HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - A heart-pounding helicopter mission has been turned into a new movie and several local veterans are included in the feature-length documentary.
It's called Apache Warrior and it features two former pilots who now work at Redstone Arsenal.
They were involved in a harrowing firefight in 2003 during the initial invasion into Iraq that later caught the eye of Strong Eagle Media, which also produced the films "The Hornet's Nest" and "Citizen Soldier".
Bill Neal is one of the pilots who is interviewed in the movie. He is now working as a Test Program Integrator at the U.S. Army Redstone Test Center (RTC). He moved to Huntsville in 2011 after retiring from the Army. He spent eight years in the Marine Corps before he applied for flight school for the Army and got accepted. He spent the rest of his time in the Army as an Apache pilot until his retirement.
In the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, Bill's unit out of Illesheim, Germany, was one of three squadrons tasked with going ahead of the infantry in the attack on Karbala. The goal was to take out some artillery pieces and heavy armor that were thought to have chemical weapons.
The Apaches ended up coming under heavy fire as they came face to face with the enemy. It was the same battle that led to the capture of Warrant Officers Ron Young and David Williams. They were later released.
"I think everybody who flew that mission that day knew they weren't going to come back. To be able to get back and talk about it, it's a good day," Neal said. "It was one of the first missions we had when we were in Iraq."
The Apaches were targets in the sky and it was two hours of hell for the crews. Their weapons systems and electronics were disabled and there were holes in the blades and cockpits.
"It's a first person narrative by the pilots and crew chiefs that were actually there on a mission. Some flight tapes were also recovered that are also in the film.
Bjorn Johnson, a retired lieutenant colonel who had a 31-year Army career (27 years were as an Army aviator) also works at Redstone Arsenal and is part of the movie.
He says it's a day he will never forget and admits, it was scary.
"We launched on that mission and as with most combat missions, chaos often ensues because the enemy gets a vote. What happened that night was, the enemy was there and we engaged with them and it was quite an event," he said. "This was the real deal where you're getting shot at and engaged and all of us got hit multiple times that night and some of us engaged that fire back and took it to the enemy as well."
He touted the move makers for their depictions and accuracy.
"The public gets a chance to get a firsthand account of what it's like to be a crew member in an Apache in combat. This is definitely firsthand, very tense and exciting film work. I think they did a fairly good job of showing what it was like to be in the cockpit that night," Johnson added.
The crew chief on that mission all those years ago, Josh Lang, knew he wanted to be a filmmaker. At a reunion at Ft. Rucker in 2008, he asked his friends to do some interviews with him at the reunion because he was going to film school and he wanted to try to use it for his classes.
Lang eventually ended up in Los Angeles and showed his interviews to producer and director David Salsburg from Strong Eagle Media.
"A couple of us sat down and did a few interviews," Neal said. "We just did it to kind of appease him and then about three to four years, later he called us and told us it was gaining some ground. I thought he was doing a documentary for a college project. I knew he was going to school and wanted to put something together but I didn't ever think anything would ever come of it."
The film has been viewed at multiple movie festivals across the country and has already won several awards, including at the San Diego Film Festival. It's available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon and will be screened at select theaters across the country.
"I'm glad the film is out. It tells a story that not too many people know about outside of the Apache community. I'm sure there are many stories have happened that are similar to this. A lot of people have experience a lot worse things than this. This is just one story of many," Neal said.
Some of the proceeds from the movie are going to the Apache Warrior Foundation, whose mission is to honor the AH-64 attack helicopter community "through remembrance, celebration, sponsorship, and education," according to their website.
"We will pay homage to our fallen angels, give tribute to our brotherhood forged in blood, care for our families, and raise public awareness for the sacrifices made to keep our country free," the organization states.
"That's definitely a good thing, a good cause," Neal said about money from the movie going to the charity.
Neal never really spoke in detail to his family about his wartime experience serving as an Army Apache pilot during Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the movie has helped him open up to his loved ones. Before, it was just too hard for him to explain the dynamics, and all of the different aspects and people involved.
"I hadn't talked to my family about this much at all, about this single mission. We talked about my experience in this war but it wasn't this detailed," he said. "My wife, my son, all my family, all had a lot of questions which I was able to talk about. It's a lot easier to watch a film and take questions rather than try to explain everything that this film did."
Johnson said the film showcases the survivability of the Apache
"For the Redstone community, this is a great opportunity to see a product that many, many organizations in this area are involved in producing," he said. "Folks in this area should be extremely proud of what they do to help build, sustain and maintain aircraft like that protect our values and protect the soldiers and airmen flying them."
Producer and director David Salsburg from Strong Eagle Media said his team researched hundreds of hours of footage and during that process recovered several of the attack pilot's gun tapes.
"Which allowed us to tell the story of this incredible and historic mission," Salsburg stated.
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