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War took soldier's legs, but gave him a platform

‘Alive Day Memories’ tells stories of 10 soldiers injured in Iraq
/ Source: contributor

Jon Bartlett likes to talk. He enjoys making people uncomfortable by saying things they might not want to hear — like how much he loathes the Bush administration and the biased news slant on the “fascist network,” more commonly known as Fox News. Sometimes it does appear as though he says things simply to get a rise out of people.

He usually succeeds at that.

But at other times, if you listen carefully, you will hear the pain of someone trying to reconcile a cause he believed in, but didn’t quite understand — the war in Iraq.

Bartlett, 22, is one of 10 featured soldiers in “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq.” This compelling documentary, which premieres on HBO Sunday at 10:30 p.m. ET, is the first effort from former “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini’s Attaboy production company.

While Bartlett’s segment is more reminiscent of a MTV reality show, the other stories yank at your heartstrings. Although these brave men and women enlisted in the armed forces for various reasons, they now all have one thing in common. They all went to Iraq as a fully functioning human being with two arms, two legs, a big heart and a strong will.

They didn’t, however, come back that way.

Bartlett was just 19 when he joined the army. He did it for all the right reasons. He was ticked off about 9/11 and wanted to do his part to defend his country — even though he was unsure what he was actually risking his life for.

“No, I didn’t really understand what the war was about,” Bartlett said during a telephone interview. “That wasn’t my place. My place was to go to war. That was my job.”

His job, however, came to an abrupt end on Sept. 25, less than two months after his arrival in Iraq. On that day, Bartlett was part of a convoy that was cruising down a dirt road just south of Fallujah — at least that’s what he was told.

Finding humor in painThe Norfolk, Va. native doesn’t remember anything about that day. He doesn’t remember tying his boots or getting in the Humvee that was blown to pieces when a homemade bomb went off in the vehicle’s engine. He just remembers waking up in the hospital and wondering why his body was covered with shrapnel, and why he couldn’t feel his legs. The legs he once used to run five miles to Maury High School were gone — amputated just above the knee.

Talking about this horrific experience often provides Bartlett fodder for his stand-up act. But unlike most seasoned comedians, he has to remind you that it’s OK to laugh.

“The first thing that attempted to go through my mind was my steering wheel but my skull stopped it,” Bartlett said. “That’s a joke, you can laugh at that. The second thing that tried to go through my mind was a bunch of shrapnel but my fist stopped it. Then a week went by and I was in and out of consciousness. That kind of thing doesn’t really settle in until like the third or fourth week you’re sitting in a hospital bed. It really settled for me about the third time I fell out of my hospital bed and couldn’t get up by myself.”

Bartlett spent more than 13 months at Walter Reed Hospital in D.C., undergoing 17 surgeries. Bartlett was approached by Attaboy not long after he was released.

Reliving the experience for the cameras came easily for Bartlett. He was definitely ready for his close-up and enjoyed working with the famous actor whose character once .

“He’s not Tony Soprano, he’s Jim Gandolfini,” Bartlett said. “Some people mix that up. ... He’s big, tall and imposing but he’s a pussycat. He’s very eloquent, too.”

Bartlett can be, too. He hopes that his 15 minutes of fame will make his transition to the after-army life a little easier. He is currently working toward a degree in business management with a minor in communications at Old Dominion University. His goal: “To take over the free world one dollar at a time.”

He’d also love to sit down with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” and talk politics and war. He thinks that Stewart is one of the few people who would allow him to criticize his former commander-in-chief, and his sidekick, whom Bartlett dubs "the deer hunter," on the air. Bartlett, however, didn’t dare express his disdain for Bush and Cheney with Gandolfini because he felt it wasn’t the appropriate forum.

“This movie isn’t political at all," he says. “All the political stuff in the movie was taken out because that’s not the point. The film is about the pain and the struggles and everything we went through and how we have moved on. We all died and we all came back and now we’re all enjoying this second chance. There are no heroes in this war. [Politicians] could end this war if they wanted to, but it’s a power play for them. There’s too much at stake.”

Maybe the president and vice-president will tune in Sunday to see just how much is at stake. Maybe they’ll have a response to the question Edwin Starr posed in “War,” the anti-Vietnam anthem he recorded in the late ‘60s: War, what is it good for?

For HBO it made for good, compelling and thought-provoking television. For Bartlett, war took away his legs, but gave him a platform on which he could stand proudly without them. In actuality, he’s no more disabled than he was before that bomb went off.

Given a choice, Bartlett said he would encourage other young men and women to volunteer for military service if that’s what they wanted to do. And, if he had it to do all again, he’d be right there with them pursing an elusive enemy.

Next time, however, he would “obviously try and miss the bomb.”

Miki Turner is an entertainment columnist at She can be reached at