PICK The Corporal’s Diary: A Bellingham Soldier’s Final Days in Iraq

By Brian Miller

published: September 24, 2008

The name Jonathan Santos has been mostly forgotten by Northwest readers, though he briefly made news in the fall of 2004. As Rick Anderson wrote in this paper, the 22-year-old from Bellingham was the 1,096th casualty of the Iraq War, killed by a suicide bomber along with two others in his vehicle. Now, in something like the soldier-shot videos of The War Tapes, Santos is back with us as subject, cameraman, and co-director of sorts. (Keep it PG-13, he tells his fellow soldiers while they're horsing around in the barracks; "That'll be in the director's cut," he says.) Local directors Patricia Boiko and Laurel Spellman-Smith have culled his video and handwritten account of his 38 days in Iraq, added some new footage and interviews, but the soldier is allowed to speak for himself. There's no need to editorialize for or against the war; Santos was born into a military family and enlisted straight out of high school. He's proud to serve, sure of his mission (having just been a peacekeeper in Haiti that spring, we learn), yet looking forward to life beyond the Army. A reader as well as filmmaker, he confides "I just want to see Phantom of the Opera before I die," and keeps a lucky Shrek head as a talisman against danger. Though the directors interpolate interviews and a postscript with Santos' mother, Doris Kent, there's a dreadful, inexorable countdown with each advancing day in his candid journal entries. We know from the start that the page will turn blank on October 14. Santos left behind two younger brothers, mere kids in his pre-deployment videos. Four years later, the middle brother reads Jonathan's diary in his place to provide the film's poignant voiceover. He's thoughtful, poised, confident—just like his brother. Old enough to shave, old enough to enlist.


Everett, Wash.

Published: Friday, September 26, 2008

'The Corporal's Diary': Footage shot by soldier makes for compelling film

When Army Cpl. Jonathan Santos was sent to Iraq in the fall of 2004, he took his diary and a video camera with him. You can hear in his words that he did not intend his diary-keeping to be an epitaph; he had plans and ambitions, which he was going to tackle just as soon as he got back.

Only 38 days after arriving, he was killed in a roadside attack. The diary and the videotapes were returned to his mother, Doris, who was surprised to discover her son kept a record of his life.

Those records form the basis of the locally produced "The Corporal's Diary," a powerful documentary in Jonathan Santos' words. It's only 60 minutes long, which makes an awkward length for a movie, but every minute counts.

Jonathan and his brothers and mother were living in Bellingham at the time he shipped out. As the film explains, the men in his family had a history of military service, and Jonathan -- whose first tour of duty was in Haiti -- was happy to join that tradition.

There is nothing especially remarkable about his videos of life in Iraq, which might be the reason they are so sad to watch. It's just simple stuff, made poignant by its unlikely location and the death of the man holding the camera.

Some of the people in Jonathan's videos didn't make it either. The sole survivor of the attack, Matthew Drake, gets his own section in the film.

We see Drake as a cocky, lively guy in Jonathan's videos, but he sustained a head wound in the attack and is seen stateside as a different person. The process of rehab, as he learns to talk and walk and perform basic functions again, could form a documentary on its own.

Jonathan's diary entries are read aloud by his brother, an understandably difficult task but a fitting touch. Mother Doris, in her clear, thought-out response to all this, comes across as the movie's rock -- but when she finally breaks down, her message is devastating.

Directors Patricia Boiko and Laurel Spellman-Smith leave out commentary. They don't need it. Jonathan Santos recorded the titles of the books he read in Iraq, which included "The Da Vinci Code" and Kurt Vonnegut's "The Sirens of Titan." In one diary entry he talks about writing a novel and maybe getting a job as a professor someday. That sort of detail, and the sense of lost promise, doesn't need any editorializing.

© 2008The Daily Herald Co., Everett, WA


Seattle Post-Intelligencer

A fallen soldier lives on in 'Diary'

But his brother gives up his own military dreams

Last updated June 13, 2008 5:35 p.m. PT


Jared Santos assumed from an early age that his life and career would be tied to military service. After all, the Armed Forces ran in the Bellingham teen's blood: his grandfather, father, stepfather, uncle, mother and, most recently, his role model, older brother Jonathan.

That changed in October 2004, when Jonathan was killed 38 days after he and his Army unit arrived in Iraq.

"It's not an option, for my mom's sake, for my family. I don't want to put that burden on them," 18-year-old Jared Santos said Tuesday after a Jewelbox Theater (Rendezvous) screening of "The Corporal's Diary."

This one-hour documentary builds upon "The Corporal's Boots," a shorter doc released two years ago. And it signals the completion of a three-year labor of love by Jared, his mother and two filmmakers to document the life (and death) of Jonathan and the survival of Matthew Drake, the one soldier in his unit who came home after the fatal attack. The message rings clear: The victims of the Iraq War go beyond casualties on the field, and we can't forget that. Thanks to Jonathan's candid diary and videos, we won't. Made by local filmmakers Patricia Boiko and Laurel Spellman Smith, it is part of the Seattle True Independent Film Festival (STIFF) and will be screened again Sunday night at 7 at the Capitol Hill Arts Center.

