By Kerri Regan
AWARD-WINNING FILM, LOCAL SOLDIER COME TO THE CASCADE
story: Kerri Regan photo: Courtesy of the Donoho Family
Five years ago, he was a class clown with mediocre grades who was looking for a way to make his dad proud.
This month, decorated Army Sgt. Tad A. Donoho, Jr., will receive a hero’s welcome home in honor of Veterans Day – and the North State will have the rare opportunity to experience war through his eyes during a film screening at the Cascade Theatre.
“Restrepo: One Platoon, One Valley, One Year” chronicles a year in the life of Donoho’s platoon while it was stationed in Afghanistan’s treacherous Korengal Valley. The feature-length documentary earned the Grand Jury Prize in the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Before the screening, a ceremony including a 21-gun salute will take place at the Veterans’ Garden in front of the Redding Convention Center. The Patriot Riders will then escort Donoho and his family to the Cascade Theatre; he will answer questions following the film.
Created by journalist Sebastian Junger (“The Perfect Storm”) and photographer Tim Hetherington, the film focuses on a 15-man outpost named after Juan Restrepo, a medic killed in combat early in the deployment. Cameras never leave the Korengal Valley, and the filmmakers’ goal was to make viewers feel as if they’d just been through a 90-minute deployment.
“There are no interviews with generals or anyone higher than our company commander,” Donoho says. “There are no political views … it’s raw, real footage about what happens when you deploy to a really hot area.”
Donoho joined the military after graduating from Enterprise High School in 2005. He went to Italy with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and later earned his expert infantryman’s badge. Next stop? Deployment.
“In my mind, I was like, I’m not ready for this. We are not ready for this,” Donoho says. “I found out later that everybody thinks that when they deploy. You’re playing the what-if game in your head before anything even happens.”
The deployment was action-packed from the moment of arrival, Donoho says. “As soon as we land and the bird takes off, we start taking incoming mortar rounds. I don’t know what getting shot at sounds like. Everyone that’s been deployed before starts taking off to the bunkers. All of us privates are just walking … guys were saying, ‘What are you doing? We’re being shot at!’ It was like, ‘Welcome to Afghanistan from the Taliban.’ And that was basically the first day.”
On the eighth day, his best friend was killed. “After Day 8, it was like, I don’t care about myself. I know I have to protect my buddies to my left and to my right, and they’re doing the exact same thing,” Donoho says. “They’re the same guys that I would lay my life down for to this day.”
That brotherhood is captured in stunning fashion in “Restrepo.” On Dec. 21, 2009, Donoho and his platoon (also featured in Junger’s book “War”) were invited to a private screening in New York City. Most of Donoho’s appearances in the film showcase his rich sense of humor. But right after a funny scene, they cut to a clip of soldiers removing the body of a man that his comrades had considered “immortal.”
“He was just a beast. He was one of the best soldiers the Army had. When he died, everyone was like, if he died, where does that put me on the ladder of life?” Donoho says. “I’m there when they’re trying to carry him away … you can just see my heart break. It was a trainwreck of emotions.
“In another part of the movie, I come out and put on my iPod and dance,” Donoho says. “Afterwards, it goes back to Restrepo, still alive, in his last weekend before deployment. You’re just thinking, Restrepo, man, I miss that guy. All of us were laughing and crying at the same time.”
Donoho is now a sergeant squad leader with the 509th Airborne infantry in Louisiana, where he helps train soldiers for deployment. “I love my job,” he says. “I can take this random guy who has stayed in his room and played video games all his life, and I can teach him well enough so that when he deploys he will stay alive. If I wasn’t good at my job I wouldn’t be alive right now, and that’s because I was trained by great leadership. Many times, I’ve taken off my uniform and it had bullet holes in it. I had a grazing wound to my neck when Restrepo died. I had to try to convince my dad it was just a piece of hot brass that burned me – I just recently told him what actually happened.”
Donoho will take a three-day pass to come into Redding for the Veterans Day events. “For civilians, I think Veterans Day is a time to honor people – past, present and future – who are in the military. I personally view Veterans Day as a time to honor the people who have served and who have fallen.
“I am 100 times more mature than I was when I graduated high school,” Donoho says. “Nothing serious had happened to me where I just had to man up and take responsibility for my actions. It made me start thinking about other people. I’d run out in the middle of a firefight with bullets flying everywhere and not care, as long as I could get to my buddies. At 19 years old, when your best friend dies underneath you, it bumps you up to a higher maturity level.”
Veterans Day observatio • 21-gun salute and “Taps” 6 pm Nov. 13 • Redding Convention Center Veterans’ Garden “Restrepo” screening (Rated R) • 7:30 pm Nov. 13, Cascade Theatre (tickets $12) • www.restrepothemovie.com