Graduates screens film

DILLONVALE — A graduate from Buckeye Local High School returned to the area Tuesday to screen a recent film project he worked on, shedding a little light on some unsung American heroes and encouraging students to follow their dreams out of high school.

Phil Diab said he had a “nomadic childhood” before eventually moving to Eastern Ohio and attending Buckeye Local High School. Diab admits that he wasn’t always the best student, being ranked near the bottom of his class in high school. Nevertheless, he said that he had great teachers and support while he was there. After graduating in 2011, Diab joined the U.S. Army and, during his time there, he found his passion — becoming a combat cameraman for the Army.

“I fell completely backwards into it,” Diab said, adding that he hadn’t been particularly interested film or photography in high school. “It was just luck.”

Combat cameramen are responsible for capturing history happening in front of them. Armed with both a camera and a weapon, these soldiers capture footage that is then used by commanders to review missions and to incriminate potential terrorists and enemy combatants. Upon passing his training, Diab was stationed with the 55th Signal Company, a unit comprised entirely combat cameramen. Diab captured many raw moments on film during his time in the Army, from intense battle scenes to quiet patrols and missions.

“That was my job, to show the picture on the ground so in years to come we can learn from our mistakes,” Diab said.

A project that Diab worked on showing the responsibilities of a combat cameraman brought him to the attention of HBO, which reached out to him to work on a project called “War Dogs: A Soldier’s Best Friend. “ The documentary, produced by Hollywood star Channing Tatum, focuses on the four-legged soldiers that fight alongside American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not many people might know about these canine soldiers, but they serve a vital role in tracking enemies, sniffing out bombs and other ordnance, and taking down terrorists personally. Diab worked as an associate producer on the project as well as a creative consultant. He provided combat footage from his time in the military to help show the environment in which the handlers and dogs have to operate.

“War Dogs” opens with a eulogy being read by a handler to a fallen war dog, who had died flushing an enemy combatant out of a hole where heavy fire couldn’t. The documentary follows several different handlers and tells their stories of loss and attachment to the animals with whom they serve. Trent McDonald spoke about how his first partner, Benno, was killed in the line of duty; he later met a new dog named Layka, who served proudly before losing a leg to gunfire. Luckily she survived and got to return to the United States with McDonald, helping him work through addiction to painkillers and a divorce.

Not all the dogs were so lucky, though. John Dixon told the camera that after being wounded on a mission, he was separated from his K-9, Mika. Mika was reassigned but wouldn’t work with other soldiers, having developed a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Mika found work with a sheriff’s deputy named Paul Leslie back in the States. Dixon was promised that after Mika retired, he would be able to taker her home. However, the deputy refused to give her up and cut communication with Dixon. Mika died in October without ever seeing her original handler again.

Such heart-wrenching stories help drive home the reality of the conditions soldiers, both human and canine, face in the line of duty and the strength of the bonds between partners.

Diab said the project took around two years to complete, premeiring in November. BLHS Principal Coy Sudvary and coach Anthony Barsch reached out to Diab to screen the film at the school and talk about his success in the Army and beyond. Diab instantly agreed, eager to share his experiences with the high school students. Diab pointed out that he wasn’t a great student in high school, but today he has worked on an HBO film and attends Columbia University, an Ivy League school, as a film and media student. He encouraged the students to follow their passions as they discover them and to never discount the value of the teachers and staff at the school.

“This place set me on the course to where I’m at in Columbia and what I did in the military,” Diab said. “It was the great educators in this room and all they did for me.”

“We’re very appreciative of Phil and all of his accomplishments,” Sudvary said. “He was a great kid while he was here, and we’re excited for what he did in the military and what he’ll do in Columbia. The message he had is important — for students to find their passion and follow their dreams.”