It's Veterans Day, and MTV offers the perfect way to get the young and the disengaged to understand why it's important to take note of those who serve.
"Return to Duty" (8 p.m. tonight) features Ryan Conklin, a 24-year-old Army vet from Gettysburg, PA, who was part of the network's "The Real World: Brooklyn."
He'd been in the Army for 3 and a half years and out for two, but at the end of the "Real World's" season, he got called to do a second tour in Iraq.
Ryan isn't happy to get the call; as is explained by others in the doc, he decided to join the Army after 9/11, but no longer believes in the war's aims. But he's also a young man with a lot of integrity and a sense of duty. Even though he's experiencing some post-traumatic symptoms, he won't use that to get out of his obligation. The Army asked him to go, so he'll go.
The documentary gives us who haven't met Ryan, a brief, but informative look at his life and his loving family.
We see him get to base, and deploy from Fort Bragg, including the send-off at Fayetteville's Crown Center, complete with farewell speech from Gov. Bev Perdue. Then later, the cameras follow him to Baghdad, revealing the quarters and Groundhog Day-like monotony of the patrols and the heat, a monotony interrupted mostly when something bad happens.
It's an emotional story but not overwrought. And that's perfect because it needn't be. You can look at Ryan's mother's face and see all you need to know about what it's like to send your child to war. You can see the family holding their breaths; hear them exhale each time they speak to Ryan. And through Ryan's relationship with Baya, his near-girlfriend from "The Real World", you get a view of how tricky and scary and tenuous it is to love a soldier.
Ryan is articulate and candid about what it's like to be a soldier. "You rarely find IEDs, most often they find you," he says at one point. Paranoia is a plus in Iraq, too (which explains why the transition home is tough). There's dark humor, like the scene where Ryan ponders just the right expression for his death picture, the image circulated in the event of your death. And there's some light in the friendly Iraqis.
There's much more, including a heartbreaking twist.
Ryan is due home in February. As our president makes a decision about sending more young people to serve in Afghanistan, this documentary gives the rest of us a powerful sense of what the call to duty really means.