Ahead of the premiere of Married to the Army: Alaska on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network on Sunday (November 18), exec producer Stephanie Drachkovitch (pictured) discusses how it took a childhood of being an army brat and five years of approaching the U.S. military to secure access for the docuseries.
44 Blue’s exec VP and co-owner Stephanie Drachkovitch says that seeing the war in Iraq on the news every night in 2007 took her back to when her father was deployed to Vietnam, and her mother moved the family to her hometown in Anchorage.
“What struck me is that we’re seeing it on the news every night and when we get tired of it, we can just turn it off. But there are the families of all those soldiers in combat and nobody’s really telling their stories. And they can’t turn it off,” she tells realscreen.
This reflection led Drachkovitch – whose Studio City-based prodco has a long history of military-themed programming, including MSNBC’s Lockup and History’s The True Story of Black Hawk Down – to see if American military families were interested in participating in a series, with a resulting casting outreach coming back with an encouraging amount of responses.
Knowing there were stories out there to tell, Drachkotivtch then approached the four military services – the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines – but none of them were comfortable with allowing cameras into the families’ lives at the time.
“It was at the height of the surge. What they said was: ‘Look, being at war is hard enough on these families, the last thing we want to do is make it more stressful by having cameras follow them around,’” she says. “It was kind of a hard argument to push back on, but I didn’t want to give up on it.”
Every year for five years, Drachkovitch and her team tried to get military permissions to see if the comfort level had changed. Then, last year, 44 Blue was approached by the wife of a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, who was stationed in Alaska and saw the casting notice.
“Of course the light bulb went off in my head. I could relate to the wives’ isolation, the long winters, and being away from the rest of our family in the lower 48,” Drachkovitch says.
With a new angle to position the story out of Alaska, she went back to the Army with the idea, who told her that her timing was finally right. Army officials explained to her that the Pentagon wanted the American people to realize that even though the war in Iraq was going to be winding down, that the military was still stationed in Afghanistan and around the world.
“The Pentagon had a shift in its thinking about how we’re at a time in history where there are fewer people in the military than ever before and therefore most of us don’t feel as connected to those in uniform,” she adds.
She acknowledges that 44 Blue wasn’t the only prodco trying to do a ‘Real Army Wives’ series, but she felt uniquely positioned to tell those stories as someone who’d grown up in the military culture.
Around that time, OWN also came on board as broadcaster, since it had been looking for a show with access to the military.
Rita Mullin, executive VP of programming and development at OWN, tells realscreen: “It’s a perfect fit for OWN. It’s about very strong women who are determined, loving and loyal, who are facing a lot of issues that many of us have to deal with as working women, as spouses, as the family’s CEO, but with unique challenges that come up as [women] whose spouses are deployed.”
What followed was a summer of meetings with the U.S. Army Pacific, U.S. Army Alaska, the commanding generals of both of those commands, and the chief of public affairs at the Pentagon. The Army requested that the project broaden its featured ranks and battalions, and eventually Army Wives: Alaska wound up featuring seven wives, whose husbands included two specialists, a sergeant, a staff sergeant, two majors and a brigade commander posted to Fort Richardson.
Having the involvement of the U.S. Army meant that 44 Blue’s cameras had rare access to the soldier husbands, permission to film on the base, and a public affairs liaison who had the right to review the episode, to ensure producers weren’t violating any operational security issues.
“They are with us when we’re shooting on post, but the women are civilians, so they’re not reviewing the episode saying, ‘she can’t say that, take that out.’ It’s a sensitivity that the Army isn’t portrayed in a hurtful or negative light – that’s the role that they play,” she clarifies.
“There’s very much a feeling within the Army that the strength of a nation is its army, the strength of an army is its soldiers and the strength of the soldiers are the families,” says Drachkovitch. “The woman next to you at the grocery store or pumping gas, or at the soccer game, they might be a military spouse and you don’t even know it, so you can’t say thank you. I think the Army was ready to say, ‘Yeah, let’s recognize their sacrifice.’”
Married to the Army: Alaska premieres on OWN at 10 p.m. EST/7 p.m. PST on November 18, with a special introduction from Oprah Winfrey.