Editor’s note: This story contains film spoilers.
Early in the documentary “Father Soldier Son,” there’s a scene where the oldest son of a Fort Drum soldier, who would one day be a soldier himself, expresses surprise that his father was actually wounded by “a real bullet from a real gun from a real person.”
“And I’m like, kind of messed me up a little,” Isaac Eisch says.
From the innocence of children in their views of war to the harsh realities of it faced by adults who are called to serve, the documentary produced by the New York Times is a story that digs deeply into the hearts and souls of one family, giving insight — opening up a world hidden to the rest of us — and what happens to that family when and after duty and devotion calls.
“Father Soldier Son,” which premiered July 17 on Netflix, follows Brian Eisch, a former platoon sergeant and his two sons, Isaac and Joey, over almost a decade, chronicling Brian’s return home after a serious combat injury in Afghanistan. A large segment of the film was shot in the north country.
The film was directed by Leslye Davis, a documentarian and photographer at The New York Times, and Catrin Einhorn, a journalist at the paper.
“Brian is one of almost 800,000 U.S. troops who have deployed to Afghanistan and one of more than 20,000 who were wounded in Afghanistan,” Ms. Einhorn said in a phone interview. “I don’t know if there is one way that a deployment and service is going to affect a family. It plays out I’m sure in many ways across all the different families, but there are, I think, some things that really have resonated for military families as they’re watching this film and they talk to us.”
One issue that plays out in the film is that of parents reassessing their roles in their families after service to their country ends.
“Being a soldier is such a core part of peoples’ identity and there’s so much structure in the military,” Ms. Einhorn said. “Your life is structured out for you. All of a sudden you are a civilian, and like, you’ve lost your identity and you’ve lost your structure and your friends in many cases. All those things can be so difficult.”
The film grew out of the New York Times’ 2010-2011 multimedia project, “A Year at War” — chronicling the stories of many of the soldiers of the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division. The directors first met Sgt. 1st Class Brian Eisch in 2010.
“Initially, Brian was one of many soldiers we were following from Fort Drum during their year-long deployment,” Ms. Einhorn said.
But his story of deployment was especially intriguing to the filmmakers.
“The reason Brian stood out was because of his boys,” Ms. Einhorn said. “He was a single dad and we were really interested in how his deployment was affecting his family, his boys, and also, to some degree, his brother who had taken the boys while he was deployed.”
In 2010, Sgt. First Class Eisch, at the age of 36, was deployed out of Fort Drum. His two sons, Isaac and Joey, then age 12 and 7 respectively, were sent to stay at Sgt. Eisch’s brother’s home in Wautoma, Wis., while he was away. The family moved here in 2009.
“I question myself every day if I’m doing the right thing for my kids,” Sgt. Eisch says in the film. “I’m trying to do my duty to my country and deploy, you know and do what Uncle Sam Asks me to do. But you know, what’s everybody asking my boys to do?”
Sgt. Eisch, who led an Army Ranger platoon, had been in the Army for 17 years, but this was his first deployment to a combat zone, and as a third generation service member in his family, he welcomed it. But there was one fear: he didn’t want to be a changed man once his tour was over.
“I still want to be able to come home and have fun, not scream and yell at my kids,” Sgt. Eisch says in the film.
Viewers are shown an emotional family reunion at the tour’s six-month mark as Sgt. Eisch, who was granted sole custody of his children, returns home for a visit. It’s equally emotional when Sgt. Eisch gets back on the plane to return to Afghanistan. He urges his crying boys to be “tough.”
“As soon as I get on that plane, the sooner you’re going to stop crying, right?” he tells them. “Hey, you know why dad’s doing this, OK? I gotta go. I’m going to miss you.”
Sgt. Eisch was wounded in his left leg by enemy fire upon his return to Afghanistan.
“That was the first real twist in their story,” Ms. Einhorn said. “It was like, how is this going to work out for them?”
