Terry Burgess of Fort Worth says the worst day of his life was Tuesday, March 29, 2011.
It’s when he learned that his son Bryan, an Army staff sergeant serving in Afghanistan, was dead.
Bryan had been killed during the first minutes of Operation Strong Eagle III, a mission that sent the No Slack battalion of the 101st Airborne into a remote mountain valley near the Pakistan border.
The troops had gone into this Taliban stronghold to root out Qari Zia Rahman, a top al Qaeda leader.
The battle is chronicled in the new movie The Hornet’s Nest, which opens Friday in North Texas.
Terry Burgess received the devastating news about Bryan, a Cleburne High School graduate, Class of 1999, in an early morning phone call from his daughter-in-law, Tiffany. Later, a lieutenant colonel from Fort Hood, accompanied by a minister, came to deliver the news in person.
“He couldn’t give me any specifics other than Bryan had been killed in action,” Burgess says. “I don’t think I would have remembered any details anyway. I was like a zombie that day.”
And the days, weeks and months that followed didn’t get any better.
“I could not get myself out of bed,” Burgess says. “When I did, it was just to drink or to take pills.”
Then, in early 2012, Terry and his wife, Beth, received another life-changing phone call, one that they never dreamed could help pull them out of despair and repair their shattered psyches.
The guy on the other end of the line was a Hollywood filmmaker, David Salzberg, co-director of The Hornet’s Nest.
“He said he had footage of Bryan that he wanted to put into the film,” Terry Burgess says. “But he wanted us to see the film first.”
Terry’s initial reaction was one of skepticism. He didn’t want anything to do with Hollywood. Hollywood takes stories like this and politicizes them, sensationalizes them, trivializes them.
As Beth puts it, “Terry got off the phone and I said, ‘What kind of movie? Like G.I. Joe?’ ”
Different kind of war movie
Well, not exactly. The Hornet’s Nest is made from real footage shot by Mike and Carlos Boettcher, Emmy-winning father-and-son war correspondents who had been granted access to dangerous combat missions in Afghanistan’s most hostile regions.
Mike Boettcher was embedded with Bryan’s battalion at the time of Strong Eagle III, an intense nine-day firefight in which six U.S. soldiers were killed.
The Burgesses were promised that this film, a work in progress at the time, was different. They were assured that it was neither pro- nor anti-war and that it was honest. Almost every shot and sound onscreen would be what had been captured by the Boettchers’ cameras — nothing reenacted, nothing doctored.
“So we went to Dallas to see it, me and Beth, my ex-wife [Linda Pearce] and her husband [Randy] and my daughter [Brandi],” Terry says. “In this little hotel room, the director turned it on for us and left the room and let us watch it, all the way through, all by ourselves.”
“We didn’t know what it was going to be like,” Beth says, “so we were holding our breath.”
“I had the official Army reports, but I had never opened them,” Terry continues. “I just threw them in Bryan’s locker and never wanted to see them. But now, all of a sudden, there I was, right there in that valley with him, seeing it happen.
“I had been a huge war movie buff, but this wasn’t like any of those movies. I had never seen anything like this.”
Putting a family back together
The film transformed the Burgess family that day. It allowed them to turn a corner.
“It put a sense of honor into me about what my son had done, why he did it, why he fought and why he died,” Terry says. “To see the looks on his men’s faces when they talk about him, to see that the medics were right there, holding his hand, brothers to the end. … It was wonderful finally to find out that he didn’t die alone in that hellhole.”
“But also you see another side of Bryan as a father and a husband,” Beth adds. “His kids, who were just 3 and 4 years old, are going to hear their father’s voice as he talks about how much he loves them. What a gift that is for his children.”
“Such a huge gift,” Terry continues. “It gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”
The Burgess family isn’t alone in how moved they were by The Hornet’s Nest.
The film — which has had numerous early screenings in recent months, including a red-carpet world premiere at the Angelika in Dallas on Monday — is having a huge impact on military families and civilian moviegoers alike.
That’s precisely what directors Christian Tureaud and Salzberg were going for.
“We’re hearing from soldiers and Marines, many of whom came home dealing with issues like PTSD and traumatic brain injury,” says Tureaud, a 1991 SMU grad. “They’ve said this film helped them cope. They’re calling it digital medicine.
“We’re hearing from Gold Star families who lost loved ones in battle. They’re saying it’s helping them create closure. We’re hearing from civilians who tell us that they would often approach soldiers and thank them for their service, but only now do they fully understand what they’re thanking them for.
“There’s a disconnect in this country between the military and civilian communities. We believe that this film is the bridge that can bring us together.”
Taking it to the world
Terry Burgess has attended more than 20 screenings, including one at SMU on April 23, which would have been Bryan’s 33rd birthday. Terry is a tireless supporter of the film. After all, it changed his life, saved his life, and he believes it can have the same powerful effect on others.
“It’s already helping the ones who have seen it,” he says. “The film has acted as a catalyst between soldiers and their wives, between soldiers and their employers.”
“Soldiers have never been big talkers,” Beth adds. “But when there are veterans in the audience, a lot of times they’ll be invited to speak and a lot of times they’ll say, ‘I’ve never talked to anybody about this,’ but they’ll get up and they’ll begin to talk. The great thing about the film is it opens dialogue.”
Bryan served two tours in Iraq before his deployment to Afghanistan. He was planning to make the military a career. When he was killed, he had less than a month to go before coming back home.
Terry remembers his son as being the all-American type.
“He played sports, he climbed trees, he fell out of trees and broke bones, he teased his little sister,” Terry says. “When he was in high school, he wanted to become a police officer. Then, after 9-11, he came to me and said, ‘Dad, I want to fight back.’ And he really wasn’t asking me. He was telling me.
“So he signed up and he went over and he climbed through the ranks faster than I would have thought possible. Before I knew it, my little boy had become a sergeant.”
In the past year, though, Terry has learned even more about his son, things he never would have known without The Hornet’s Nest.
“I met one soldier at a screening who told me his first happy memory of the Army came because of Sgt. Burgess,” Terry says. “He was feeling bad because he wasn’t doing well in the training. Then Bryan came up to him, patted him on the back, spoke to him softly and said, ‘In a couple of weeks, you’ll have the hang of it.’
“He said that Sgt. Burgess always spoke to his men strongly and authoritatively, but never yelled at them and never chewed them out. It’s bittersweet, getting to hear these things this way. But at the same time, I never get tired of hearing how loved and respected he was.”