These Are The Guys we got to know in “Gunner Palace”

These are the guys we got to know in “Gunner Palace,” the superb 2005 documentary co-directed by the husband-and-wife team of Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein. They defended America as soldiers in the Army’s 2/3 Field Artillery Division, never quite sure what they were killing or dying for. There was a fifth “star” in the film, Ben Colgan, who sacrificed his elite Delta Forces post to join the artillery unit in Baghdad. Then he sacrificed his life to an IED.

To make “How to Fold a Flag” (an all-digital premiere “presented by” filmmaker Morgan Spurlock as part of a co-op distribution deal), Tucker and Epperlein revisited the soldiers five years later, in 2008-09, for a stateside follow-up. They visited Colgan’s still-grieving parents in Washington state (a finer couple you’ll never meet), and coincidentally spent the same timespan making this film (15 months) as Drummond, Powers, Goss and Wilf spent together in Iraq. Another coincidence is that both films run for 85 beautiful, eloquent minutes, not a single minute more or less than is required to make us love these guys, warts and all.

Javorn’s still in Fayettville, NC, not far from Fort Bragg, studying for a degree in criminal justice (for good reason, we learn) and living in a rotten trailer unfit for human occupation. Constantly swigging Coronas and puffing on spliffs that might contain tobacco, he’s not exactly a pillar of virtue, but he’s smart, funny and optimistic in his quest for “normal.” He’s also got charisma to spare; in another life he could be Snoop, Jay or Kanye, drawing hefty paychecks. Instead he got beaten by cops within hours of coming home.

Democrat underdog Jon Powers is running for a 26th district congressional seat in Clarence, NY, which bears uncanny resemblance to Ron Kovic’s hometown scenes in “Born on the Fourth of July.” Here, too, indifference and ambivalence greets the returning soldier: Disillusioned with Washington after his wartime leadership, he’s promising change against well-heeled Republican opponents who promise little beyond unjustified smear tactics.

Mike Goss is battling personal demons more than most, and who could blame him: He did something in Iraq (just following orders, mind you) that could, upon reflection, tear the strongest man to shreds. Mike’s a cage fighter now, struggling to raise four kids while honoring his fallen brothers in the ring. When we hear his confession about the fate of an eight-year-old Iraqi girl named Mirvet, you just want to hug him ’til the hurt goes away. And yet, for all of his troubles and obvious PTSD, Mike was dishonorably discharged and lost his V.A. benefits.

Stuart Wilf was the cut-up in Baghdad, his exploits entertaining enough to earn him a centerfold spread when TIME honored “The American Soldier” as its Man of the Year. The reason he enlisted is as hilarious as it is typical in the Army-recruitment scheme of things; now he’s back in Colorado Springs, CO, playing death metal in a band called Pestiführ and enduring “all the dickheads” as a clerk at the Circle K. He may be a screw-up, bursting with cynicism and poised to go postal, but probably not: He loves his mom (who’s got a younger son in Afghanistan), loves his war buddies, and embraces a philosophy that makes perfect sense (as Obi-wan Kenobi once said) from a certain point of view.

None of these guys share screen time; they’ve moved on, but their connections inform everything they do. Are they better men for having served and sacrificed? That’s for viewers to decide for themselves.

To their credit, Tucker and Epperlein do not dwell on the soul-crushing ineptitude of the government and the Veterans Administration regarding the inexcusable neglect of soldiers returning from the Middle East. (As you may have heard, suicide rates among traumatized vets are sky-high and rising.) The abominable conditions are duly noted, and Goss’s case has a promising outlook, but “How to Fold a Flag” (from which we learn how to fold a burial flag) never forces the issue. Instead, it gently implies its politics with just the right balance of humor and humanity.

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