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February 4, 2008

Front Line Lines

Oscar-Nominated Documentary Features Writing Alumnus

By James Tella


Lewis was deployed to Iraq with the rank of staff sergeant as part of the 361st Psychological Operations Company.
Deployed to Iraq with a detachment of the Army Reserves in mid 2004, writing M.F.A. Jack Lewis, Jr., ’94 has followed a circuitous creative route that’s led to his participation in one of this year’s Academy Award-nominated documentaries Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience from first-time Oscar nominee Richard E. Robbins.

The film finds it source material from Andy Carroll’s Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan and the Home Front, Random House’s anthology of essays, email messages, poems and letters of soldiers culled from a call for the personal stories of service members and their families by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). It’s one of those messages home, Lewis’ moving and emotional Road Work that the New York Times called the book’s “most heartbreaking story.”

Road Work’s story of an elderly Iraqi man who loses his will to live and pleads to be killed after he and his son are hit by a Stryker armored vehicle in a catastrophic head-on collision in the middle of the night by American soldiers is recounted in the film by actor Aaron Eckhart. In addition to being featured in the Oscar-nominated film, Road Work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Facets A Literary Magazine, featured on the New Yorker Online, and read as a selected short at Symphony Space where producers match Oscar and Tony award-winning actors with short stories by acclaimed contemporary and classic authors. 
Currently living in Seattle Lewis says that all the attention surrounding Road Work has given him “a couple of notions” he’d like to address in a screenplay.

“This whole experience has been evolving pretty rapidly and in some very unexpected directions,” said Lewis who appears in the film in an on-camera interview. “When I wrote my emails, I just wanted to let everyone know that we were okay and things were going along.”

Describing his involvement with Operation Homecoming, which was co-produced by 1998 M.F.A. production graduate Adam Hyman, as “a writing-related curiosity” Lewis recounted that when representatives of the NEA contacted him in Iraq after a poet friend submitted a different email to their program of the same name, he wrote back saying, “‘what is this about? I’m busy over here.’”

Looking back at his time at USC, Lewis said that his decision to study here was based on a family tradition that included his father and younger brother. Despite having “a wonderful time in the program,” after graduating he “got completely out of writing for years,” doing everything from networking computers and managing a resort hotel to building condominiums and “lots of things that had absolutely nothing to with film or even writing.” 

Lewis shares a lighter moment in Iraq in February of 2006.
Currently living in Seattle and the contributing editor to Motorcyclist magazine with a regular column (Behind Bars), Lewis says that all the attention surrounding Road Work has given him “a couple of notions” he’d like to address in a screenplay. In addition, he’s also in the midst of a collection of stories about his time in Iraq and his relationship with the U.S. military throughout his life, which over nine years includes a four-year hitch in the Army after high school, joining the Reserves in 2003 where he was deployed with the rank of staff sergeant as part of the 361st Psychological Operations Company and a year in the Guard after leaving active service. Tentatively titled The Soldier Next Door, the memoir is currently at a hefty 600 pages.

“And that means there’s much trimming and focusing required ahead,” he noted.