Though the Fort Hood set of National Geographic’s event series The Long Road Home teemed with a massive crew and dozens of actors dressed as soldiers, two gentle giants stood out. One—actor Jon Beavers, in full battle gear to play Charlie Company 2-5 Cav Sergeant Eric Bourquin, a strapping 23-year-old Texan who’d been on his own since age 16 and thought the army sounded like fun.
The other was Bourquin himself, a now 40-year-old married dad who served as a technical consultant on the miniseries, based on Martha Raddatz’s harrowing account of the April 2004 Black Sunday ambush and rescue in Sadr City, Baghdad that killed eight, wounded dozens more and forever redefined the Iraq conflict. The same ambush that saw Bourquin and his 2-5 Cav brothers trapped in a Sadr City alley with no way to call for help.
And though each man can’t tell you enough how much he admires the other, virtually everyone around them gleefully describes the bond the pair formed.
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“I’m really happy that’s the first thing people hear about when it comes to me, because that’s been the real privilege of this whole project,” Beavers smiled. “There’s been countless really incredible aspects to what we’re doing. But getting to know Eric, getting to know all those guys, really, and the gold star families, as well, and them being really supportive of this process right from the beginning means more to us than we know how to say to them.”
Via a powerhouse performance from Beavers, Tuesday’s Long Road Home episode, "Abandon Hope" (see exclusive video above), spotlights Bourquin’s heartrending past and determined effort to lead rescuers to his marooned and increasingly desperate platoon. Beavers says that having Bourquin on set as he filmed some of the most harrowing moments of the veteran’s life seemed daunting—until he discovered that he had a special “in.”
“You come in extremely intimidated to play an actual war hero who is not only still very much alive and kicking but is going to stand 8 to 10 feet from you while you pretend to do what he actually did — and then you meet the guy and it’s tough to feel uncomfortable around Eric,” Beavers explained. “Right from the beginning, I worked on a kids’ show before this for Nickelodeon and Eric’s kids used to watch it. So he was like, ‘How do you feel, man? Is this weird for you?’ And I was like, ‘I’m glad you asked that, because it’s really weird for me. And it must be weird for you.’ And he’s like, ‘Hey, I’m talking to Twist from the Fresh Beat Band right now!’ Eric is a shepherd and he has the warmest heart.
“The guy you meet now— obviously within him is the warrior that went through this battle—but he calls himself a circus bear,” Beavers continues. "Because he’s 6-and-a-half feet tall and a big bubbly presence, but he’s also capable of defending himself and his brothers when it’s necessary.”
As a technical adviser on the series, Bourquin shared some of his own memories and mementos from his time in Sadr City with the cast and crew, and spent time with the actors playing soldiers as they trained with veteran army rangers.
“Eric and [fellow veteran] Aaron [Fowler] took us to the gun range so we could fire live ammunition and get some respect for what we were pretending to do," Beavers says. "So, from the very beginning I’ve got the actual guy I’m pretending to be to the right of me helping me to adjust my marksmanship and congratulating me and supporting me and actually being like, ‘I’m proud of what you’re about to do. I believe in you.’”
It was faith, Bourquin admits, he didn't offer easily.
“We all physically saw those guys climbing in those vehicles and doing that. You can never forget it,” says Bourquin, who, on the days I visited the set, was accompanied by Clay Spicer, Matt Fisk, Ben Hayhurst, Aaron Fowler, Carl Wild and Roberto Arambula — all former soldiers who were involved in the siege and rescue. “It’s a daily event that in some form or fashion you think about them, you think about us, you think about the unit. This is really personal, and there’s a lot of anxiety.
“These guys are out here sun up to sundown to make sure our stories are told appropriately," Bourquin continues, gesturing around him. "I can’t say how much I appreciate that. And Martha has been such an amazing advocate. If it wasn’t for her, the exposure to the story would’ve never happened.”
"I didn’t want to do an impression of Eric," says Beavers of his access to the onscreen Bourquin. "I don’t think anyone thought this was the right project to do an impression of anybody. But there is a sort of cadence, a lumbering cadence to him that I really wanted to absorb, because, while I say he’s a shepherd, he’s a violent shepherd. There’s something so imposing about him that I really wanted that quality to my voice and my gait."
There was a sizable sense of humor, too. Courtesy of their rigorous training, Beavers says he and his cohorts weren't quite ready to be riflemen, but "I think we know what we don’t know"—which led to a humorous exchange with his real-life counterpart.
"I got so much backlash for not having a M203 on my rifle," Beavers chuckles. "A 203 is grenade launcher that’s added onto the rifle and I had some conversations with the writers that, ‘Hey, if we don’t discharge this in the script, then we won’t run out of ammo—which is crucial to the plot. So, I shouldn’t have this.’ So they took it off. And Eric has systematically had everyone involved in the production come up to me and ask me where the 203 is—right down to my own family members."
But, Bourquin says, mutual respect remains the hallmark of The Long Road Home—a project nine-years in the making, with the full cooperation of the military and the soldiers, the families and survivors at the forefront of its story.
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"I feel a profound sense of honor for being in the company of such great men," Bourquin says of the unique way Raddatz' book and Mikko Alanne's resulting series' reunited and bonded the men of the First Cav. "Myself and a few of these guys just had the dumb luck of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Aaron Fowler and Clay Spicer, Mr. Arambula and all the guys out there in that LMTV, those are heroes because they, without a second thought—without even knowing who we were or what was going —jumped in a bunch of sub-standard equipment and came to our rescue without hesitation. I'm in the company of some of the greatest men I know. It's comforting and it's sobering knowing that I've got bonds like this with men that the only reason we are sitting here sucking wind right now is because of them and others like them.
"All these other dudes that are out here portraying all these other guys —with this being told, everybody gets to deal with the real price this is and what the actual sacrifice was because it doesn't get glamorized [in The Long Road Home]. It's the loss and the pain—because we all know the loss of the people that aren't here right now. We know the pain of it. They will never be able to hit all the milestones that we've all hit or we will hit or that we look to the future to hit. The justice of that being done and being done with as much heart and soul as these guys are putting into, it's fantastic. We couldn't have imagined that there would be a production like this, that they would invest the type of resources and just the human equity that's in this place. [Showrunner] Mikko Alanne and the talented people that are here, they're giving it all they have. It's a real blessing."
A sense of honor and connection that Beavers says bonded not just him and Bourquin, but him and his cast mates, too.
"There was a point in filming where it felt like training was kicking in, where that moment of insecurity is probably what a soldier would feel before training started to kick in," he explains. "There’s that feeling of duty and responsibility and what took it over the edge— what, if there is something special on the screen when you see it—is that we all felt a little bit overwhelmed and it forced us to start relying on each other. It’s a thing that I hear these guys talking about over and over.
"It’s been incredible and it’s been an incredible honor," Beavers says, hoisting his prop rifle further onto his shoulder. "I hope we’re all friends for the rest of our lives."
The Long Road Home, Tuesdays, 10/9c on National Geographic. Series finale airs Dec. 19.
Award-winning journalist Martha Raddatz talks about National Geographic's 'The Long Road Home,' based on her 2007 book of the same name.