“To be especially watchful at night, and during the time for challenging, to challenge all persons on or near my post, and to allow no one to pass without proper authority.” – The 11th Marine Corps General Order
Filmmaker Joshua DeFour could feel his nerves bubbling on Sunday night, seated in a packed audience of friends, family, fellow University of Texas at Austin graduate students, and at least 50 Marine Corps veterans.
Three years ago, Mr. DeFour had no intention of making a military film. That changed when he read the now legendary “Six Seconds To Live” speech by former Marine General John F. Kelly, eulogizing Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter and Corporal Jonathan Yale of the United States Marine Corps.
On the morning of April 22, 2008, the two infantrymen had volunteered to stand guard at Joint Security Station Nasser in the heart of Ramadi, Iraq. Cpl. Yale was seven months into his tour while LCpl. Haerter had arrived just a few days prior, meeting not long before an oil truck barreled through the serpentine, straight toward them.
Inside the station, 150 Marines and Iraqi police laid sleeping, unaware.
Within seconds, and without speaking, LCpl. Haerter and Cpl. Yale open fired, refusing to leave their posts as the Iraqi guards at the gate took cover. The truck, loaded with 2,000 pounds of explosive, abruptly halted outside the gate and detonated, blowing out the windows of every nearby building, leveling some, and killing the two men who stopped it — saving the lives of all those inside.
Both posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, Yale was 21 years old from Burkeville, Virginia, and Haerter was 19, a Pierson graduate far from his native Sag Harbor. He loved paintballing and four-wheeling when he wasn’t busy playing video games or reading Time magazine and Newsweek.
They were everyday people, put in extraordinary circumstances, Mr. DeFour said, and the inspiration his 23-minute short, “The 11thOrder.”
“No one had made a movie about it, and it had been 10 years,” explained the filmmaker, a Marine Corps veteran himself. “I felt this weird sense of responsibility because I felt like I couldmake it. It would be a huge, daunting challenge, it would be insanely difficult, but no one else had done it. In my heart, I felt I was capable of it. There was just this feeling that I should try.”
“I was not going to do this on a whim,” he said, “ because I had to call the moms.”
When JoAnn Lyles picked up her phone in Sag Harbor, Mr. DeFour’s request was not the first film request she had fielded regarding her son, Jordan Haerter — but it was the only she had entertained.
“Others, through the years, have approached for things like that, but they were always for-profit things, and I’d have to sign rights away, and this was such a different approach,” she said. “It was his thesis and he’s a Marine. Everything felt very comfortable with him.”
Mr. DeFour visited Ms. Lyles on the East End and even participated in Jordan’s Run, a veterans’ memorial 5K held every summer in Sag Harbor to support the memorial fund In Jordan’s Honor. After, she told him about the day the casualty assistance calls officer came to her workplace to deliver the news.
Her only child had died in the line of duty.
“It was a hard day and, I don’t know, you just don’t believe it,” Ms. Lyles recalled. “It takes so long to sink in. So it’s hard. A lot of it’s a blur.”
Assisting Mr. DeFour in any way she could — connecting the filmmaker to her son’s friends, fellow Marines and Mr. Yale’s mother, Rebecca — proved to be cathartic, bring up a range of emotions, from pride and grief to strength and respect.
She felt it in Austin, too — playing witness to an outpouring of support from the Marine Corps at the University of Texas.
“My smile muscles hurt the most,” she said, the morning after her flight home from Austin. “Joshua did everyone proud. He honored Jordan and Cpl. Jonathan Yale, and it’s part of the history of the Marine Corps now. Their names will be known throughout history.”
Once a disgruntled journalism major, Mr. DeFour joined the Marine Corps as a combat videographer, dropping out of school and into an insulated culture, one that demanded he earn his way into it.
And he did, capturing their day-to-day operations from behind the lens — deploying to Guam, Tinian, Thailand, the Philippines and Bangladesh before spending a year in Afghanistan in 2013.
“There were a lot of negative experiences — you get pulled into some hairy situations — but the best overall experience was I could live the life of a different Marine every single week,” he said. “I got to do their job with them and then I bounced out to a different job, and that was really special.
“I’m addicted to stories. I love to hear people talk about themselves and their dreams and their ambitions,” he continued. “So to me, that was the most fulfilling thing I could ever do, because I got to experience a little slice of the Marine Corps, all parts of it.”
And in the case of LCpl. Haerter and Cpl. Yale, even the most tragic, Mr. DeFour said. Shot on the “Middle East” set of films such as “American Sniper,” “Vice” and “Iron Man,” the short film enlisted more than 100 cast and crew, culminating in Mr. DeFour’s most ambitious project to date.
“This film is five, six times the size of anything else I’ve done. It is definitely ridiculously bigger than anything I’ve ever made,” he said. “It’s a whole hierarchy at work, just like in the military. At some point, you can’t really be afraid of it because you know how to make a film. You just have more people. If you stick to your process, everything will get done efficiently. So it should never be something you’re afraid of, to take on a bigger challenge. Because if I had been, this never would have been made.”
The night before the premiere, Mr. DeFour battled a full-fledged panic attack, he admitted with a laugh. Veterans were flying in from across the country. One even drove down from Chicago. The pressure was suffocating, he said.
“It’s been a very strange period of time. It’s two years I’ve been waiting for this, and now it was here,” he said. “There was a fear of not knowing how the families were going to react, how the Marines were going to react. The audience itself was in Austin, Texas, so it’s a bit of a liberal audience, even though the film isn’t political. But it got real — real quick.”
As the film rolled, Mr. DeFour relaxed. The audience laughed when they didn’t know if they should, and cried when they had no choice.
Coming away from the screening, the 28-year-old realized he hadn’t made a military film at all. It was a film for everyone — whether they knew LCpl. Haerter and Cpl. Yale, whether they supported the armed forces, and whether they had a vested interest, or not.
“At the end of the day, it calls into question, ‘What would you do?’” Mr. DeFour said. “There are tons of opportunities in life where you’ve got six seconds to make a choice. Maybe it won’t save 150 people, but it’s a choice between right and wrong, and it’s easier to make the wrong choice — so what choice do you make? That decision doesn’t require politics, it doesn’t require the context of war, it doesn’t require any of that. It’s about human psychology.
“I think this film connects to anyone that serves their communities, no matter where you are,” he added. “It connects to firefighters, it connects to police officers, it can connect to teachers — anyone put into place where they are serving their community. I feel like those people, who are the unsung heroes, aren’t recognized enough.”
To immediately view “The 11thOrder,” donate to the short film by visiting filmmakerscollab.org/films/the-11th-order, or check back for upcoming screening dates this fall.