Saturday, April 3, 2010

LEONIA — First Lt. Mike Scotti wanted to give people at home a glimpse into the life of a Marine on the front lines of the Iraq invasion in 2003. So he strapped a hand-held video camera to his fighter helmet and shot raw footage of it all: the deafening artillery strikes, the sudden explosions, and the horrifying casualties.

“I wanted people to feel what it’s like for us to be on the battlefield,” said Scotti, of Colts Neck, whose self-described “home movies” were edited down to a 93-minute feature called “Severe Clear” by filmmaker Kristian Fraga, a 1993 graduate of Leonia High School.

On Thursday, 150 students sat glued to their seats in the high school auditorium, as they watched American tanks roll into the dusty, war-ravaged streets of Baghdad through the eyes of a U.S. Marine.

The students, juniors in Eric Breyer’s U.S. History 2 class, screened the film and met with Scotti and Fraga afterward.

“I thought it was important for them to see this, because there’s a war going on, but it’s not real to them … it’s something that’s happening somewhere else,” Breyer said.

The film documents the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, starting out during a 40-day journey on a ship sailing the Arabian Sea.

In the beginning, Scotti and his unit are excited about the prospect of fighting in Iraq. He is unapologetic in his depiction of Marines as a rowdy bunch that is constantly cursing and roughhousing at base camp, drinking in tents at night, and complaining about the awful “chow” in the cafeteria.

“Here is the truth about being a Marine that you won’t find on the local news. We’re loud. We drink too much, fight too much and swear too much. Truth be told, our rifles are the only things we think about more than sex,” says Scotti in the beginning of the film.

But it takes on a darker tone once it becomes apparent that their presence is no longer well-received by the locals. Scotti refers to Baghdad as “the Wild, Wild West,” a place with no order. There are not enough troops to handle the constant crime and looting in the streets, and U.S. soldiers do not have the proper armor, Scotti says in the film.

For many of the students, it was their first time seeing actual combat footage, including graphic images of bloodied U.S. soldiers and a scene in which a young Iraqi girl is shot dead, her brains lying on the ground, because her father did not obey a signal to stop his car.

“People here in America need to know that people are risking their lives for us and we need to be more grateful,” said 16-year-old Taylor Malone, who found the film refreshing in its honesty.

“He just was himself the whole time, so you could relate to him.”

Fraga, who dedicated six years to editing Scotti’s footage and turning it into a cohesive film, said he wanted to show the journey of a Marine without getting into the politics of war.

“I wasn’t interested in making a movie about the architects of the war. This is the story of the invasion through the eyes of a Marine,” Fraga said.

“This film doesn’t have any answers, but hopefully it raises a lot of questions … what are the ramifications of a job well done for a Marine? War is not black and white. It’s more complicated than that.”

Upon Scotti’s return home, he becomes angry and frustrated after learning that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

But he never wavers in his allegiance.

“If they called me, I’d go back,” he says in a voiceover at the end of the film.

“Not for the president or the country, but for the corps, because the fact is, once you’ve experienced it, war defines who you are. And right now, that’s all I can trust.”

He was honorably discharged — holding the rank of captain — in 2007, and soon after, received his master’s degree in business and ran a large company. But to this day, he says that given the choice, he would return to battle.

“A lot of people don’t understand it, but you take an oath and the allegiance is to your brothers in the military, because if I don’t go, someone else is going to go in my place,” Scotti said.

Michael Kim, a 17-year-old junior who plans to go into the military, said the film was so intense that his hands were shaking by the end.

“I saw him up there and I just wanted to go up to him and shake his hand … this guy’s like my hero,” Kim said.

“It showed what it’s really like over there, it’s on a whole other level, and you don’t hear about it enough,” Kim said. “But he fought for something he really believed in and he came back to talk about it.”

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