Many soldiers, the fortunate ones, get to return home from war relatively unscathed. But others — the ones who saw things that can never be unseen and endured things that repeatedly return unbidden to their waking thoughts and sleepless nights — find that war can go home with them. That’s the theme resounded throughout “No Greater Love,” a fascinating and heartfelt documentary about members of a storied U.S. Army battalion and their experiences during 2010-11 deployment in Afghanistan. The title, of course, is an allusion to John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” But the movie is dedicated to the proposition that there may well be a greater love, the one expressed by one veteran to another as they help each other deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological scars.
“No Greater Love” is indeed a labor of love — the work of Justin D. Roberts, who served six years, including time spent with soldiers of the No Slack Battalion, 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan, as an Army chaplain. Shortly before leaving the service in 2015, Roberts found himself beset by depression and PTSD, the aftereffects of his wartime experiences. To better understand his troubles and aid other wounded warriors with their own problems, he caught up with members of his old unit to interview them about what they did, and what was done to them, during clashes with Taliban forces in Korengal Valley, a blood-soaked piece of real estate aptly dubbed The Valley of Death.
Because he was a chaplain, Roberts was forbidden to carry a weapon. Instead, he wielded a video camera, which he used to record sometimes harrowing, something heartbreaking images of fierce fighting, suicide bombing, sudden death and miraculous survival. In “No Greater Love,” he skillfully interweaves his video with postwar interviews in which No Slack vets comment on the events caught on camera, and more.
One soldier breaks into tears as he recalls an irony no screenwriter would dare create: He felt duty-bound to staunch the bleeding of a critically wounded insurgent responsible for the IED that killed one of his friends. Another describes being haunted by the near-certainty that, had he disregarded the rules of engagement and preemptively shot a suspicious-looking woman, she could not have triggered the explosive vest that killed her and the soldiers and children near her.
Right from the start, “No Greater Love” emphasizes the alarmingly high rate of suicide among soldiers unable to deal with the traumas that have been tormenting them since returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. But Roberts’ documentary remains more hopeful than despairing, even when — maybe especially when — interviewees describe how far they had to fall before they admitted that they needed help. Retired Sgt. Major Chris Fields remembers: “When you think that you’re raising your voice just a little bit, and you watch your little girl lay down in the middle of the floor and start to cry, you turn to yourself and say, ‘Oh, crap! I’m fucked up!’ And you turn around and you say, ‘What now?’”
Roberts is too honest a first-time filmmaker — quite possibly because his honesty is bolstered with first-hand experiences — to proffer facile answers to Fields’ question, or to suggest easy solutions to the problems he and fellow wounded warriors face. But he makes a strong case for outside assistance to soldiers seeking to reclaim a prewar sense of self. (Some vets would greatly benefit, one interview subject says, if someone simply offered them jobs.) And the director makes an impassioned plea during the movie’s final minutes for troubled vets to seek each other out so they can remind each other that, long after the war, they remain brothers (and sisters) in arms. There really is no greater love.