Joe Walker – the husband, father of three and successful Columbia businessman – barely recognizes Lt. Joe Walker, the Army platoon leader featured in a new HBO documentary about the Iraq war.
“I looked so young,” the 34-year-old said. “I was so young.”
Walker spent 11 months fighting in Iraq. Three of his days there were captured on film by journalist Michael “Mick” Ware. The Australian spent seven years with a hand-held camera in Iraq while covering the war for Time magazine and CNN. Ware had access to the Iraqi insurgency and American troops, and chronicled the war through the rise and fall of jihadi terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq who became involved with the Islamic State group.
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The video Ware shot over seven years in Iraq has been turned into a 78-minute documentary that debuts on HBO at 9 p.m. Monday. “Only the Dead See the End of War” was written, co-produced and co-directed by Ware.
In August 2005, Walker and his unit were in Ramadi, described by Ware in a news release from HBO as “the heart of Zarqawi’s power, known as the meat grinder for its grueling conditions and heavy soldier casualties.”
Walker’s unit experienced that firsthand. Ware hooked up with Walker’s 36-person unit just after it had lost six men and had another 16 wounded, including Walker.
“That violence is what drew Mick to us,” Walker said. “We had been told, ‘We don’t care how bad it is, hold this line.’”
When Ware showed up, “it was refreshing …you’re in the middle of nowhere, fighting for life and losing life, and someone wants to tell your story.”
It was a volatile time in Ramadi, Walker said. “Al-Qaida was burgeoning, their intent was to fill the power vacuum we created by removing Saddam.”
Ware had his hand-held camera with him at all times. Most of the time, Walker and the other soldiers didn’t notice.
“We were in a place where we were combative 18 of 24 hours,” Walker said. “That lent to forgetting he was there.
“I told him, ‘I think you're crazy. Don’t think I’m a mean guy, but I will pay no attention to you when it matters.’”
Which was OK with Ware because he was there to pay attention to them.
“I met a young Joe Walker, literally, in the midst of hell,” Ware said. “Leading the men of his small American platoon, ordered to hold the line whatever the cost against overwhelming numbers in the first ever capital of the Islamic State. He and his men are true heroes. And it is a privilege to call him my friend."
His time with Walker’s unit was cut short by CNN, Ware’s employer at the time, which pulled him out because of the danger. But Ware kept finding danger throughout his seven years in the war zone.
Walker found out about the documentary when someone from HBO called him during a family beach vacation in the summer of 2014. They needed Walker’s consent since he was identified in the film. Ware didn’t make the call because he was afraid he’d learn Walker didn’t make it home from Iraq.
Since that time, Walker and Ware have spent a lot of time together promoting the documentary. Walker attended several premieres, and joined Ware afterward to answer questions.
Although Walker attended nearly a dozen of these events, he’s only seen the film two and a half times.
“The first time I saw it, it was shocking,” he said, describing it as a blur he barely remembered. “The second time, I started picking up details.”
The third time?
“I got halfway through and walked out,” Walker said. “ I said, ‘I do not need to see this again.’ It took me to a place I did not need to go again.”
He hasn't watched it since.
“For 78 minutes, it put me back in Iraq,” he said. “I cannot imagine living it for 10-12 months….The film evoked a lot of memories … smells, tastes. I was tasting dust and smoke in my mouth.”
Walker’s wife, Haley, only made it through one and a half times. She said nothing about the film, but had tears in her eyes after watching what her then-boyfriend went through.
“She is such a sweet and caring person,” Walker said. “It was tremendously burdensome to watch her boyfriend go through something so dark.”
His children, ages 7, 5 and 2, will not watch it for a very long time.
The film is very dark, giving viewers an idea of the state of mind soldiers must adopt to fight a war.
“Our intent was to take the viewer on a dramatic and emotional journey through the Iraq war,” Bill Guttentag, a two-time Oscar winner and the director of the film, said in the release.
Many of the questions they get after the film’s viewings are from mothers and mothers-in-law, who ask for advice on how to help their loved ones emerge from the darkness of war.
“They come out with a new sense of awareness,” Walker said.
And tears in their eyes.
“You can’t understand what guys and gals have been through,” he said. “But the film gives you a glimpse.”
Walker said the film isn’t anti-war, it’s not political and it doesn’t push an agenda. It’s a first-person account that shows an indisputable story.
“It’s just a glimpse of the true sacrifices made by sons and daughters when you sign a declaration of war,” Walker said.
He hopes the documentary will start discussions about helping veterans who have a difficult time emerging from the dark places of war.
“It’s not about deciding to go to war or not to go to war,” Walker said. “It’s about how we can help those who do. It’s about veterans and how to help them legitimately live their lives.”
Walker says people have told him he comes across as introspective, but he doesn’t consider himself an introspective guy.
“My motivation is to be a voice of unbiased, factual conversation,” Walker said. “I hope I get the opportunity to represent the everyday soldier and veteran.
“There is a burden, in my mind, that comes with that. … it’s my responsibility to tell the truth.”
And that is what Ware and Walker hope the documentary conveys. “It’s not a film we want you to watch,” Ware said. “It’s a film we want you to experience.”
Walker said he might have a screening party Monday night for family and friends, but he won’t watch. “They can watch while I stand in my backyard with a glass of red wine,” he said.
He is glad he watched it the first time. He is glad he saw it the second time.
“I don’t need to see it again.”
Contact Patterson at email@example.com.
“Only the Dead See the End of War”
The documentary debuts 9 p.m. Monday, just days after the 13th anniversary of the Iraq invasion.
Other HBO airings: Tuesday, 4:05 a.m.; Thursday, midnight; April 3, 3:35 p.m.; April 7, 9 a.m., 5:05 p.m.; and April 11, 12:50 p.m.
The documentary won three 2015 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards (the Australian equivalent of the Academy Awards), including best direction in a documentary, and the 2015 Walkley Documentary Award (the Australian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize). The film had its U.S. premiere at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival.
A promotional video for the documentary can be seen on YouTube.
About Joe Walker
Walker, who graduated from Hammond School and Wofford College, owns 16 Marco’s Pizza restaurants.
He also is involved with Carolina Mattress and Furniture, Direct Print and Marketing, JP Contract Solutions Inc. and JH Real Property.
He is a member of The State Media Co.’s 20 under 40 class for 2016.