U.S. Army Chaplain (Capt.) Justin Roberts knows very well the difficulties soldiers encounter connecting with the civilian world after successive combat deployments.
In his upcoming documentary "No Greater Love," Roberts sets out to bridge this gap between the American public and its combat veterans through extensive footage he shot in Afghanistan and follow-up interviews with soldiers and Gold Star wives and families.
"This film isn't a contrived story about soldiers, it IS soldiers; this is us talking," Roberts said. "These are our conversations."
As a shiny new chaplain, Roberts deployed in 2010 with the 2/327th "No Slack" Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division to Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan.
Roberts wanted to be able to connect with his soldiers; to care for them. To do so, he began going on combat missions with them outside the wire, spending time with each platoon in turn in the field.
"To be their chaplain, I needed to be where it sucked the most," Roberts recalled.
Chaplains, however, do not carry weapons on the battlefield. Instead, Roberts decided to take a camera in order to capture their experiences and tell their stories.
Over their year-long deployment, "No Slack" pushed deep into rugged Kunar Province, repeatedly fighting fierce pitched battles with the Taliban. The unit lost 18 soldiers killed in action and earned more than 200 Purple Hearts.
Chaplain (Capt.) Justin Roberts on deployment.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Chaplain (Capt.) Justin Roberts
"It was very … kinetic," Roberts said.
"For me to be with the wounded and dying, I was going to have to be on those missions, because guys were getting medevac'd directly out; they weren't coming to my chapel or medic station first."
Roberts was right there with his soldiers, filming hundreds of hours of footage along the way. But his duty to them did not end on the battlefield.
Alarmed at high rates of returning veteran post-traumatic stress (PTS), suicides and homelessness, Roberts realized that the only solution lies in being able to connect vets at the local community level.
"People have preconceived notions about soldiers and PTS, though," Roberts said. "They're often simply not familiar with what's going on with the war and our veterans."
So Roberts teamed up with co-producer Laura Fong to create "No Greater Love," which provides an inside view of "No Slack's" soldiers' experiences both on the battlefield and in transitions to civilian life.
Seana Arrechaga was widowed at 22 when her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Ofren Arrechaga was killed in action in Kunar Province, Afghanistan.
Photo Credit: Laura Fong
Fong has been a passionate advocate of veterans' issues since a chance encounter with a Vietnam veteran eight years ago. An accomplished photojournalist, she is dedicated to telling veterans' stories.
Three years after "No Slack's" 2010-2011 deployment, Roberts and Fong interviewed over 30 of its veterans, as well as Gold Star widows and family members of those killed in action.
"I wanted to understand what the driving force of these guys' acts of valor and sacrifice was," Roberts said.
"I want people to not just see the WHAT of their actions, but to actually sit down with them in these interviews and understand the WHY."
For Gold Star widow Seana Arrechaga, communicating this to the American public is critical.
Her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Ofren Arrechaga, was killed in action on March 29, 2011, only a few weeks away from the end of "No Slack's" deployment.
"To have a film that portrays that, the other side, not just the loss but what happens after the loss is really, really important," Arrechaga said.
"From Day One I promised myself, my husband and our son that I was not going to let his memory die. Telling their story not only helps me fulfill my husband's legacy, but might inspire people to reach out to a veteran."
Arrechaga related that prior to beginning the documentary, Roberts reached out to every gold star widow and family member to ensure they were comfortable with the project.
"No Greater Love" has about two months left of editing until a rough cut is ready, and Roberts and Fong are preparing to release the final version of the feature-length film in Fall 2015.
"No Greater Love" takes a close look at soldiers at war, and what happens after.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Chaplain Justin Roberts
Roberts and Fong have set up a crowd-sourcing Indiegogo page to help raise $300,000 by Feb. 20 to help cover operational costs. Even if the goal is not met, they are fully committed to releasing the film on schedule.
A portion of the film's proceeds will go to veterans' charities, and Roberts aims to have the film continue to be a charitable vehicle in the future. Donations can also be made via the film's website.
"I know that Chaplain Roberts is going to make sure that all the guys that died in that deployment are going to be honored, because he was there with my husband," Arrechaga said.
"It means more to him than to any producer in Hollywood."