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Off to War: The Story of the Arkansas National Guard’s Journey to Iraq

StoryAugust 25, 2004
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In April 2004, 57 citizen soldiers from Clarksville, Arkansas left their jobs and their families to serve in Iraq as members of the 239th Infantry of the Arkansas National Guard. Embedded with them is the brother filmmaking team of Brent and Craig Renaud who tell their story in a new documentary, “Off to War” featuring on the Discovery Times Channel. [includes rush transcript]

A year and half after the US launched its invasion of Iraq, an investigative panel in Washington is criticizing the Pentagon’s war plan, saying it called for too few troops and that it did not have a good strategy for occupying the country after the defeat of Saddam Hussein.

Since the invasion, nearly 1,000 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq and many thousands more wounded. Today, we are going to take a look at some of the personal stories of those American men and women that have been shipped off to war. Many of them are not professional soldiers, they are members of the Army Reserve, National Guardsmen and semi-retired veterans.

A new documentary called “Off to War” tells the story of the Arkansas National Guard’s Deployment to Iraq. In April 2004, 57 citizen soldiers from Clarksville, Arkansas left their jobs and their families to serve in Iraq as members of the 239th Infantry of the Arkansas National Guard. Embedded with them is the brother filmmaking team of Brent and Craig Renaud.

A special Discovery Spotlight presentation of Off to War premieres on the Discovery Channel today at 8 PM and 11 PM ET.

  • Brent Renaud, independent filmmaker and co-director of “Off to War.”
  • Craig Renaud, independent filmmaker and co-director of “Off to War.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A new documentary called Off to War, tells the story of the Arkansas National Guard’s deployment to Iraq in April, 2004. Fifty-seven citizen-soldiers from Clarksville, Arkansas left their jobs and families to serve in Iraq as members of the 239th Infantry of the Arkansas National Guard. Embedded with them is the brother filmmaking team of Brent and Craig Renaud. The Discovery presentation of Off to War will air on the Discovery Channel tonight. Let’s begin with Brent Renaud. Welcome to Democracy Now!. Brent, can you just set the scene for us? Tell us about this documentary.

BRENT RENAUD: Hi, yeah, we’ve been embedded with the Arkansas National Guard since last October when they got activated. They left their jobs as farmers, as ministers, as police officers, and became active soldiers in the U.S. military. Since then we’ve been following them through their training, over to Iraq where they began their mission there — in an area north of Baghdad called Taji. At the same time, we’ve been following their families back home to see what happens with their businesses — how life in the town of Clarksville where they’re from — this is about an hour-and-a-half north of Little Rock. So, we’ve been following both sides of the conflict, at home and in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re speaking to Brent and Craig Renaud from a studio in Little Rock, Arkansas where they’re following one of the soldiers coming home. Craig, you survived an ambush in Iraq; but before we talk about that, I was wondering if could you set up our first clip.

CRAIG RENAUD: Yeah, the first clip that we have is a clip with two of the younger guys that we’re filming, Matt Hartline and Tommy Earp. These guys are both 19 years old. They joined the National Guard when they were 17, which actually you have to get a parent’s signature to join when you’re that young. This is a clip where we first meet them and their families.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the clip.

TOMMY EARP: … heading over to my buddy Matt Hartline’s house. We’re in the Guards together. We graduated high school together. We’ve been good friends for a while. He joined the military, I guess it’s my fault. This is my buddy, Matt Hartline. He’s a Specialist in the United States National Guard—well, Arkansas National Guard, but I guess it’s the United States now—heading to Iraq.

MATT HARTLINE: My mom’s not too happy about it. She’s—yeah—every time she even starts talking about it, she starts bawling, man. That’s my mom, Suzanne. That’s my dad, Steve Hartline. That’s my parents.

STEVE HARTLINE: Well, I’m proud of the boys, but I don’t think they have any business over there.

MATT HARTLINE: We know what we’re doing. It’s not like we’re going over there, and we’re just going to be sandbags getting shot at.

SUZANNE HARTLINE: Those suicide bombers and stuff, I mean, they’re willing to kill their self, and they don’t care who they kill. I don’t want him to go.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Off to War that’s airing on the Discovery Channel tonight. The questioning by the citizen-soldiers continued as they made their way to Iraq. Craig, in this next clip that we’ll hear, we’re going to move into a familiar Edwin Star refrain; but introduce these young man who are going off to war.

