NYS National Guard PAO review of ‘At War’

Reprinted with permission from the author

Documentary covers ‘untold’ story of embedded trainers in Afghanistan
By Lt. Col. Paul Fanning
Guard Times Staff

UNIVERSITY OF BUFFALO, NORTH CAMPUS – An award winning journalist who was embedded with New York’s 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix VII in 2008 was in Buffalo recently to present his first documentary.

The independent production “At War” was presented to the public at the University of Buffalo’s North Campus Arts Building on 9 March before a small but appreciative audience. The university’s Media Studies Program hosted and co-sponsored the event along with the Military Association of New York and the military blog site “bouhammer.com.”

The 113-minute film comes on like “high art” with a gritty edge that captures viewers rather than just appealing to them. The imagery is stunning in its clarity and vividness. The audience becomes immersed in the dust and the drama that is the combat zone of Afghanistan. Action scenes put viewers at the shoulders of U.S. and Canadian troops as they take and return fire, toss grenades and rush through narrow paths.

Intimate scenes offer portraits of mentors and their Afghan charges that are poignant and raw. “At War” delivers aspects of culture, Afghan tradition, the conditions of poverty and ignorance and the near-daily life and death situations where Soldiers must make the “quick call” and hope that it is the right one later. “At War” captures the confusion and frustration felt by its participants, as well as the energy and adrenalin.

Almost in defiance of convention, the film uses quotes and text rendered in white type at the beginning of “chapters” and a sound track comprised of the raw film’s ambient sounds along with music from little-known bands. The weaving of the imagery, text and music delivers a visceral experience that latches onto the audience like a vise. At times both startling and confusing, “At War” brings uncommon film realism that military, veteran and civilians can relate to. “At War” almost demands an emotional response, especially noticeable in the powerful memorial ceremonies sequence for fallen U.S., Canadian and Afghan Soldiers.

“At War” is circulating the country at small venues and is the collaborative effort of a first-time photo journalist and a Pulitzer award-winning combat correspondent and author. Scott Kesterson did an about turn in his life at the age of 41 to follow a life-long ambition and re-made himself into a seasoned combat photographer and reporter with help and guidance from David Leeson who became the cinematographer’s mentor, editor, creative director and producer. Some of Kesterson’s “At War” combat scenes were also used in a PBS Frontline documentary and won him an Emmy Award in 2007.

Kesterson became an embedded reporter with the Oregon National Guard’s 41st Brigade Combat Team in 2006, spending 15 months with Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix V. He was introduced to National Guard Embedded Training Teams that support the Afghan National Army. At its core, “At War” pays tribute to unsung Guard mentors, who operate from remote sites under challenging, austere and dangerous conditions to help form an Army at the grass roots level to face off the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The New York National Guard’s First Sergeant Troy Steward from Buffalo served as the non-commissioned officer in charge of an embedded training team and hosted Kesterson in 2006. Steward runs bouhammer.com and both he and Kesterson have stayed in contact ever since. Steward’s son Jon, also a Guardsmen, deployed with New York’s 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team to Afghanistan in 2008 and Kesterson was again an embedded reporter with mentoring teams to the Afghan National Army.

The final edits were completed in January 2009. Previous screenings were held in Dallas, Texas; Portland, Oregon; the University of California — Berkley; Edmonton, Canada, and Ft. Bragg N.C. Kesterson is slated to return to Afghanistan very soon to begin a new project, again with embedded training teams. Bouhammer.com will work to arrange for additional public screenings in advance of possible presentations at film festivals, theater runs and a broadcast premier at KGW News Channel 8 in Portland, Oregon where Kesterson is assigned.

The film is recommended viewing for anyone interested in the ongoing war in Afghanistan and American service men and women who have and continue to serve there. Interested viewers will have to be on the alert for a presentation near them in the near future. Look for local listings. As more see the film and it gains visibility at more traditional venues, “At War” is sure to receive critical attention and it seems to be a likely award winner as soon as it rises to that level.

To view samples of “At War” and for additional information about Kesterson, go to:





Editor’s Note: Lt. Col. Paul Fanning served as the Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix VII public affairs officer in Afghanistan in 2008 and hosted Scott Kesterson as an embedded news reporter with the task force for more than two months.

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