A soldier from Medford is being portrayed in a National Geographic TV series called “The Long Road Home,” but he hasn't been able to see the show yet because he's still on duty in the Middle East.
Based on the 2007 best-selling book by the same name, the eight-part miniseries recounts the fight for survival after the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, was ambushed in Sadr City, Baghdad, April 4, 2004.
Based on reporting by ABC News chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz, the show chronicles the lives of the soldiers and their families back home when an uneventful peacekeeping mission turned into an ambush that would later come to be known as “Black Sunday.”
Medford native Jonathan Riddell, played by actor Joey Lutham, served as the driver for division commander Lt. Shane Aguero, portrayed by actor E.J. Bonilla.
In the first episode, Riddell’s character is driving a Humvee through Sadr City when Sgt. Eddie Chen, a real-life friend of Riddell — played by Kenny Leu of NBC’s "Chicago Med" — is shot and killed while serving as lead gunner on top of the Humvee.
Now in the Navy and currently serving in Bahrain, Riddell, who has limited phone access but responded to questions via Facebook, said he has not watched the show yet but receives feedback online from friends and family.
Riddell said he expected a certain “amount of Hollywood” to be injected into the show, but he was glad the story of the ambush had been told.
“I am proud of my time there, proud of how I handled myself in those extreme situations. I look back fondly to those times with my brothers in arms. As far as the series, it's pretty cool. I have been told by my family that the guy playing me went a bit too liberal with my character — that’s not me — but I understand it's a Hollywood production,” Riddell said.
“I get feedback from family and friends. I like it being made into a show, because it puts the stories I’ve told into context. I have talked about that day and the months that followed many times to family. Now they can see it with their own eyes.”
He added, “It was a pivotal point in Iraq. Before the moments covered in the series, we were a peacekeeping, help-the-population-rebuild force. There is a military quote that I think covers this: ‘The first attack of any war is always a success.’ And that's what happened. We got hit first and got hit hard.”
The show revolves around the squad on Riddell's Humvee, which was ambushed during a routine mission by automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades from rooftops in the densely packed city. The crew was forced to find shelter in a building in the midst of Sadr City and fend off attacking Shi'a militia while waiting for rescue crews to find them. The rescue crews also were ambushed — in all eight Americans died in ambushes that day and 65 were wounded. For the U.S. military, it was up to that point the worst single day for casualties since Vietnam.
Riddell, now headed toward 40, was 24 at the time of the ambush and, he noted wryly, still “had a full head of hair.” While some members of his unit were involved with production of the show, he is currently deployed so he could not participate.
Riddell’s uncle, Central Point resident Dale Woolstenhulme, said seeing a show that tells the story of something his nephew had gone through has been insightful. While the ambush was Riddell’s first time in combat, Woolstenhulme said, his nephew is tougher than the baby-faced character portrayed in the show.
“He’s definitely tougher than how they portray him,” he said. "He had only been over there for three or four days when all that happened, and it was his first deployment. In normal circumstances, if you weren’t as tough as Jonathan, that’s what you would’ve expected of a young kid."
In the series' first episode, Agueros' character tells Riddell to speed up while driving through the town and not to drive like a “hippie” Oregon driver. Woolstenhulme said he could attest the show was not factual in describing his nephew’s driving.
“That’s not Jonathan. He’s usually driving way too fast,” said the uncle, with a laugh. Woolstenhulme, who had watched three episodes when he was interviewed, said the tale of what the soldiers had endured was sobering.
“This happened almost as soon as they got there. They had just had a changing of the guard, so to speak. And you can see what they’re trying to point out. They were under-manned and didn’t have proper armor. Jonathan was trained for a Bradley (fighting vehicle), but they didn’t even have those over there, so that’s why he was driving a Humvee,” Woolstenhulme said.
“I remember him saying that he could tell when things were going on because people would put debris in the road to try to block them or slow them down. That was their tactic. It’s crazy and it's amazing to send people into that situation, but those guys do what they’ve got to do.”
After his stint in the Army, Riddell spent a year as a civilian before re-upping in the Naval Reserve. He’s currently a Master-at-Arms First Class, or MA1 for short.
Riddell said his memories of the ambush were merely that he and fellow soldiers did their jobs to the best of their ability.
“In the moment, we were all just focused on the fight. Later, yes, we came to feel like the population turned on us and we couldn't trust them. Not all, mind you. There were a few that earned our trust and others that just walked up to us on the street and gave us good intel on enemy movements and weapon caches,” he said.
“After the initial shock of being in our first firefight, we were mostly in good spirits, even joking with each other. I have no regrets from those days. Quite the contrary, I think of them fondly.”
The show airs on the National Geographic channel (Charter Channel 54) at 8 p.m. Tuesdays. For more information about the show, see http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/the-long-road-home/.
— Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.