4, 2004’s “Black Sunday” ambush in Baghdad. On that day, newly arrived 1st Cavalry Division platoon members launched a goodwill mission to help restore Sadr City, the city’s sprawling slum, following an uprising by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army. Instead, the men were attacked by a surging mob of once U.S.-friendly men, women and children — leaving one unit trapped in a home with dwindling ammunition and no way to call for help. By the time a daring rescue was accomplished, eight men were dead, some 50 others injured and the Iraq conflict redefined.

“This one day stands in our story as a microcosm for the entire war,” says showrunner Mikko Alanne of his series — a meticulously crafted collaboration with Raddatz, executive producer Mike Medavoy and the military — that was nine years in the making. “This is the day that the insurgency began. It also sparked the modern anti-war movement in the States. Tomas Young, who became one of the leading anti-war voices of his generation, was paralyzed in the battle. [Peace activist] Cindy Sheehan’s son Casey was killed. All these threads of history converge on this one day.”

But — and this part is key — Home is not a treatise on war or its causes. It’s about bravery and sacrifice, brother- and sisterhood, the true meaning of family and the very best of human nature when ordinary people rise to extraordinary circumstance. And viewers who arguably stand to gain the most from tuning in are like me, folks with few soldiers in their lineage and little gut understanding of what military families endure — and how those casualties on the nightly news ripple for a lifetime.

Throughout each of the eight episodes, viewers revisit the day through main characters that are — or, in several tragic cases, were — real-life people. People like Lt. Col. Gary Volesky (House of CardsMichael Kelly), whose command had only just begun when the ambush occurred. Like his wife, LeAnn (Sarah Wayne Callies, The Walking Dead), who eased other families’ terror even as she feared for her own husband. Like Volesky’s company commander Troy Denomy (Jason Ritter), who, just days before had welcomed a son with his wife Gina (Kate Bosworth). Like Sgt. Robert Miltenberger (Jeremy Sisto, Suburgatory), a disaffected career soldier whose longed-for retirement was kiboshed by the mission, leaving him to guide terrified young soldiers in the midst of a living hell.

On this dusty night in Killeen, the actors telling the soldiers’ stories aren’t only surrounded by crew and a trio of reporters. Raddatz is here, too, roaming the set alongside some of her “guys,” Eric Bourquin, Clay Spicer, Matt Fisk, Ben Hayhurst, Aaron Fowler, Carl Wild and Roberto Arambula — all former soldiers who were involved in the siege and rescue. It’s a weighty time for all. Some of the men stay nearby as the vehicle circles the set, faux guns blazing and actors shouting, so Alanne can get the noise, the smoke, the terror just right. Others retreat to a nearby rooftop to process the scene in private. It’s impossible not to tear up as the men talk of the siege, of their respect for each other and their gratitude to Raddatz for telling their stories and, in doing do, strengthening their bond as a band of brothers.

It’s outright sobering when most say Black Sunday was not the worst night of their lives.

“We all physically saw those guys climbing in those vehicles and doing that. You can never forget it,” says Bourquin, another main character in the series, who serves as both cheerleader and technical adviser. “It’s a daily event that in some form or fashion you think about them, you think about us, you think about the unit. This is really personal, and there’s a lot of anxiety.”

“These guys had never been in battle,’” says Raddatz, who made more than 20 trips to Iraq and embedded with soldiers during the worst of the conflict. “You can train and train and train, but they never expected to be in battle, and they had not been in combat. I always say it’s from the minivan to the Humvee. From that day on they were not the same guys in the minivans. They were not the same guys as the day before.”

“Hollywood is always so focused on special forces stories,” adds Alanne. “This is the story of the everyman soldier and a portrait of what it’s like to go to war when you’ve never been to war, not just for the soldiers, but for the American military family. I just wept when I read it, thinking, ‘How can this not be made?’ And all of our cast has been infused with the same passion.”

The actors — who spent weeks training with veteran Army Rangers — and their real-life counterparts forged a mutual admiration society, the vets claiming the actors made them feel “like rock stars” and the actors humbled and awed by the soldiers’ warmth and gratitude that they were telling not just their own stories, but those of their fallen comrades. “There’s no doubt I’ll carry this for the rest of my life,” says a visibly moved Kelly. “I’ll carry this experience. I’ll carry this story. And I’ll carry the respect that I have for the men and women who do what they do for me, for all of us.”

The Long Road Home two-hour premiere Tuesday, Nov. 7 at 9/8c on National Geographic. Subsequent episodes premiere Tuesdays at 10/9c.

NEXT: National Geographic’s The Long Road Home: Cast Members Talk Real-Life Counterparts


About Lori Acken 1195 Articles
Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.