BELLOWS FALLS — Ethan Morse and his Army buddy, Neal Schrodetzki, both trained for duty as honor guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Va.
After Morse completed his service in that elite unit, they made "The Unknowns," a documentary about the rigorous training that guards go through on their way to serving at Arlington National Cemetery. The film will have its first public screening at the Bellows Falls Opera House on Thursday, Jan. 7, at 7 p.m. After the free screening, the two filmmakers will ask the audience for feedback.
When Morse enlisted in the military after September 11, he wanted to join the unit responsible for guarding the Tomb, but his recruiter couldn't offer even a chance of joining that regiment, so Morse joined the Army as an infantry paratrooper. While he was at boot camp at Fort Benning, Ga., a recruiter for the Arlington unit chose him, seemingly at random.
"I don't know why he selected those 10 out of 500," Morse recalled. "There was nothing in my record that said that I was interested."
Potential recruits underwent thorough screening.
"They wanted to know if we had a misdemeanor or felony or domestic violence, bankruptcy, or inappropriate tatoos," Morse went on. Any soldiers with any of those things were eliminated, and the remaining few were offered an opportunity to join the Third Infantry Regiment.
"There were a few who said, 'No, thank you' and wanted to stick with their original army contracts," he continued. "They wanted to stay on track to overseas. I felt that if our nation was asking me to do ceremonial guard duty at our nation's capital, I should say yes."
Before even beginning his training for Arlington, Morse had to finish infantry school and airborne school at Fort Benning. Then he was stationed at Fort Myer, Va.
"I was assigned to Casket Team at first," he said. "I conducted over 300 burials for vets from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and family members – if you're above a certain rank your wife and children are allowed to be buried in Arlington also – as well as about 50 active-duty military burials from the War on Terror.
"We would go to Dover and welcome the heroes back from Afghanistan," he continued. "I kind of lost interest in the Tomb because it felt like I was taking part in the war, in healing and closure with the families. It was a huge honor folding the flag over the fallen; I can tear up right now thinking about it. But after about a year I felt I should volunteer for service at the Tomb."
The training for service at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was extremely rigorous.
"Out of the four men I started training with, the other three quit or failed over the extensive time and energy it requires," Morse said. "It's a 24-hour duty, 24 hours on and 24 hours off for five days, and then you have four days off."
While the schedule may sound good, Morse noted that the soldiers spend the first day off sleeping and the next three working on their uniforms and polishing their memorization.
"You have to memorize over 17 pages of knowledge, of history," said Morse. "It's a very difficult type of duty for the Army. A lot of the infantry guys who are used to pushing themselves physically don't like that memorization, and over time they fail out or quit."
Morse didn't quit, and when he completed training, he earned Badge # 558.
"It's the least-awarded badge in the military," he commented. "The training is based on the individual. It took me seven months; when I received my badge, the gentleman with me had been in training for a year. That's what our film shows, the training and the rigor that goes into it."
Morse explained that the Third Regiment oversees not only Arlington National Cemetery, but also presidential ceremonies in the Military District of Washington. Morse took part in President George W. Bush's second inaugural parade, and helped with President Ronald Reagan's funeral.
After finishing his military service, Morse went to Los Angeles and enrolled at Biola University for filmmaking; Schrodetzki studied filmmaking at Arizona State University, and then the two decided to join forces to make "The Unknowns."
"We had served together in Caskets, we went to school separately and then we linked back up in 2012 and started planning this documentary," Morse said. "Neal called them every single week until they gave us permission, mostly because I was a Tomb-guard badgeholder.
"The Army finally gave us exclusive access so we were able to go there and film," he remembered. "They said we could film there for over a year, but we couldn't afford that. We had raised $17,000 through Kickstarter, and then we went and filmed for three weeks around Memorial Day, 2012. Then we've been working to develop this documentary, editing it down to tell the story of the Unknowns while working full time in television and radio in LA.
"Making a film is like running hurdles," Morse commented. "There's always something that comes up. The first part was raising money. Raising $17,000 took all our energy and time, asking friends and family, trying to get press."
He said that one big surprise was "our Kickstarters – a friend, a brother, a relative, a stranger who in the last few days gave us $7,000 and didn't want anything. He said, 'Just make this film.'"
Once the modest budget was secure, filming could begin and the small crew encountered more obstacles.
"We had to get CIA clearance — it was Memorial Day, so President Obama came through," Morse recalled. "Filming with the President on Memorial Day in Arlington was a nightmare, with all the security — even though we were supposed to be there. We only had 3 weeks.
"And the biggest hurdle has been editing," he continued. "We had 700 hours of footage from those three weeks of filming. Editing it down to 71 minutes took months, if not years, of sifting, lining up, creating the narrative to follow the training."
He said his favorite part of the entire process of making the movie was working with Schrodetzki.
"He's an Army buddy and we did everything together — caskets, to training at the Tomb," Morse commented. "We've done so much emotional duty – we're brothers. To be able to link up with him on our own endeavor has been very special.
"And going back to Arlington to film was very emotional. I'd been out for four or five years," he added. "It's steeped in Civil War history, but then there are World War I unknowns, World War II unknowns – there's so much history there that's not going to change... I had changed, of course. Being able to go back and film something I had gone through was mind-blowing, because it felt like I was looking back into my life."
He said he's looking forward to the first screenings of his film, which he compared to a new baby.
"We're bringing our creation, and we're hoping audiences will love it," he said. "We're introducing our baby to the world."
To see a trailer for "The Unknowns", click on "Movie Trailer" at theunknownsmovie.com.