John Bullis wanted to know what was going on. As he sat in his Wisconsin-River Falls classroom in February 2009, his phone was vibrating non-stop in his pocket. John scrolled through his text massages and list of missed calls. When he saw the last call in the log was from his father, his heart sunk.
“I knew something wasn’t right when my dad called because he always knew when I was in class,” John said.
He went out into the hallway, listened to his father’s voicemail and called him back instantly. By grave tone of his voice, John braced himself for the worse.
“Peter was killed in action in Afghanistan,” his father John Sr. said while fighting back tears on the other end of the line. “We don’t have any other details but we need to get you home.”
John sank to the ground against the cold cement bricks in the hallway. Everything went black.
Soon he was on a plane back to Dallas for what seemed like an eternity. The loud hum of the airplane’s engine wasn’t enough to distract the thoughts buzzing in his mind. His best friend was dead and the numbness from within left John unable to grasp reality.
“I didn’t want to believe it.”
Peter Courcy and John met in his hometown of Frisco, Texas shortly after they both entered the ninth grade. The two spent their teenage years playing hockey and bonding on and off the ice. While John went on to college in the fall of 2008, Peter took a different path, choosing to honor and defend his country.
Peter was killed when his Humvee was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED). Corp. Courcy was manning a .50-caliber machine gun in the point vehicle of his convoy, the most dangerous and vulnerable position of anyone in the platoon.
At 22 years old, Courcy was two weeks away from returning home to his wife Mara and a five-month old son Anthony, whom he had planned to make sure grew into a Dallas Cowboys fanatic like his father.
Since his childhood, Courcy always wanted to be in the military. With a grandfather who served in the Vietnam War and an uncle who spent time fighting in the Persian Gulf, joining the Army was all he ever wanted to do and those closest to Courcy respected and praised him for his decision.
“I never had a feeling that I wouldn’t see him again,” Bullis said. “It’s not that I never thought about it. I’m just very optimistic and thought he would always come back.”
Off the ice, Courcy and Bullis often took to the types of activities many teenage boys do together. John would help him with mowing his neighbors’ yards. They played paintball, swam and golfed, spending countless hours together during the summers.
While Courcy was away for Basic Training, he and Bullis would often play video games and talk online. In the fall of 2008, Courcy’s unit was activated and waiting to be deployed to Afghanistan.
“He said he was receiving special training from the Green Berets and Special Forces that were honing their skills for deployment,” Bullis said.
That was the last time they ever talked.
A little more than two years later in December 2011, Bullis would take that same flight back to Frisco for Christmas break. A digital film and television major at River Falls, he had a month off for J-Term, which offers students at the school a brief study abroad experience or to focus more intensively on a class. With the end of college in sight, he needed to begin work on his senior capstone project.
He pondered the potential subject matter for his documentary, trying to find a topic that not only mattered to him but would also resonate with others. Hockey had played such an important role in his life, allowed him the opportunity to extend his education and make lifelong friends. It was also the place where he met his best friend.
Almost instantly, something struck from within so powerfully that it resembled checking an opponent into the boards.
Two-and-a-half hours of flying and four pages of notes later, Bullis solidified his idea. He would document his experience of losing his best friend and all that embodies a funeral for a military hero.
From the moment Courcy told Bullis about his decision to go into the service, Bullis fully supported him. As Courcy has protected his country’s freedom, it was now John’s duty to protect and preserve that image of his best friend and hero, the Guard of Honor.
Bullis’ ability to craft a documentary about his friend wouldn’t have been possible had he not followed his own unusual career script.
The University of Wisconsin, River Falls is nearly 960 miles away from Frisco, Texas. In an area where football is king, the Bullis family helped build the ice hockey culture with the creation of the Frisco High School Hockey Association.
Bullis held off on transitioning to college after graduating from Frisco High School in 2005, playing hockey fulltime for the Texas Tornado (while taking several community college classes), a Junior A hockey team that is apart of the North American Hockey League.
Hockey came easy to Bullis, and his versatility on the ice would be crucial in the next step of his playing career when scouts stopped showing up and the reality of not playing in the NHL set in.
“When the DI option for hockey didn’t work out, DIII was the next best thing because I knew I could get a great education and have a high level of athletic competition,” Bullis said.
John Sr., a graduate of Wisconsin-La Crosse, suggested his son take a look at the network of Wisconsin state schools as a place to still play hockey competitively but also earn an education that would further his abilities once he stopped playing his sport.
Wisconsin-River Falls is one of the nation’s premier Division III hockey programs with two NCAA titles and consistent rankings among the top Northern Collegiate Hockey Association teams. It was exactly what John was looking for in an athletics program and he was just the type of player the Falcons coaching staff craved.
“We knew he was a great competitor,” head men’s ice hockey coach Steve Freeman said. “He possessed a lot of talent and played with a competitive, nasty edge. He refused to ever give up.”
River Falls also proved the right choice in the classroom. It not only allowed John to play the game he loves but to also pursue his other passion: filmmaking.
