Fighting for Life

Written by on March 13th, 2008

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It’s difficult to imagine the doctors of Grey’s Anatomy or ER—hell, even M*A*S*H—running through an obstacle course with a wounded soldier on a stretcher, climbing walls and dodging mines in sweltering heat. But that’s the training you see military medics receive in Fighting for Life, an apolitical documentary about the physicians and nurses who graduate from Bethesda’s Uniformed Services University and go on to care for the troops.

Though the facility has been dubbed “Useless U” and has come close to being shuttered, Terry Sanders’ simply shot digital film is an inelegant but potent argument for its existence. The storytelling can be sloppy, with the three loose sections lending glimpses into the lives of students studying at USU, the medical personnel stationed overseas, and wounded soldiers making their way from war zones to Germany’s Ramstein Air Base to convalescence at Walter Reed. A lot of talking heads are introduced quickly and confusingly.

But Sanders had virtually unlimited access to his subjects, and the images he captures—soldiers still bleeding in beds and missing limbs, one asking to be killed; doctors struggling to provide the best care in the midst of battlegrounds and budget cuts—communicate more effectively than any sound bite.

The doc also settles into a narrative groove in its final chapters as it chronicles the progress and impossibly serene attitude of 21-year-old Crystal Davis, who lost a leg and feeling in her other foot after an IED exploded under her Humvee. Though Fighting for Life talks most often about the challenges the medics and critically injured face, there’s an underlying message about the need for improved and, more important, ongoing veteran care, as well as the utter bipartisan nature of military medicine itself: As one weary doctor notes, “It doesn’t matter what you think of the president.”

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