‘The Corporal’s Diary’: Fallen soldier’s journal and videotapes inspire documentary
January 4, 2009
On Oct. 10, 2004, Army Spc. Jonathan Santos wrote in his diary that he planned to catch up on his reading while deployed to Iraq.
"I will read ‘The Principles of Writing,’ and then I will write the Great American novel and get hired as a professor at a prestigious university," he joked in the government-issued green log book he carried with him wherever he went.
"But first, I have to make it out of this war alive."
It was his 34th day as a member of a psychological operations unit working out of Al Karabilah, a town in Iraq’s desert west. Four days later, the 22-year-old Guamanian would be killed when a car loaded with explosives plowed into his Humvee.
Santos is featured in a 60-minute documentary called "A Corporal’s Diary," made up of video footage he took of his time in the war zone and excerpts from his journal.
Santos’ spirit lives on through the film, a tale of one young man killed before his life story got much of a start. It’s also a story about the sole survivor of the explosion and his struggle with a traumatic head injury.
And it’s a story of two mothers who form a bond in their drive to make sure the public comes to know the real people behind the names in the news of the killed and injured in a war far from home.
Producer and co-director Patricia Boiko, of Winning Pictures, a Seattle-based film and production company, said she made the documentary after meeting Santos’ mother — Doris Kent — who had discovered the diary and videotapes in the "Tuff Box" the Army delivered to her containing her son’s belongings. Kent had donated her son’s boots to the "Eyes Wide Open" traveling exhibit, which displayed boots representing all the servicemembers killed in Iraq.
"I watched Jonathan’s footage intently, as I had never seen into the head of a 22-year-old male soldier," Boiko said of her project. "It was amazing to me that Jonathan writes and films as if he would turn his footage into a movie or his diary into a novel."
Santos’ footage is remarkable for its unremarkable scenes of soldiers joking and complaining of the boredom and mundane facts of life in a confusing war zone. There is seemingly nothing special about them. They could be your neighbors or your sons.
"Day 10, just another day in Al Karabilah," Santos wrote in his diary. In the documentary, his brother, Justin, seven years his junior, reads over the footage.
"We watched ‘Apocalypse Now,’ and went to the PX," Santos wrote. "Nothing but old magazines and food exposed to extreme temperatures; unnecessary toiletries and the ghosts of items out of stock. Why must we be subjected to these horrendous conditions?"
The film is marked by his wry GI sense of humor: "I got these new shoulder guards that attach to my body armor," he jokes at one point. "They’re good for cutting off circulation to my arms."
He also talks about making "Moon Juice," a homemade alcohol made from orange juice and moldy wheat bread.
At another point in the film, Santos’ brother breaks up as he reads the Oct. 15, entry in his brother’s diary. "I don’t want to become just some picture on the wall for my younger brothers," the corporal wrote. "I want to live."
On Day 24, Pfc. Matthew Drake joined Santos’ squad. They knew each other for less than two weeks, but are joined forever in the bond their mothers formed during the filming of the documentary. Drake, the only survivor of four men riding in the Humvee when it was blown up, is recovering from a severe head trauma that has taken his short-term memory.
"The reason I participated in this was my hope that people would come to know Jonathan and Matthew as more than a number or a name," Kent said. "These were mere boys who had dreams and aspirations and a life waiting for them back home.
"We need to remember these young men, not just those who died, but those who came home changed forever," she said, noting that her own brother struggled with the Veteran’s Administration for 14 years before getting adequate treatment for illness related to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
"We as a nation need to take care of these young men," Kent said. "The ultimate tribute for all of us to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice is to take care of their buddies when they come home."
Kent, who grew up on Guam in a military family and traveled the world with two military husbands, said she keeps busy accepting speaking engagements, hoping to spread her message of the need for better medical care for the wounded.
"I am hoping President-elect [Barack] Obama will take this up as one of his major goals," she said. Kent said she spoke briefly and told her son’s story to Obama when he was campaigning in Montana last July.
"I saw the compassion in his eyes," she said. "He promised that he would see to it that our veterans are taken care of when they come home."
"The Corporal’s Diary," is available online at: http://www.thecorporalsdiary.com.