- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2009

Wounded warriors were celebrated at the third annual GI Film Festival on May 14 at the Carnegie Institute of Washington. The night was dedicated to members of the armed forces who were injured in Afghanistan or Iraq and are currently receiving treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

“It’s such a unique event,” said Kate Heffley, a volunteer staff member. “It’s the only film event for this purpose. It’s an honor to be a part of it.”

During the third evening of the seven-day festival, there was a private screening of the 2008 MGM/UA motion picture “Valkyrie,” followed by a Q&A; session with producer Gilbert Adler, and finally a VIP reception in the rotunda.

U.S. Army Reserve Maj. Laura Law-Millet and her husband, Brandon Millett, created the film festival in 2007. The festival garners a diverse group of people to honor the sacrifices of men and women in uniform through the medium of film. The nonprofit organization is the first American festival that celebrates the triumph and sacrifices of military members exclusively.

“There’s nothing like it for the troops. Everybody likes to go to the movies. The creative side of things can bring a lot of people together,” said Leeann Tweeden, host of NBC’s “Poker After Dark,” who just returned from her 10th trip to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The attendees crowded into the rotunda, where many wrote messages to troops on a banner titled “National Military Appreciation Month May 2009.” They then headed to the main theater to view “Valkyrie.”

“Our thoughts are with you,” “Thank you for your service” and “Go warriors!” were a few of the messages sent to troops. Military supporter Alyson Miller, who traveled all the way from Los Angeles to attend the film festival, sent her best wishes to the men and women of the armed forces.

“I pray for each of you every day and remember the sacrifice and service of our military. Thank you for securing our freedom. God bless America.”

About 375 guests arrived for the private screening of “Valkyrie,” starring Tom Cruise. The Milletts took the stage to share a brief history of the festival and to introduce speaker Bob Pence, the title sponsor for the evening’s reception. Following the presentation by Mr. Pence, Miss Tweeden and actress Karri Turner expressed their support for the troops.

“You guys have fought to give us the kind of freedom we have,” said Miss Tweeden. Her fiance is an Air Force pilot. “Every 15 months, I have to send [my fiance] away.”

The evening’s feature presentation, “Valkyrie,” is a movie set in Nazi Germany during World War II, starring Mr. Cruise as Col. Claus von Stauffenberg. The film depicts Col. Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler and enact “Operation Valkyrie,” a plot by a group of revolutionary Nazis to wrest control of Germany from Hitler.

After the film, Mr. Adler - the producer of “Valkyrie” and other famous films, such as “Constantine,” “House on Haunted Hill” and “Starsky and Hutch” - participated in a Q&A; session with audience members.

“It was a passion of the directors, writers and mine,” Mr. Adler said. “[Stauffenberg] was a real hero, and we wanted to know what made him tick. We spent a great deal of time being very authentic.”

Mr. Adler also said that the end of the movie was filmed on location in the actual place where Col. Stauffenberg - along with other key Operation Valkyrie plotters - was executed.

A VIP reception honoring the wounded troops capped off the evening. Guests mingled. The Milletts were in high demand to shake hands, accept praise and answer questions about the festival.

Mrs. Millett said she and her husband conceived the idea to start the festival in casual conversation. “In military films, leaders are always portrayed negatively,” she said. After reading an article in the Los Angeles Times that was critical of military officials, they pondered: “What can be done?” They decided the best way to reach people is through film - and thus, they began to make some calls, they said.

The GI Film Festival has quickly become the nation’s most prominent venue for military-film screenings. The seven-day festival includes two major motion pictures and 46 films by diverse filmmakers. The films shown throughout the week portray the American military in a variety of perspectives.

In addition to the screenings, the week included forums, panels and keynote speakers, such as actor Kelsey Grammer; Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican; former Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican; actor and director Faizon Love; and retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

• Joanna Brenner is a student at James Madison University and is the co-executive editor of Curio, an annual magazine about Harrisonburg and surrounding communities.

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