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Movie Review: Until They are Home

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“I realized that the remains of hundreds of U.S. Marines were buried under thousands of garbage filled trash bags,” recalls 93-year-old Leon Cooper. At that moment, Cooper, one of the last remaining survivors of the WWII Battle of Tarawa, redirected his life to rectifying this outrageous situation.

Steven C. Barber’s new documentary, Until They are Home, tells Cooper’s story and details the continuing search, 69 years later, for the remains of U.S.Until They are Home poster Marines killed in the Battle of Tarawa in the Pacific. Narrated by Kelsey Grammer and featuring an original song by country music star Clint Black, Until They are Home premiered at the Directors Guild in Hollywood on Memorial Day, 2012.

In what was known as “Bloody Tarawa”, the Marines suffered the worst loss of life in their 200-year history, losing 1,113 men in 72 hours from Nov. 20-23. It was a battle that for many years held legendary status, but has recently faded from the collective memory.

The historical footage in the film insures that if you see it, you won’t forget Tarawa. It creates one of those experiences from which you’d like to look away, but can’t. The documentary intertwines the history of the battle of Tarawa with the efforts of veterans like Cooper, descendants of the Marines killed there, and the U.S. military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) to identify and return the remains of missing heroes.

After viewing the film, I asked Barber whether he had envisioned the intertwined structure for the film from the beginning or whether it came to him in the editing room. Barber said that as they were filming, it became obvious thatMarines and filmakers mingle at Directors Guild this was the right approach and having high quality archival footage was critical. He praised his film archivist, Susan Strange, for putting together the stunning historical clips. “If she can’t find it,” he said, “it doesn’t exist.” And on the results of her work: “Jaw dropping”.

Much of the new footage focuses on the efforts of JPAC to locate, identify, and return the remains of servicemen, not only from Tarawa, but from other conflicts as well. JPAC was established in 2003 and given the mission to recover the remains of the 83,000 Americans lost in foreign wars and still unaccounted for. To accomplish its mission, the team of soldiers, airmen, and marines employ the tactics of detectives, crime scene investigators, and archeologists.

JPAC has the largest forensic skeletal laboratory in the world and works with foreign governments to try to bring home the remains of the fallen. It deploys a JPAC team examines remainsdozen teams that travel the globe on recovery missions, identifying an average of six missing servicemen each month.

Veteran Leon Cooper passionately wants to see JPAC’s work continued, but, like many military programs, the future of the JPAC budget is in doubt. Cooper has created a non-profit organization to assist with this work. More information and ways to help can be found at www.returntotarawa.net.

Until They are Home is director Steven Barber’s second film with Cooper. Their relationship began when Barber began to record Cooper’s effort in the award-winning documentary Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story which can be viewed online. Barber’s other projects, from his Vanilla Fire production company, include Unbeaten, a chronicle of paraplegic struggle and triumph, and, premiering this fall, Carrier Classic which chronicles 48 hours at sea with the U.S. Carrier Carl Vinson.

About LeoOfMars

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.
  • David K Winnett, Jr.

    As one who spent twenty of the best years of my life as a United States Marine (1975-1995), words cannot fully convey the gratitude I feel towards Mr. Cooper, film maker Steven Barber, and the entire JPAC staff for the work they have done ensuring that our Tarawa Marines are all eventually found, identified, and brought home to the country they so valiantly gave their lives defending all those years ago. As a young Enlisted Marine, as all Marines are, I was taught many a lesson about the illustrious history of our beloved “Corps”, not the least of which were the ferocious battles that took place during the Pacific island-hopping campaigns of WWII, including the battle for Tarawa. Marines have always taken pride in the credo that no man is left behind. I’m saddened to learn all these years later that we may not have lived up to that solemn pledge as well as we should have where our fallen WWII Marines are concerned. Above all else I am grateful that these mistakes are now out in the light of day where they justly belong. Thanks to Mr. Cooper and film maker Steven Barber, perhaps the lessons learned through this magnificent documentary will serve to remind us all that “everyone comes home”, and “no man left behind” are more than just stylish slogans to be memorized by future generations of Marines, Sailors, Airmen, Soldiers and Coastguardsmen. They mean exactly what they imply. Everyone comes home, and no fallen American Warrior should ever be left behind on a foreign battlefield for even one day past the end of the battle. Shame on America if this is ever allowed to happen again. “Semper Fidelis” means “Always Faithful”; let’s ensure we act accordingly. David K. Winnett, Jr., Captain, United States Marine Corps, Retired.

  • http://www.leoofmars.com LeoOfMars

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Mr Barber is trying to get the documentary picked up by a cable channel. If you e-mailed any one of the following with your opinion of the film, it would help. david.zaslav@discovery.com (CEO Discovery)
    abbe.raven@aetn.com (CEO The History Channel)
    sheila.nevins@hbo.com (CEO HBO Documentary
    bill.nelson@hbo.com (CEO HBO)

  • David K Winnett, Jr.

    Done!

  • http://www.leoofmars.com LeoOfMars

    Thanks!