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Robert Morast, Published August 20 2009

Soldiers’ stories: Film gives insights into Iraq fighting

Dan Hoedl has heard and seen the worst of war.

As a chaplain for the Marines who served in Iraq, Hoedl has been there when bomb shrapnel ripped through his fellow soldiers. He’s seen amputated limbs lying in medical rooms. And he’s heard injured men yelling at him with anger, questioning how a God could allow such misery.

They can be tough memories.

Yet, the Fargo man who has since left the Catholic priesthood, wants the people of Fargo-Moorhead and beyond to know all about his fellow soldiers and the sacrifices they made while serving in Iraq.

That’s why he organized a Sunday screening of the war documentary “Perfect Valor” at the Fargo Theatre. The film, by director David Taylor, features Hoedl as one of several Marines sharing their stories from 2004 battles in Fallujah, Iraq, and how their experiences have affected them since.

“I wanted to open the eyes of the people who have not experienced the sacrifice these soldiers made,” Hoedl says.

With that aim in mind, Hoedl scheduled the Sunday screening after finding out Saturday’s showing of “Perfect Valor” wouldn’t be open to the public. Rather, Saturday’s screening will be a private affair sponsored by Citizens United, a political group that financed the movie.

Be clear this isn’t about himself. Though Hoedl offers some of the most compelling and thought-provoking anecdotes in the film, Hoedl isn’t an “I” guy in conversation. He talks about “we” and “us” when referring to his military peers. As the son of a Marine, such behavior shouldn’t be shocking.

Hoedl says he just wanted to give the public a chance to see a film that he says is free of political purpose.

It’s a striking statement considering “Perfect Valor” was funded by a group with clear political purpose – to restore this nation’s government to citizen control. But the 90 minute documentary does play without rants or propaganda. It simply tells the stories of people who fought for their country.

“My whole purpose was to make a nonpolitical film,” says David Taylor, the director. “It was an opportunity to, in a sense, to try to understand these guys and women who were sent into the war.”

Taylor, who will be at Sunday’s screening, says no one tried to censor his expression. What followed is a film built around the stark and emotive confessional memories of soldiers who were part of the Fallujah battles. Family members remember fallen soldiers. And medical personnel recall trying to save lives in the line of fire.

Behind the words are clear, artistic images from the battle scenes. They might not be exactly from the situations being discussed, but unlike some other Iraq war documentaries, the scenes in this film play like art. They’re crisp. And they’re framed in a manner that gives beauty to ugly situations.

Taylor says much of the footage came from the Pentagon’s unused high-definition video intended for news reports.

“None of it was classified,” Taylor says.

Yet, some of the most compelling shots are of Hoedl sharing memories of angry servicemen.

“Perhaps the most significant sound bite was when Dan talked about how angry these Marines were,” Taylor says.

Listening to Hoedl talk about his war experiences gives you the sense he wasn’t the typical military chaplain.

He says he was called the “grapplin’ chaplain” because he went through the Marines’ martial arts program. He sweated with them during five-mile runs. And Hoedl says, unlike some other chaplains, he wasn’t offended by the anger or honesty that came from the mouths of the Marines. He felt the best form of ministry was to be with them, no matter the circumstance.

“Because we are sometimes the closest thing to God in that theater, they’re going to see how far they can push God before he leaves them,” Hoedl says.

Now back in Fargo, Hoedl hasn’t left God, but he has left his position as a priest. He says it’s not the result of war. Hoedl was considering leaving the priesthood before his time in the service.

Hoedl still attends services at St. Anthony’s in Fargo. But these days he’s working part time for the Department of Homeland Security and going to graduate school for intelligence and terrorism studies.

“In the movie I say I felt like I could never do enough as a priest or a chaplain,” Hoedl says. “After having my experience in the military … there are times when words are just not enough. You’re seeing Marines that are dying and you’d like to pick up a weapon and do a little more.”

That’s why he’s sharing “Perfect Valor” with the public. To do a little more for his fellow Marines.

If you go

Tickets: $5 at the door, or in advance through the Fargo Theatre


Readers can reach Forum Features Editor Robert Morast at (701) 241-5518