CRAIG RENAUD: I believe the next clip is with the group of young African-American soldiers. Specialist Small is one of those soldiers, and this is them going out in Fort Hood, Texas, before — or, actually, when they first arrive at Fort Hood for their training. They did about six months of training before they’re actually deployed to Iraq. So this is a clip with him and some of his friends going out in Fort Hood, Texas.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the clip.

SPECIALIST SMALL: It’s scary. It’s getting close. You about to go. You know it’s real when you put this on. It’s just one step closer to Iraq. I got to knock these wrinkles out, so I can look decent — represent that flag.

FRIEND: My man Small, you know, we down here in Fort Hood. Just got down here. We about to go out.

FRIEND: Black people, we don’t have the same opportunities as other people do, you know what I’m saying, so we had to find a way out, you know what I’m saying. The National Guard was our way out.

FRIEND: [singing] I don’t want to go to Iraq. I don’t want to go to. I want to go home, to my woman girl. Saddam Hussein, man, he ain’t did nothing to me. He ain’t did nothing to c. he ain’t did nothing to t.

FRIEND: I don’t want to go to Iraq, man. He didn’t do nothing to me, man. Let me get out of this here, man.

FRIEND: How do I feel about going to Iraq? I don’t feel good about it at all.

SPECIALIST SMALL: This is my homie, I know from basic, you know what I’m saying.. We’re all from Arkansas.

FRIEND: There’s supposed to be some nuclear weapons over there, but ain’t nobody found nothing.

FRIEND: Even if we do win the war, you know what I’m saying, what are our benefits?

FRIEND: You know George Bush ain’t sending none of his kids over there. And I just want to let it be known, George Bush, you’re wrong.

FRIEND: [singing] War! Huh! Good God, y’all! What is it good for?

FRIENDS: [singing together]Absolutely nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Off to War. And we are joined by the Renaud brothers, Craig and Brent Renaud, from a studio in Little Rock, Arkansas. They’ve gone to Arkansas to follow one of the soldiers who has come back home. In the next clip we’re going to meet Sergeant Joe Bets. Craig, Brent, which one of you spent time with him? Which one of you filmed this?

BRENT RENAUD: Yeah, I started filming with Joe Bets last —


BRENT RENAUD: … last fall, the fall of 2003. Joe was a minister at the time and he had started a non-denominational multiracial church. It was just beginning to get off the ground. His wife, Amy, does not work. He was the sole breadwinner in the family, and as she says in the film, she depended on him for everything, from cutting the grass, to balancing the checkbooks, to picking the kids up from school. And Joe Bets has been in the National Guard for about 20 years, and this was his first activation. And I think in this clip you see he and his wife talk about the struggles that they’re having with this.

JOE BETS: This is my beautiful wife, Amy. I have been away, and — you know — it’s been somewhat of an ordeal for her.

[Baby screams.]

AMY BETS: What is going on now?

CHILD: He slapped me.

AMY BETS: Madison, you do not hit your sister. Do you understand me? Come here. I’m going to tell you now, if you don’t straighten up, I’m going to put my hand on your backside. It is so hard. I miss him. I want him to come back home and discipline them, because they need it. Okay, what do you want me to say?

CHILD: Dear Daddy, he was my best friend. And he didn’t come back home. We just miss him.

JOE BETS: [reading] You’re the best daddy in the world. I wish you didn’t leave. Matt woke up this morning and asked me what time it was, and he said — he said because I want to know how long until you come back. I miss you so much. But daddy, I just wish you were here. Love Megan. I’m looking for a miracle. I really don’t want to be here. I miss my family, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Sergeant Joe Bets. How long ago, and what has happened to him since, Craig and Brent Renaud? Brent?

BRENT RENAUD: At this point, that was when we were still in Fort Hood, Texas where they were doing their training, right before they were about to go to Iraq. And I think the reality of what they were going through was setting in for him and Amy both at about that time. Since then, they were, you know, obviously deployed to Kuwait and then to Iraq. Joe bets was there for about three months and then he had a recurring injury from an accident years ago that he got in his National Guard training. So, he’s now back in Clarksville recuperating from that. Next month they will decide whether he goes back to Iraq or whether he will be staying at home.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the clip, a remarkable clip of these citizen-soldiers talking about the difference in how they’re treated with how the army is treated. Craig, can you set it up?