Filmmakers followed Sgt. Eisch’s recovery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“Brian was sort of determined to make it work at Fort Drum,” Ms. Einhorn said. “He wanted to stay in the infantry, he wanted to prove the doctors wrong, because they had said, ‘You’re never going to run again.’ He wanted to try to keep his leg.”
In 2011, Sgt. Eisch and his boys settled in the Fort Drum area, eventually at a home in Lacona, Oswego County, 50 miles away from the base. In 2012, realizing he could no longer serve in the infantry because of the damaged leg, Brian retired from the Army as a master sergeant. In 2014, seeking a better quality of life with a prosthesis, he had his damaged left leg amputated.
The Eischs remained in Lacona and the family welcomed the filmmakers into their lives, from fishing trips to wrestling matches at Sandy Creek Central.
“That was something we were drawn to about him,” Ms. Davis said. “Brian was so open. He really finds purpose and meaning in sharing his story with other people. He was initially resistant for about five seconds. If you asked him, he would say there is some catharsis to be able to talk about what you’re going through. He was very open.”
Ms. Einhorn and Ms. Davis would drive to Oswego County to record and document snippets of the Eischs’ lives. They were based out of the 1880 House in Pulaski for various amounts of time.
“Sometimes it was two days, sometimes it was 10 days,” Ms. Davis said. “We kind of worked it into our other jobs. Catrin and I were still doing our full-time reporting jobs at the Times. There were a couple of really nice instances where we were able to go up and just spend time and be with the family and be there for a longer period of time, and sort of see the dynamics of the family play out — not hinged around any big event, but just in their very normal, day-to-day lives.”
Film editor Amy Foote was especially happy with those results, the pair said.
“She said that normally in footage, you really just want to see someone like sitting and living their life and you can never find those moments because the filmmakers are always filming all this action and the big events and they don’t get the in-between moments,” Ms. Davis said.
Viewers are shown Sgt. Eisch’s road to recovery and his setbacks.
“Seeing Brian go through those really high expectations and then having them kind of shattered each time he would try to hold himself to those standards that he had created in his mind for how far he though he should be in healing, and how far he should be with fitness, was definitely hard for us to see his disappointment in that,” Ms. Davis said.
But it was interesting to profile someone who had set such high goals, she said.
“You meet different people who have different ways of coping and dealing with life,” Ms. Davis said. “Some people will kind of get pushed down and then they’ll readjust their expectations for life quickly. Brian didn’t do that — time and time again.”
Meanwhile, as Isaac and Joey grow older, they ponder their future. Joey the youngest, is determined to one day be a soldier. Isaac has a dream of going to college.
Eventually Brian gets more settled into his new life, and remarries 10 months after his leg amputation. The documentary shows him proposing to Maria Torres at the Sterling Renaissance Festival, 20 miles from Oswego in Cayuga County.
“He had just really settled into the contentment of finding a partner, having a home he was happy with, being middle age, not being able to walk very far, not being able to really run, but being able to get around without so much pain,” Ms. Davis said. “He kind of told us that he was good, everything was OK. I think the hardest thing, for many, many reasons, was knowing how content he was at the wedding and the next thing we filmed was Joey’s death.”
Joey Eisch, 12, was killed Friday, July 24, 2015 after the westbound bicycle he was riding was struck by a pickup truck County Route 15 near Van Auken Road, about a mile from his home. News reports say that Joey may have lost control of his bicycle as he was looking behind him and swerved into the path of the truck.
Joey was pronounced dead later that night at Upstate University Hospital, Syracuse. He was taken off life support after being declared brain dead.
He attended Sandy Creek Elementary School, and would have been entering the seventh grade that fall. Joey was a member of Sandy Creek Youth Wrestling, Sandy Creek Little League and Good Old Boy’s Junior Fishing Club.
“Joey was very good at being a goofball and making people laugh,” his obituary read.
“Brian called us from the hospital,” Ms. Einhorn said. “We weren’t with him the day it happened. He told us the doctors had just told him that Joey was brain dead.”
The filmmakers hurriedly gathered their items and made the six-hour drive north from New York City.
