Fighting for Training

Film Showcases a Local School for Military Physicians

Posted January 22, 2008 at 4:38pm

When Tammy Alvarez found out that the Defense Department was considering closing the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., she was upset.

The 68-year-old mother of two had seen her son, Bryan, graduate from the school — which is responsible for training more than a quarter of all active military physicians serving in Iraq — in 2005 and deploy to put his training to use on the battlefield in Iraq. It was unfathomable to her that anyone would shut down “the best medical school that no one has ever heard of.”

“It just absolutely boggled the mind that anyone would want to close this school,” Alvarez said. “I realized the reason was that no one realized what was behind this school’s training. … [There are] so many firsts that came out of this school that affected civilian medicine.”

The school nearly has fallen victim to Defense’s Base Closure and Realignment process five times over the past 15 years. So far, it has survived. But Alvarez wants to make sure it stays that way, so she set out to make a movie showcasing all the good that comes out of the facility.

Now, five years later, “Fighting for Life” is about to be released in select theaters across the country. It received a warm welcome at an advance screening last week in the basement of the Capitol. The screening was co-hosted by Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sam Johnson (R-Texas). The hospital is in Van Hollen’s district and Johnson is a friend of Alvarez’s husband, Everett, who was held as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down in the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. Everett Alvarez has served on the board of directors of USU for 21 years, giving the family intimate knowledge of the university. Johnson also was a prisoner of war.

“With the film, we’ve been working with the Alvarezes to try and get more attention and focus on the needs of [the school] and the fact that it really is a jewel in our military medical system,” Van Hollen said at the screening. “This film is an opportunity to really showcase that jewel.”

[IMGCAP(1)]Alvarez first began pitching her idea for a documentary to various producers in Hollywood, but she had her heart set on Academy Award-winning director Terry Sanders. Sanders made the film “Return With Honor” in 1998 about Vietnam POWs that featured Everett Alvarez along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other former captives.

“I knew the fit had to be with Sanders and [Freida Lee] Mock [at the] American Film Foundation because I knew what the history and the reputation was of the production company,” Alvarez recalled. “The prestige and the integrity, that was very important since we were going to be dealing with the integrity of a renowned, unique university.”

Alvarez gathered as much information on the hospital as she could and shipped it out to Sanders and Mock in May 2003, shortly after the war began. Two months later, Terry Sanders finally called.

“I wasn’t immediately interested. … She sent me a whole big pile of material that sat on the conference table for a long time,” Sanders said. “Finally I decided to look at it a little and I came and visited the school, and I was really struck by the quality.”

Once she got the green light from Sanders, Alvarez took on the task of raising funds for the production. She and her husband supplied the overhead costs, but the production still required more money. Alvarez began asking whomever she could; some individual donors gave $25, while larger corporations such as Health Net gave $175,000.

“I raised the funds the first two years just by people having faith in my mission,” she said. Alvarez said she finally decided that she needed a title to lend some legitimacy to her calls for cash, so she created the Friends of the Uniformed Services University in 2004 and made herself president. “I was president because I was the only member,” she said.

Once funding had been secured, Sanders and his crew traveled to Bethesda to film the students as they took classes. The film follows them as they study cadavers during their first year and later complete mock rescues in the field. The production crew also traveled to Iraq to capture the doctors and nurses in action.

Sanders said the escalation of the war played a key role in the project. “The Iraq War developed and developed to the point where the film’s scope enlarged to be an odyssey in the world of military medicine,” he said. The film not only shows medical workers in Iraq, but also at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Crystal Davis, a 21-year-old Army specialist, is featured in the film after she loses a leg to an improvised explosive device blast. Sanders follows her from Iraq to Walter Reed, where she goes through extensive physical therapy. “I think [the film] is part of her therapy,” Sanders said. Alvarez said the film also was therapeutic for her as she awaited her son’s return from Iraq.

Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) all were in attendance at last week’s advance screening. Wilson addressed the crowd with tears in his eyes afterward as he spoke of his son, who is serving in Iraq, and the importance of USU.

Former U.S. Navy Surgeon General James Zimble also spoke.

“I spent over 50 years with the Department of Defense,” he said. “… This film captured the essence of what military medicine is all about, and it is essential that the public see it.”

The public will have that opportunity in March when the film opens at Landmark Theatres in New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Bethesda and Washington, D.C. It will then be shown on PBS and WETA.

Alvarez, who is cited as executive producer of the film, couldn’t be more excited.

“This was just a mom having a vision and a dream that became a reality,” she said. “[It took] hard work to make it a reality, but [there was] passion and belief that this is right and it had to be done.”