Two years ago, "The Corporal's Boots" wove together the chance circumstances that brought together two mothers: a Quaker exhibit using pairs of boots that correspond with every soldier killed in the war. Doris Kent, Santos' mother, grieved for her fallen son, and Boiko used her filmmaking skills so others could understand the war's toll on a personal level.

"In the beginning, I was so scared Jonathan would be forgotten and that he'd just be No. 1,096 and that America wouldn't care," said Kent at the screening, referring to Santos' order in the U.S. casualty list. When she speaks, the whole room quiets. Her tears flow freely, choking her voice at times. "And now I want the message to be, when you see those numbers, they have a name and a life. Someone out there loves them as much as I love Jonathan."

In the Tuff box that came back with his belongings, Jonathan Santos left his family lasting memories: five videocassettes filled with candid moments from his deployments in Haiti and Iraq (as well as scenes from home and in Fort Bragg, N.C.) and a journal filled with sometimes daily observations of his life. Kent even received a last letter from him -- two days after she was told he was dead. Many times, the videos and photos correspond with the diary entries.

His voice dominates the tapes, a natural narrator full of the kind of comments that makes it feel as if he's the funny, smart, kind kid next door.

"This is every soldier's story," Boiko said.

Both of them became so familiar with Jonathan Santos through his own words that each felt as though they had interviewed him.

Hearing his voice in the film brings him to life. Jared Santos channels his brother as he reads his brother's diary entries that accompany video footage of barracks life and photos of his evolution from a boy to a man.

"It's so Jonathan," said Boiko, who is a family practice physician three days a week. "You get to see, hear and know him. You're in the head of a 22-year-old."

This 22-year-old wrote and talked about close calls while in Iraq, happiness in receiving packages from home (including mom's home-baked biscotti), and goofing off with his buddies, including Drake, the only survivor of the car attack that rammed into Jonathan's Humvee. Drake suffered a traumatic brain injury, leaving the once-robust, quick-witted Ohio man barely recognizable. He now resides in an assisted living facility.

The film is distributed through Typecast , the company that handled the Oscar-winning "Iraq in Fragments." It will go through a limited theatrical release this summer and be available as a DVD as early as September.

"I lost hope that we were going to finish this, because I didn't think people cared," Kent said, referring to "The Corporal's Diary." But Boiko and Smith wouldn't let it go, working for two more years on this and other projects. "I lost hope, but Patricia didn't."

The two mothers hugged after the screening and Kent told Boiko she had done well.

"I'm always inspired and impressed with what Patricia and the team have done with Jonathan's life. It really honors him," Kent said. "Some parents didn't even get a last letter. He gave us so many gifts. To not share it would seem more of a travesty than to think people would forget him."


The P-I's story, photo gallery and video about "The Corporal's Boots" can be found at goto.seattlepi.com/270761

P-I reporter Athima Chansanchai can be reached at 206-448-8041 or athimachansanchai@seattlepi.com.

© 1998-2008 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Friday, September 26, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Permission to reprint or copy this article or photo, other than personal use, must be obtained from The Seattle Times. Call 206-464-3113 or e-mail resale@seattletimes.com with your request.

"The Corporal's Diary" is a poignant look at the Iraq war

Produced in Seattle, "The Corporal's Diary" is a moving documentary about a young Bellingham native, U.S. Army Cpl. Jonathan Santos, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq 38 days after his deployment.

Co-directed by local filmmakers Patricia Boiko and Laurel Spellman Smith, "The Corporal's Diary" has a genuinely charismatic subject in Santos, who died at 22. Wry, focused, professional but honest about his emotions in the war-torn nation (he was in Iraq in 2004), Santos kept both a written and video diary of his experiences.

The content of each journal is so entertaining and compelling that, if one didn't know better, a viewer might assume "The Corporal's Diary" was yet another faux documentary about the war told from the perspective of a fictional serviceman.

Santos had already been in the service several years, including a stint in Haiti, before going to Iraq. It's no wonder his voice — captured on video and reflected in written excerpts read aloud by his brother Jared — is so mature. He was also quite literate and a voracious reader. Yet his self-deprecating humor cuts against self-seriousness.

Santos' mother, Doris Kent, is a gentle and healing presence who reaches out to the mother of Santos' friend Matthew Drake, a brain-damaged survivor of the blast that killed Santos. The bridge between the two families is shot with sensitivity and gives the film a sense of profound hopefulness.

Tom Keogh,

Special to The Seattle Times




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Questions or comments?  Contact Lisa Schuster (a.k.a., Matthew's mom):  lisalaf867@bex.net