Because Bullis had minimal experience behind a camera, the curriculum at River Falls gave him a place to start.
“We learned so many different facets of digital films,” Bullis said. “From being behind the camera to being in front of the camera, the lighting and audio. Taking those classes and working on projects with my peers helped me earn the skills I needed to put together my documentary.”
A poster child for the Division III attributes of learning, proportion, character and spirit, Bullis made time for everything. On top of hockey and academics, he worked on the campus television show “Focus on U” and served as the chair of the school’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee his senior year.
Coach Freeman knew from the minute he recruited him that Bullis would finish everything he started. Even if he tried something and it didn’t work out, Bullis always wanted his work to reflect his best effort.
Erik Johnson, who came back to Rivers falls to teach after 14 years of professional experience in television and documentary production, was more than just someone to bounce ideas off of.
From the beginning stages, the supervisor of Bullis’ capstone project approached it hands-on, often meeting with Bullis for hours to develop a narrative that had a broad appeal. In classes, Johnson relayed information he learned in the field about what the industry is really like, never sugar coating the difficulty of coming up with a unique idea and making into a success.
“I’ve tried to pass along my own professional experience as well as be a mentor because I’ve had people who did the same for me,” Johnson said. “I have these things called ‘Johnsonisms’ which basically are anecdotes to various situations I repeat in class and in working with students. It all comes down to basic values. Those soaked in with John.”
Logistically speaking, John started off on the wrong foot in the primary phase of production. It was Christmas break and everyone he wanted to interview was in Frisco while all the equipment at his disposal lay in a locked room in TV services at River Falls.
Time to put those Johnsonisms to work.
“As far as the production side of it, I really didn’t plan for that,” Bullis said. “I wanted to get my story idea down first but then I realized I wouldn’t be back home until Spring Break. I wouldn’t have had the time to film all the interviews and then incorporate them in my movie later, so I had to figure out a way to film when I was home with no equipment.”
With the HD-Go Pro his mother gave him for Christmas and a flip cam, Bullis assembled a two-camera set-up where one captured video and the other audio.
And without the desired “soft box” to soften harsh fluorescents and eliminate shadows, Bullis used various lamps from his parent’s home and put pieces of white paper in front of the bulb to serve as a filter.
His mother’s drapery served as a background that was simple and didn’t detract from the first-hand accounts people closest to Peter delivered about his homecoming in a flag-draped casket.
John used footage of the death, homecoming and funeral that coincided with the interviews to paint the picture of how this process played out.
The footage is real, raw and assembled in a way that sustains the narrative. There was just one question…
Where on earth did he get it?
Guard of Honor starts with a montage of news footage ranging from 9/11 to George Bush and Barack Obama talking about the War on Terror.
That transitions to soldiers riding in a Humvee on a seemingly beautiful sunny day. Within an instant, the truck explodes and glass, rocks and metal fly towards the screen. As the scene unfolds, the chaos can be heard from inside.
“KEEP GOING, KEEP GOING!” is belted from a radio inside the Humvee seconds after the explosion.
“We’ve been hit.” A soldier cries out as the truck flips over and is engulfed in the rubble and thick black smoke.
Foreshadowing the inevitable, the screen fades to white.
“I wanted to start the documentary off with a nail-biting, gripping feeling of ‘whoa, this is going to be intense,’ ” Bullis said. “That was actual footage of an IED explosion from a soldier wearing a helmet cam or from a dashboard mounted camera that the Army provided. That wasn’t a reenactment, nor was it from a movie.”
Bullis didn’t want to hold back the reality of the situation when piecing together his narrative. Accounts of what family and friends heard about Courcy’s death served a purpose, but showing how he died allowed for anyone, regardless of their relationship with Courcy, to see what the real, raw, bloody risks are for those in the Armed Forces.
The footage John used of the explosion was not of his friend’s death. Three different IED explosions were taken from cameras mounted on helmet cams and inside Humvees. John wove all three into one scene that details what happens from minute the bomb goes off to the deafening silence seconds later.
As for the footage of the body being prepared and transported, the Army recorded all the proceedings in Afghanistan to show the Courcy family how their son was honored. What they received was a 90-minutes compilation of Peter’s funeral in Afghanistan, the 21-gun salute, his compatriots mourning his death and the emotional march of the casket from the base to the plane where it would be taken back to the United States.
Courcy’s parents also obtained news footage from North Texas television stations and documented recordings shot by a production company the family hired to chronicle their son’s homecoming.
Bullis asked to use all of that for his project. Mary and Chris Bush, Peter’s mother and stepfather, didn’t know how Bullis was going to use the material exactly, but they trusted him to honor their son.
At the end of his winter break, Bullis had more footage, interviews and ideas than he knew what to do with. Heading back to River Falls for the spring semester, he knew he was in for a long five months.
Throughout his four years at River-Falls, Bullis had collaborated with classmates on projects both in and out of class. But this project was personal. Bullis decided to do everything, from the preproduction to the final touches, on his own.
