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Ben Mankiewicz - TCM Host
Remind Me

Ben's Top Pick for November


These are names I won't soon forget: Lynelle White, John Pruitt, Dan Dietz, James Taku Leung, Brenda Garcia, Sean Adams. Each is a powerful testament to commitment to the U.S. Armed Services. Six veterans in all - two Marines, an Army Green Beret, a decorated Coast Guard officer, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force and a Naval officer who served on Air Force One under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. They served in multiple wars - Vietnam, the first Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Each picked a movie to share on Veterans Day - and they made bold choices: Lynelle chose A Raisin in the Sun; John picked Breaking Away; for Dan it was The Guns of Navarone; Sean went with The Longest Day; James' selection was the most obscure, The D.I., a 1957 picture about a Parris Island drill instructor, played by Jack Webb; and what about Brenda? Naturally, on Veterans Day, she went with a Peter O'Toole musical, Man of La Mancha.

We began programming Veterans Day with a salute to movie-loving vets last year and it was among my most memorable days at TCM. Our cast of characters this year is equally as powerful and moving. Lynelle's path to becoming a refueling pilot in the Air Force was more challenging than most - and it's a grueling process for anyone. But as the lone woman of color, almost every step of the way brought an extra burden her colleagues didn't have to carry. She's now an aspiring writer in Los Angeles, already with a couple of credits, including Army Wives. She also doesn't suffer fools - and in this instance I am the fool. Lynelle told a harrowing story of having to break off a refueling 25,000 to 30,000 feet in the air when the weather changed suddenly. I paused and said something like, "I can relate to that kind of pressure because I have to read a teleprompter." Lynelle looked like she wanted to toss me right into her refueling tanker. Mercifully, she let me off the hook when she realized I was kidding. At least I think she did. Anyway, I don't see my line getting into her next screenplay.

John chose Breaking Away because he loves cycling. He even has his own "Cutter" t-shirt, a salute to the movie. He's also the only guy I've ever met who, while commanding a Coast Guard vessel during the Persian Gulf War, was told to "go find the Iraqi army." Along the way, he found something else - encountering a flotilla of ships from the Iranian Navy. John's swift decision-making and recognition of the potential threat of instant escalation led him to flee - quickly - and, in all likelihood, avoid a war with Iran. I thought it best to spare him my "prompter humor."

Dan spent more than 23 years as a police officer in Salem, OR following a tour in Vietnam, then three years as a Special Forces officer. He saw seven months of combat before a brief illness got him off the front lines and into a hospital. As he was preparing to return to active duty, an officer asked if anyone could type. Dan could - as taking typing in high school was a great way to meet girls. His spur-of-the-moment decision in Vietnam to raise his hand, having no clue it would be more than a one-day assignment, led to a posting on an officer's staff and spared him his last months of combat. Naturally, Dan still feels like he let his friends down by not returning to his unit. Because that's who Dan Deitz is. Forty-nine years after he was drafted, he says "not a day goes by that I don't think about the guys I met in Vietnam."

James, the Marine who picked The D.I., has so many stories that I don't know where to begin. His family has a military history going back more than 1,000 years - all the way to China. At less than 5'2, James wasn't tall enough to enlist in the Marines, until he convinced the recruiters he'd be toughest, fiercest, most accomplished Marine at Parris Island. He was right. He says The D.I. accurately represents the boot camp experience. Now out of the service, James is an actor. And, obviously, a professional Sumo referee. You read that right.

As a Naval officer working for the White House TV Crew (that's oddly a Navy job), Brenda has flown on Air Force One more times than she can remember. She flew under the administrations of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Obviously, I wanted gossip, juicy tidbits that only someone so close to the most powerful people in the world could share. Oh, the stories Brenda told, like how First Lady Barbara Bush never wore pants, only dresses, but when Hillary Clinton became First Lady, she wore pantsuits, which meant the women traveling on Air Force One could wear pants, too. OK, that's as close to juicy as Brenda got - she was spectacularly discreet. Truth is, she developed enormous respect for both Presidents Bush and Clinton, and covering both administrations led her to be more proud of her country than ever--to "fall in love with America all over again."

All of which brings me to Sean Adams, whose selection, The Longest Day, airs at 8pm ET. It's revealing that Sean picked a movie chronicling the D-Day landings. Roughly 4,400 Allied soldiers, Marines and airmen died on June 6th, 1944, with thousands more injured. Sean relates. On February 10th, 2012, Sean, just 19 years old at the time, was on patrol in Kajaki, Afghanistan, checking roads and looking for IED's. He triggered one, suffering a catastrophic injury that cost him both legs, one thumb, a pinky and partial vision in one eye. And those are just the physical wounds.

But Sean, who retired from the Marines as a corporal, is today 6 ½ years into his recovery and full of a zeal for life that all of us should envy. The truth is, like those American, British and Canadian boys on D-Day, Sean was merely doing his job when he was injured in Afghanistan, volunteering to go on patrol - he'd earned the right to stay behind that day. But out he went, looking for the kind of lurking danger that could kill his friends. And he found it, nearly losing his life to save theirs. Just as the sacrifice made by the first few waves on D-Day opened up the beachhead for the Allied invasion to save Europe.

TCM connected with Sean through the Gary Sinese Foundation R.I.S.E. program. The program, which stands for Restoring Independence, Supporting Empowerment, builds specially adapted smart homes for the most severely wounded veterans. The home built for Sean was the foundation's 34th completed house.

Almost anything I write at this point will sound unoriginal at best and vapid at worst. So I'll just say thanks to the six veterans who were willing to pick a movie and share their stories on Veterans Day. And I hope you'll watch.

by Ben Mankiewicz