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Film honors God, country, wounded warriors (video)

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
May 11, 2012 at 12:11 a.m.
Updated May 12, 2012 at 12:12 a.m.

Ron Kocian, president of Warrior's Weekend, recites take after take of voice-over narration for the documentary film, "Return to Honor" at his Victoria office.

IF YOU GO

• WHAT: "Return to Honor" film premiere

• WHEN: 7 p.m. May 12; doors open at 6 p.m.

• WHERE: Victoria Fine Arts Center, 102 Profit Drive

• COST: $15

TICKETS: Interstate Batteries, A-Z Nursery, Coastal Kitchen and Bath, Culligan Water, Ron Kocian & Associates

• MORE INFO: returntohonorfilm.com

In a quiet office on Miori Lane, "Return to Honor" director Michael Cloud pinches a portable microphone to Ron Kocian's lapel.

Kocian, who founded Warrior's Weekend and serves as president for the organization, is scheduled at the office for last minute voice-over work before the documentary debuts Saturday at the Victoria Fine Arts Center. Kocian and the rest of the crew have mere days to perfect the film prior to its premiere before an audience of 1,400.

And with so much time, prayer and passion invested in their film project documenting the events of Warrior's Weekend, Kocian and Cloud want the recordings to seamlessly flow.

Scanning pages of the finalized script, Kocian readies himself for Cloud's cue.

"I'm ready when you are," said Cloud, crouching behind a floor-standing camera and studying a laptop computer where the documentary streams in 30-second clips.

It's been a full year for the cast and crew, who chronicled the events of Warrior's Weekend 2011 - a Texas-sized weekend of non-stop festivities honoring wounded soldiers - during the making of "Return to Honor."

Since 2007, the Warrior's Weekend has hosted an over-the-top celebration every spring for injured veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last year, Warrior's Weekend volunteer, retired U.S. Army Col. Mike Petrash, "Return to Honor" producer Sharon Burns and Cloud decided to document the God and country-centered weekend, so the rest of the world could appreciate what the injured soldiers and their families give up fighting for American citizens they'll never meet. And why it's important that they return to honor.

"The welcome at the airport is a huge event," Burns said. "And the soldiers think that's all there is until they see the buses, and the police escort and everything that follows that weekend. They are covered in appreciation from the moment they step off the plane."

Petrash said he's worked with injured soldiers for many years while serving in the Army, and knows first-hand why Warrior's Weekend can make such a huge impact.

"We see these warriors for a weekend, and you hear them say, 'This weekend saved my marriage. This weekend saved my life. I was thinking about committing suicide until I came here,'" said Petrash, a seven-year Warrior's Weekend volunteer, responsible for the Field of Honor American flag display each year at Faith Family Church.

Even though the weekend is known across Texas as one of the largest displays of patriotism and honor for military soldiers with injuries, there was never any intention of filming the weekend until two years ago.

"I was at a basketball game, and I looked at my pastor, Jim Graff, and said, 'I want to make a movie,'" Burns said. "He said, 'About what?' And I said, 'I don't know, I just want to make a movie.'"

Graff, senior pastor of Faith Family Church, referred Burns to Cloud, who worked as Faith Family's media director for 10 years and had previous experience producing short films.

"I've done some long-form projects, but never anything of this scale," Cloud said. "But, I thought, storytelling is storytelling."

Shortly after Burns connected with Cloud, Petrash also contacted the Cloud with an idea about capturing Warrior's Weekend on video.

"Col. Mike called me up and said, 'I'm feeling the Warrior's Weekend is going to be great this year. I think we should make a documentary,'" Cloud said. "I had Sharon on one side telling me she wanted to make a movie, but didn't know what she wanted to make a movie about. And I had Col. Mike telling me he thinks we should make a documentary about Warrior's Weekend, but didn't know what exactly how to go about it."

"It was absolutely a divine appointment the way the whole thing came together," Burns giggled.

"That's what I think, it was a God moment," Petrash agreed.

After clearing the idea of documenting Warrior's Weekend with the organization's board members, Petrash, Burns and Cloud began filming two weeks later.

The team gathered equipment for filming: specialty cameras, a crew of four cameramen, a helicopter and motorcycle pilot to capture live action shots of the soldier charter bus envoy, police escort and fishing tournament.

And as the film crew captured footage, the documentary, originally planned for 30-45 minutes, grew to more than two hours. The price tag also grew, exceeding more than $30,000 to produce.

"After looking at the footage, we realized, there's no way we can cut it down," Burns said.

Petrash commented that Americans have become less enthusiastic about supporting their troops in recent years, which is why "Return to Honor" was so important to produce.

"Warrior's Weekend is unlike anything else in the country ... I'm tired of veterans honoring veterans. I look around and sometimes and I think 'Where the hell is the rest of the country?'" Petrash said. "It's more than a bumper sticker on the back of your car. We're trying to turn this warm and fuzzy feeling about supporting our troops into an action. We want to 'do' something honorable for them."

Cloud agreed the film captures the heart of what Warrior's Weekend is all about - returning the focus to honoring soldiers, and allowing wounded military to return to the United States with honor from their fellow countrymen.

"You really see the community come together in this film. We're riding the bus with the soldiers, and we see them talking to each other, and how excited they are. It's very real, it's not polished, it's not scripted," Cloud said.

"Return to Honor" premieres Saturday at 7 p.m., kicking off Warrior's Weekend 2012, the following weekend on May 19. Doors open at 6 p.m. at the Fine Arts Center and tickets are $15.

Burns said they anticipate showing the film on the Texas film festival circuits once Warrior's Weekend is over. They also have future plans to film another documentary on the wounded soldiers, telling the stories of families and military heroes once the Warrior's Weekend celebrations fade.

"Our goal is for people to see this, and have other parts of the nation honor soldiers as well as we do, as well as Warrior's Weekend has perfected it," Burns said.

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