“We expected that Joey was going to live for quite some amount of time at least, so we headed up there, hoping and assuming we were going to get there,” Ms. Einhorn said. “We didn’t think Joey would be gone by the time we arrived. But he was.”
The Eisch family stayed at a Syracuse hotel that night.
“They couldn’t face going home, and we met up with them the next day,” Ms. Einhorn said. “We were with them the first time they were at the road (of the accident) and when they went home for the first time, we were with them. It was just so devastating.”
Funeral services were at Sandy Creek High School with burial at Dale Union Cemetery in Medina, Wis.
An annual wrestling tournament, the Joey Eisch Memorial Youth Wrestling Tournament at Sandy Creek Central School, is held in memorial to the boy. The first one was held in 2016.
“Joey and them were such a big part in our wrestling program,” said James E. Sprague III, coach of Sandy Creek Youth Wrestling.
The Joey Eisch Award is given annually at the tournament — given to someone who displays extra determination.
“Joey never won a wrestling match,” Mr. Sprague said. “Let’s say he did 50 matches, roughly. He never won one. But Joey was the kid that showed up for practice every single day to wrestle, ready to win, even though he never did. His dad didn’t want to give an award for Joey as the greatest wrestler on the team. He wanted it as the kid who is trying his best and never really won. It’s the most heart award.”
The award includes a $250 gift certificate to B & T Sports Shop in Fulton.
“It’s a pretty special thing,” Mr. Sprague said of the annual award. “We have a moment of silence and I know it’s our tournament, but I can tell you that it’s probably the best tournament of the year in the north country. It genuinely is. We have so much dedication from parents to our club who help out.”
The Sandy Creek Youth Wresting Club also recalls Joey in other ways.
“At the end of every single practice, everybody puts their hands together and it’s ‘One, two, three — Joey!’” Mr. Sprague said. “It happens at every single practice, which is up to five times a week sometimes. It’s pretty important for us.”
Mr. Spraque said that when Joey was on the team, there was about 20 wrestlers on it.
“We’re up to 72 kids a year now,” he said. “Our program is growing.”
There is a scene in “Father Soldier Son” where Joey is brought to tears after another disappointing match.
“I think Brian wanted him to get that first win, so he would know what it would be like to win,” Mr. Sprague said. “I think that was really hard for Joey; putting in so much work time and time again. It was definitely emotional, but I can say that the reason why Joey was important for me was while he saw all the kids who grew with him get better, and winning and winning, he sat back there and never won.”
Mr. Sprague said that Mr. Eisch, because of his amputated leg, couldn’t get on the wrestling match with Joey to demonstrate e pointers.
“It was horrible for him, but at some point in his life he would have been able to do that,” Mr. Sprague said. “I think it frustrated Brian not to be able to do that.”
Because of Joey, the community is learning the life benefits that the sport of wrestling can bring, Mr. Sprague said.
“It’s the best sport in the world,” he said. “Just losing weight is the biggest discipline in your life. As a wrestler, you learn very early on how to go to bed earlier, how to wake up earlier to go to those tournaments and how it fluctuates as to how you eat as a healthy person. Right from day one, no other sport does that. Your team could be the biggest team in the world, but when the whistle blows, it’s just you and the other guy. It builds your life lessons of character.”
The film documents the reasons why Isaac, Joey’s older brother, eventually joins the Army, despite his original doubts that he would do so. In 2017, Brian, Maria and family moved to Wisconsin and Isaac is now out of the Army.
Speaking to Joey and Isaac through the years added significant sentiment to their film, Ms. Einhorn said.
“Journalists, documentary filmmakers don’t always talk to the children,” Ms. Einhorn said. “I don’t think we’re really sure why. We both always liked talking to children. They’ll tell you such wise, surprising things and often they’re so much more tuned in to what’s going on than I think we often give them credit for.”
“We weren’t trying to shove a message down anyone’s throat or tell people what to think,” Ms. Davis said. “We were just trying to help people learn by watching this family’s lives and I think the reviews have reinforced that lookout, and that was a huge relief.”
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