CRAIG RENAUD: Well, the next clip shows the guys in Kuwait preparing to go into Iraq. The vehicles that they traveled with were the vehicles that they’ve had in Clarksville Arkansas, at the National Guard armory for quite some time. These vehicles were taken from Arkansas, put on ships, taken to Kuwait, and this is what they travel into Iraq with. The vehicle — a lot of the vehicles, four out of their 44 vehicles in this particular unit were up armored, the rest of them did not have armor. In this clip, you will see them trying to make their vehicles hardened for the convoy they had to do into Iraq.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN: The convoy we’re getting ready to take to Camp Taji, north of Baghdad — it’s pretty serious. Some of the equipment is old, so we’re trying to make sure it doesn’t break down.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN: I can’t — I have no idea why, you know, the United States Army would make us deploy with this old crap. I think they’re going to quickly understand that when half of it breaks down on the way to Taji, and it will, that it’s not a good idea to deploy a national guard unit with old Vietnam-era equipment.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN: This is what an armored vehicle should look like. The vehicle is totally armored, completely all the way around, even in the front windshield. This is the modern vehicles that the regular army has right now.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN: We were promised up armor kits. We didn’t get them. So we’re going to go ahead and try to fabricate something.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN: Sir, do you think we could use some of this stuff?

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN: We’re trying to use as much of the metal as we can, but we only have a limited supply of it so, you know, we have to resort to these old bullet-proof vests and, honestly, I don’t feel too comfortable with doing that, but we have to use what we can.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN: The sandbags will act to deflect the blast from a roadside bomb or deflect bullets if we’re shot at.

AMY GOODMAN: Excerpt of Off to War by Craig and Brent Renaud, who are joining us in the Little Rock, Arkansas studio, as they follow one of the soldiers coming home. Craig, you survived an ambush in Iraq. Can you describe it?

CRAIG RENAUD: Yeah, I got back from Iraq about two weeks ago. I was there filming with the soldiers as the hand over the power was taking place. And about two weeks after the handover, I was on a patrol with one of the companies from the 39th brigade with the Arkansas National Guard. It’s a company actually called “E Troop.” We were out on a night mission that they do, and had been doing patrols. It was quiet all night, and then on the way back into Camp Cook, where they’re stationed, we were ambushed, about ten miles outside of Camp Cook. Basically, just out of nowhere, RPG’s starting firing on our vehicle and it ended in about a twelve to fifteen-minute machine gun battle in the middle of the road. Fortunately, no one was hurt. We did lose one vehicle, but everybody managed to get back in the vehicles, and managed to suppress the attack, and luckily everybody got away okay.

AMY GOODMAN: How were you feeling at the time? Did you think you were going to make it? Did you think the U.S. soldiers were going to make it?

CRAIG RENAUD: At the time, to be honest, I really didn’t expect the guys who were in the vehicle that was first hit — the first vehicle that was hit was about two vehicles in front of the one I was riding in, and we saw the RPG hit that vehicle and once we passed the vehicle, by the time we turned around — the vehicle was completely in flames when we had turned bark around, so to be quite honest we all expected those soldiers to be dead. It wasn’t until the end of the gun battle that we were able to figure out they managed to get out of the vehicle and were lying in a ditch, and so it wasn’t until the gun battle was over that we actually figured out that they were still alive.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know if Iraqis died in this?

CRAIG RENAUD: We don’t know in any Iraqi died. The next morning they did an investigation; they went out and, you know, searched the site. They found three bloody t-shirts; but that’s the only evidence that they found, so they don’t know if any Iraqis were killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that they were set up by the Iraqi police? Their location?

CRAIG RENAUD: It’s hard to say. There wasn’t a whole lot of evidence to that;, but a lot of the guys that I was with were pretty convinced. I guess the guys who were riding in the first vehicle of the convoy —- it was a five vehicle convoy -—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

CRAIG RENAUD: They suspected it, but at the end of the investigation, it ran into a dead end.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Craig and Brent Renaud. The documentary Off to War will run tonight on Discovery Channel, 8:00 and 11:00 Eastern Standard Time.

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