Bedford, Va., Honored in Wartime Documentary

Posted June 1, 2009 at 3:47pm

In 1944, a band of soldiers from Bedford, Va., known as Company A, left their small town to fight for their country on the shores of Omaha Beach. Out of 30 soldiers who remained in the company on D-Day, 19 of them never came back.

Bedford suffered more losses from the Normandy campaign than any other small town in America. In 2004, the community was again asked to make a sacrifice, when Company A, which is part of the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry, 29th Division of the Virginia Army National Guard, was called to serve in Afghanistan.

A new film by the Johnson Group, a Virginia-based production company, pays homage to the unit and to the town that has given much in the name of freedom.

“Bedford: The Town They Left Behind— brings together Company A’s storied history with its present-day relevance. Interviews from D-Day veterans and a couple directly affected by the conflict in Afghanistan illustrate the price paid not only by the soldiers, but by their families as well.

Joe Fab, writer and director of the film, said he hoped to highlight the differences between the two wars and to open people’s eyes to the experiences of military service members and their families.

“It’s very easy in America to not pay attention to conflicts we’re involved in,— Fab said. “We have an option in this country which upsets me — [that] I could effectively opt out of having to be very conscious of what’s going on in our country.—

This is dramatically different from World War II, when it seemed everyone was part of the war effort and aware of developments overseas, Fab said.

“Bedford— will be shown tonight at the Capitol Visitor Center, an event that will be hosted by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). Former Sen. and one-time presidential candidate Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who was co-chairman of the National World War II Memorial Foundation, is expected to attend, along with two families of D-Day veterans, Bedford Mayor W.D. Tharp and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

This is not the debut screening of the film, but it is the first time it is being shown on Capitol Hill. Kevin Hall, Warner’s communications director, said there has been “intensive outreach with people who have a personal connection— to the story.

The timing of the screening seems appropriate: Saturday is the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Hall said the audience will include high-profile political figures, Bedford residents and veterans and families.

Sgt. 1st Class Howard Holt, a retired Company A veteran, was among those sent to Afghanistan in 2004. When Fab and others from the Johnson Group asked Holt if he would be willing to be interviewed for the movie, he immediately agreed. He said it was an honor to be part of the famous company.

“It means everything, as far as my military career,— he said. “It was the high part of [it].—

Holt emphasized that although Bedford is perhaps the best known, similar stories have been played out in small towns across the country.

“It’s just unique to Bedford because of the great loss they had at Omaha Beach,— he said. “It’s no different. It’s just on a smaller scale.—

Holt’s wife, Beneta Patel, also appears in the film. She recalled the agony of waiting to hear whether her husband, and other members of Company A, had been involved in a helicopter crash in Bagram, Afghanistan.

Despite the wide range of communications technologies that soldiers have for keeping in touch with family members today, Patel said there were still long stretches of time when she would wait to hear from her husband.

“It was kind of difficult, as far as living that whole experience of the deployment,— she said about participating in the film. Her husband was already home when she was interviewed, but it still brought back emotions that she had trained herself to keep at bay.

“It was kind of surreal to go back and revisit that,— she said. “Unless you go through it, it’s hard to understand what people go through.—

Holt and Patel were moved when they saw the movie and heard the accounts of those military families who had come before them.

“The first time I watched it, I was just trying to soak up what people said because there are amazing stories,— Holt said.

Patel was struck by how she identified with the family members who spoke in the film, despite the 60-year gap in events. When you’re waiting for sometimes weeks on end for a letter or an e-mail from your soldier, those correspondences become something to savor, she said.

“Any kind of communication is a very cherished moment,— she said.

In addition to raising awareness of conflicts and of military experiences, Fab said he also hopes audiences will get a better understanding of the unique natures of the soldiers themselves.

“Until you get close to these stories, it’s easy to see soldiers as being mostly like one another in their views and things. But many of them tell their stories with very different slants,— he said.

For example, Fab said, one Army ranger in the film holds the view that “most men who die in war die in vain because we keep having wars.— Others argue that wars must continue to be fought so that those deaths were not for nothing.

Fab said he does not offer the answers to those questions, but he hopes the stories that he presents will provoke some thought and conversation.

“These are very complex issues,— he said. “It’s better to explain them as complex issues than to have someone make a speech somewhere and make pronouncements about life and death.—

The film will receive wide exposure this week, not only on Capitol Hill, but for a presumably appreciative audience overseas as well. The granddaughter of Gen. George S. Patton heard of the documentary and arranged with Fab to show it in Normandy as part of the commemoration of the anniversary.