What impressed most about Generation Kill, HBO's new miniseries portraying his unit's push into Iraq during the first days of the war, wasn't the brutal realism.
It wasn't the moments when soldiers are shown purchasing their own body armor and shielding for their Humvees. It wasn't the mercilessly accurate portrait of an officer, derisively known as Captain America, who had a tendency to panic during firefights and scream over the radio that they were all going to die.
What Stafford enjoyed most? The funny parts.
"Even when you're in a combat situation, there's still humor," said Stafford, 25, of Apollo Beach, who won a Purple Heart and Silver Star during two tours of Iraq. "They brought some of the humor that is never shown in any war movie. It basically just humanizes people instead of glorifying 'em all the time."
Generation Kill is funny in the way only young men coping with long stretches of boredom and flashes of danger can be. One moment, a soldier is goose-stepping behind a superior officer, lampooning his seemingly obsessive focus on the length of soldiers' mustache hairs. The next, a clownish Humvee driver looks at an Iraqi's traditional dress and asks why he's still in pajamas at 10 a.m.
The journalist who wrote the book that spawned this miniseries says it's all based on real events and real people.
"It turns out, the best, wittiest, most clever, shocking, dramatic lines in the whole series are actually things we didn't come up with as writers," said Evan Wright, who co-wrote scripts based on his book Generation Kill. In it, he outlined two months of travel with Marines from the First Reconnaisance Battalion, one of the first units in Iraq when war started.
To gauge the success of Wright and HBO's efforts, we gathered Stafford and two other Iraq war veterans from the Tampa Bay area at the offices of the St. Petersburg Times on July 3 to watch the first Generation Kill episode, "Get Some."
Our panel included:
Colleen Krepstekies, 35, an 11-year Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, leaving the service after supervising 160 soldiers driving fuel trucks through northern Iraq.
Jason Hofferle, 30, a veteran of the Marine Corps Reserves who spent six months in Iraq during the war's early days, working in an amphibious assault vehicle.
Stafford, 25, who joined the Marines in 2000, fresh from a job as a line cook in an Apollo Beach restaurant, eventually serving more than four years.
Their verdict: This was about the most realistic depiction of the life and that war they had ever seen.
"All that stuff was 100 percent right on . . . not having supplies, buying your own, so you know you have it when you need it," Hofferle said. "I didn't have a sling for my rifle for the first couple of weeks . . . I never got issued one."
"What didn't we have to buy?" added Stafford, noting that so many men got moved so quickly to the war zone, soldiers lacked everything from the proper maps and rifles to batteries for night-vision goggles. "We completely redid our Humvees ourselves, took out everything we didn't want, bought GPS, batteries, everything."
For Krepstekies, Generation Kill is a step toward reminding Americans about a war they have mostly ignored.
"From my perspective, unless (people) know somebody in the military or have some (connection) over there, they don't know what's going on . . . and they don't care," she said. "So there is no stereotype for them; they just don't know anything."
As the first episode opens, it is March 2003 and the Marines of First Recon Bravo Company's Second Platoon are sitting in Kuwait. Wright (played by Oz alum Lee Tergeson) is dropped in with the men — who regard him suspiciously until they learn he once wrote for Hustler magazine — and winds up traveling with Bravo Platoon 2's Team 1 Alpha, the lead Humvee among the first units charging into Iraq.
"From the first moment . . . I conceived of doing a story of this vehicle, it would be like a family road trip," said Wright, who vividly rendered the banter between fast-talking driver Cpl. Josh Ray Person, sardonic, in-control team leader Sgt. Brad "Iceman" Colbert and impatiently bloodthirsty Lance Cpl. James Trombley. "I guess I would be the weird uncle sitting in the back."
Generation Kill didn't really gain momentum at HBO until executives paired Wright with the masterminds behind the urban drama The Wire, David Simon and Ed Burns.
On the surface, they didn't have much in common — two guys known for creating a gritty Baltimore cop drama paired with a journalist who captured warfare on the other side of the world.
But Simon and Burns, who translated their book on Baltimore's drug trade, The Corner, into a miniseries for HBO, knew the key to making Wright's book live on the small screen: Trust the reporting.
"In so many stories, either these guys are the heroic warriors bestowing freedom, or they are the suckers who volunteered for military service," Simon said. "Evan was very intent on trying to capture the guys he knew there that were neither victims nor angels. He captured a subculture and our job was to peel it off the paper and put it onscreen."
But there are disadvantages to the grunt's-eye view. It's easy for viewers to miss a point Wright makes early in his book: First Recon soldiers were unknowingly used as guinea pigs for a military strategy that involved sending them headlong into ambushes on purpose.
Called "maneuver warfare," the idea was to keep the Iraqi Army off balance by sending Marines deep into their territory without securing supply lines, taking prisoners or holding territory. In practice, it meant soldiers from an elite unit trained to scout on foot were instead driving repeatedly into ambush sites in unarmored Humvees, trying to distinguish civilians from dangerous fighters while pushing for mission objectives they didn't fully understand.
"For the Marine Corps in particular . . . it's mission accomplishment first, troop welfare second," Wright said. "Now there's a whole huge gray area of, well, what if the overall objective is a ridiculous objective? Is it really worth risking our lives for it?"
In later episodes, one company captain is shown refusing an order to accompany engineers in marking a minefield at night — an assignment accepted by "Captain America," who sees both engineers caught in an explosion when they step on a land mine.
"Working underneath Captain America, I never worried if he pushed me into somewhere stupid and I got shot," said Eric Kocher, a former First Recon Marine who served as the one of the show's military consultants. "If he pushed me somewhere and some of my team got shot and I had to live with it, that's what I was worried about."
The bad with the good
That was a sentiment backed by Krepstekies, Hofferle and Stafford, who accepted that their lives might be risked in combat just to prove a point, but worried about seeing friends' or subordinates' lives wasted.
"Sometimes you have to remind (the enemy) of what we're capable of," said Krepstekies, who spoke passionately about losing two soldiers under her command in 2005 and refusing some missions that seemed unreasonable. "(But) there are times when you have to start making those calls, and you realize it might jeopardize your career."
Our panel picked a few nits. Hofferle thought the speeches one Latino/American Indian team leader kept making about the white man's war were a little overdone (the real-life soldier, Tony Espera, was removed from his assignment after those remarks became public). Krepstekies wondered about the jokingly racist jibes soldiers threw at each other, which sometimes seemed a bit too sincere and against regulations.
But Stafford, who visited the production during filming, insisted the show accurately captured his unit, warts and all. For Burns, Simon and Wright, there can be no higher praise.
"The piece is about young men in modern warfare, and you see a lot of people die," Simon said. "If people come away with any greater awareness of what war actually is — it's not clean, clinical or precise — and if that enters into people's equations the next time they're contemplating whether a war of choice is worth it, maybe that's a good thing."