“I was a one-man show with everything,” he said. “Out of the five months I was back for spring semester, I spent at least four of those editing every day.”
As a second-semester senior, Bullis had one class on Mondays, and the rest of his week was dedicated to other senior projects and hockey. As a Division III student-athlete, managing all of that was not only important to John but also coach Freeman.
“There were certain times when John needed some extra time off,” Freeman said. “We were willing to work with him and give him whatever time he needed with the project because we knew how important it was in his life.”
As a member of the DIII community, Freeman is well aware that people aren’t solely involved in one aspect of a school. Besides being the head men’s ice hockey coach Freeman is also a professor in the school of Health and Human Performance. Like his coach, Bullis was involved in many parts of campus life aside from hockey.
“John having an athletic background proved to be an advantage in how he juggled the various requirements of his classes,” said Johnson, the project supervisor. “Having the experience of managing his time along with his motivation contributed to the success of his project.”
From January to May of 2012, Bullis spent every day on some aspect of his senior capstone. With all of his credits except for one class completed, John worked from the time he woke up to the time he went to practice for two hours each afternoon, and then put in hours until he finally went to bed.
“I was so caught up in it that sometimes I’d forget to eat,” he said.
Roadblocks were inevitable. Bullis used Final Cut to edit his project and spent the last four weeks working solely on exporting several different file formats, trying to find the one codec that exported the footage as one cohesive project.
“It was a huge problem,” Bullis said. “Once I was ready to get it done and finalize it, I remember getting an error after trying to export it for two hours.”
Bullis used the “Ken Burns” effect where he slowly grew the still pictures he had on the screen. Changing every setting he could, the picture still jumped and John went ballistic.
“I freaked out and panicked,” he said. “I immediately got into my car and drove to school and was like ‘What is going on? Why isn’t this exporting right?’ Sometimes it wouldn’t even work. What was I going to do? I have three weeks left and I’m trying to set up this whole screening event at school and I can’t even get it to export.”
Johnson stepped in to provide endless assistance, troubleshooting for hours to get the project exported in a format that worked.
“I tell my students that it’s best to just do the best with what you have because that’s reflective on life itself,” Johnson said.
After months of tireless toil, Bullis’ masterpiece was ready to unveil.
Writing headlines and titles usually comes at the end of a project. Bullis wanted to connect Courcy’s decision to serve in the United States Army with the honor the Army bestowed upon his death.
At military funerals, a representative from the Armed Forces often attends for a flag-folding ceremony and then presents the flag to the immediate family.
Bullis used footage from Courcy’s Dallas funeral and worked in a play on the words “honor guard” to solidify the meaning of his narrative.
“I decided it would be appropriate to name my documentary Guard of Honor since Peter is essentially a guard of honor: for fellow soldiers, for freedom and for America itself,” Bullis said. “In my documentary, I display to the audience how a military burial should be. Not every soldier gets this type of homecoming recognition. Peter’s homecoming should be the baseline of how each fallen American soldier is welcomed home.”
In late April, Bullis was ready with the 40-minute version of Guard of Honor. He rented out the movie theater in the student center at River Falls and it quickly filled with family, friends, coaches, teachers and members of the public who had come to know Bullis over the years.
Tears flowed from many in the audience during the film. Others stood in awe of how painfully real the subject matter was and how they could relate to it without even having met the fallen hero.
“There’s nothing more gratifying than being able to share your work with your peers,” Johnson said. “It was basically standing-room only. It’s been few and far between that I’ve ever been a part of something just so over-the-top impactful.”
On July 3, John gave a copy of Guard of Honor over to Courcy’s mother and stepfather. After all those months, they still had no idea of the magnitude of the project their son’s best friend was crafting.
“I gave them my very first copies I made with the special extras, stuff that no one else has,” Bulls said. “I told them that this was a narrative of my experience losing their son. I wanted to make a documentary for other people to understand, for people on the other side of the world to understand what happened to their son.”
Bullis then left the Bush’s to watch Guard of Honor by themselves. They had done interviews since the time of Courcy’s death in 2009 but hadn’t revisited the experience of his funeral like John knew they would.
“I think it would have been hard for me to stay there and watch it with them, seeing something I put so much time and dedicated so much work to and have them sit there with me and watch my work,” Bullis said.
Days later, Bullis’ mother encountered Mary Bush at an FC Dallas soccer game. She had watched the documentary repeatedly since Bullis’ visit, and while the tears flowed harder each time and memories of her son’s violent death resurfaced, she told Bullis’ mom that she couldn’t have asked for a more heartfelt way to honor her son.
“At the end of the day I realized I had to do more than just hand the footage I had of Peter’s memorial and homecoming to people to get them to understand,” Bullis said. “I can sit there and tell someone how I lost a best friend but that wasn’t enough.
“I had to take all these facets and tie them together into something that anyone could watch and 40 minutes later would know the pain of losing a best friend, but know why Peter chose the path he did and why we honor him every day.”
For Bullis, it was a mission accomplished.
Click here to view Guard of Honor in its entirety