“Alive” is a documentary by award-winning director Stephanie Soechtig that focuses on five American soldiers, who were seriously injured during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Scheduled for general release on November 11 at 9:00 p.m. by Epix, the film is a fitting tribute to watch on Veterans Day. 

SOFREP was given an exclusive first look at the film by its producers, and it is a must-watch that should be on everyone’s Veterans Day programming.

The film recounts the lives of five injured US soldiers, who, upon returning home, found themselves in a downward spiral of despair, hopelessness, and frustration at their newfound physical limitations–a spiral that is very common among wounded warriors. 

But through their own perseverance they fought through the loss of limbs or sight and found ways to cope with their new physical realities. “Alive” tracks the journeys of these veterans, who turned to adaptive athletics to heal–both physically and emotionally–from their battle wounds.

Anyone who has either served in these endless wars or has family or friends that have served there, has heard stories of what these veterans experience. And although wounds and physical limitations vary, all these stories ring a familiar tone. 

Soechtig weaves a wonderful tale without any political overtones.  The film begins with the news clip of the Twin Towers in NYC being hit by aircraft on September 11, 2001, which prompted many of America’s young men and women to step up and serve in the nation’s military.  

The film centers around five extraordinary veterans: Adam Popp, Stephanie Morris, Ivan Castro, Corwin “C.J.” Collier, and Stephanie Gardner. All of them served honorably and were severely injured in combat. The term “alive” refers to the date that their lives were changed forever by their traumatic injuries suffered in combat.

Popp was an Air Force Bomb Disposal Tech and had the dangerous job of defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  He was in the midst of defusing one when it was remotely detonated. He remembers flying through the air backward.

Popp’s alive date was in 2007–he lost a leg in the explosion. Popp spoke not only about the loss of his leg, but also of something all military people share: the loss of a sense of purpose and direction. A former multi-sport athlete, Popp went into a deep depression and developed many unhealthy habits. His drinking reached the point of becoming a problem, and after he flipped a golf cart during a Veterans fundraiser he knew that he had to make some changes in his life.

He took up running and began to compete in the adaptive athletics games that were put on for disabled veterans. He took part in the “DARE2TRI” triathlon and the Invictus Games where he won a Gold Medal for the 1500m run. He later set the world record for the 1500m run. Popp says that he wants to set the bar high for everyone. 

Stephanie Morris’s alive date was in 2013, but it isn’t a date she celebrates or acknowledges. Her vehicle was hit with a roadside bomb that killed four other members of her unit, including her battle buddy and best friend. She was a patient at Walter Reed Hospital for nearly three years while the Army tried to save her leg. But eventually, she too lost it. 

Morris suffered from PTSD, anger issues that caused her to lash out at everyone around her, denial, and a huge case of survivor’s guilt. But she made it her goal to be able to walk down the aisle, with her new prosthetic limp, on her wedding day– something which she indeed accomplished. She too picked up the adaptive sports program and competed in the Invictus Games.

Ivan Castro was a Special Forces Major who was severely wounded by a mortar round in 2006. His left eye was enucleated, and he had a large piece of shrapnel in his right eye. While he still had sight in his right eye, surgeons worried about infection and tried to remove it. This caused permanent and total blindness. He contemplated suicide and considered taking his life in the shower where he wouldn’t leave such a mess. 

But the thought of his children kept him going. He misses being independent he said, driving and being able to pick out his own clothes. Like all Special Operations soldiers, he misses doing the things that all SOF soldiers do. “I still need the physical challenges,” he said.  “I miss sliding down the rope, and jumping out of an aircraft,” he added.  

He jumped into adaptive sports and began running, biking, and even took up downhill skiing where he met and posed for pictures with Prince Harry. He competed in the Invictus Games and has returned to a typical SF lifestyle. He ran in the Marine Corps and Boston Marathons; ran with the bulls in Pamplona; and recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. He even took up shooting again and was filmed hitting targets on a range with his pistol and AR-15. 

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Corwin “C.J.” Collier was a college athlete who ran the 400m hurdles before he joined the Army. He was hit by a roadside bomb in 2009 that severely injured his legs. He lost 35 percent of his right hamstring and most of his right calf as well as 25 percent of his left hamstring. His right foot was permanently locked at 90 degrees. He also lost most of his right hand in the explosion. 

He spoke about how difficult it was not being able to cut his own food and having his wife do it for him. He reached the point of breaking down as he was trying to walk again. His wife snapped him out of it and slapped him on the back of the head. She told him to stop feeling sorry for himself and crying in front of his son. 

Corwin was soon up and about and returned to the gym with a vengeance. He is now a professional bodybuilder and competes in competitions that only judge contestants on their upper body. He hopes one day to compete in Mr. Olympia. 

Christine Gardner was severely injured by an explosion in July of 2006. She suffered a traumatic brain injury that completely robbed her of her memory. A college athlete that excelled in field hockey and other sports, she didn’t remember any of her former teammates or coaches upon returning home. She also suffered from seizures related to her brain injury.

Additionally, both of her legs were severely injured. The VA conducted over 30 surgeries to try to save them. Gardner said that the “VA isn’t concerned with the quality of life.” She fought with them for six years and finally went to Mexico to have both of her legs amputated. It was there where she picked up the total cost of the operations. 

She too was suicidal for a while and suffered from survivor’s guilt, since the man who saved her life was later killed in action on a subsequent deployment.

But she managed to remain heavily active and even started a sled hockey team for disabled veterans in her home state of Maine. She also runs and swims regularly. And fortunately she now has a therapy dog that warns her of impending seizures so that she can get to a safe place. 

“Alive” is a great and uplifting film and a perfect addition to your Veterans Day watch list. With the 22 veterans that take their own lives every day here is a story about five, who despite the odds and their own injuries, have turned their lives around.

Photo: Wikipedia

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