Watching The Unknowns, a documentary about the soldiers who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, brings a whole new level of respect for our men and women in service. Their level of dedication, preparation and commitment is like nothing I have ever seen before.
The award-winning documentary was produced by Ethan Morse, who served at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for 18 months. Ethan and his business partner, Neal Schrodetzki, recently produced a second documentary series, Honor Guard, which highlights the inspiring dedication that members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, a.k.a. "The Old Guard," unceasingly exhibit to pay their respects to those who gave all. Honor Guard is scheduled for a Netflix release later this year.
Ethan will be bringing his passion and talent to this year’s NFDA International Convention and Expo in Chicago, October 27-30. In addition to his closing keynote, the NFDA will offer an exclusive pre-screening of Honor Guard. Ethan will also be available to answer questions and distribute signed copies of The Unknowns on Tuesday, October 29 from 1:00-2:00 p.m., in the Homesteaders booth (466) at the NFDA Expo. Read the interview with Ethan below to learn more about his inspiration and what he is looking forward to at NFDA.
Tell me about your background and your inspiration for creating these documentaries.
I grew up in northern New York on a dairy farm. We lived near a cemetery and I would pass by on my way to the candy store. I would sometimes stop and wander among the gravestones. I guess I always felt a connection to the past in that regard.
When I was 19 years old and filming a movie in Arlington, VA, my manager invited me to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. What I saw at the Tomb moved me to tears. They were honoring the fallen in a way that I had never thought about before.
At that time in my life, I already knew I was joining the Army because of 9/11. When I enlisted, I asked the Army recruiter how I could serve at the Tomb and was told I could not. In the end, through several acts of God, I ended up there*, but I will save that story for the audience at NFDA.
I always knew I wanted to work in movies. After my service at the Tomb, I came to Hollywood and went to film school for producing. My friend from the Tomb (Neal Schrodetzki) went to Arizona State for directing. After Neal’s graduation in 2012, he moved to Los Angeles and I got him a job at the TV station where I was working. We produced the news together and had fun doing it, but we realized we wanted to make movies, not news. That was when we decided we should tell the story of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
It took a while to develop the movie because we didn’t want to make it about ourselves and our service. That defeats the purpose of being faceless Tomb guards that are honoring the fallen. We decided to call it The Unknowns so that it would honor the fallen unknowns that are missing from World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War and those who protect them.
The Unknowns was released in 2016 and won the Van Gogh Award in 2017 at the Amsterdam International Film Festival for Best Documentary Feature Film.
After that, we started working on some smaller projects with different nonprofit Veterans organizations, including Honor Flight. We did a few smaller documentaries and then decided to go back to tell the story of the Old Guard and make the documentary series we are currently working on called Honor Guard. It’s about the horses, the US Army Drill Team, the Old Guard as a whole and, our favorite, the casket bearers. The series is narrated by Academy Award nominee Sam Elliott.
* Ethan was active duty, in the Infantry Airborne from 2003-2006 serving in Arlington, VA. He was a casket bearer at Arlington National Cemetery for 13 months and served at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for 18 months.
Why do you think it is important to share your story and documentaries with funeral directors?
In my time at Arlington, I was a casket bearer. I did 300 burials, and Neal did 1,200. Then, we went to the Tomb together. When I left Arlington, my first job was to deliver flowers from the local florist to the funeral homes. I had the opportunity to meet a lot of the funeral directors in my hometown. It was then that I realized what they are doing – giving the love, the final respect, the memorial to people all across the world, all the time. They pour their hearts and souls into honoring the fallen, whether soldiers or civilians.
I really have an affinity towards the mission of funeral directors. I had the opportunity to speak at an event with funeral directors and was moved to tears meeting so many wonderful men and women. Our mission is the same - to bring honor to those who have passed away.
After a loss, there is a gaping hole in the heart of the family. Funeral directors help render final honors to the fallen and to the family (military or civilian). They can take encouragement in that. We know that each funeral home gives the utmost love and respect. I want them to know that they should be encouraged because they are the ones helping to heal that wound of loss. To be able to show people what grace looks like is invaluable.
What can people look forward to at NFDA?
We’re going to have a very special, first-time screening of Honor Guard. This is never-before seen, so we’re very excited about it! We’re not exactly sure what segments or episode will be shown yet, but we are excited to offer funeral professionals an exclusive first look.
Since my time in Arlington, I have loved being able to share the journeys and stories of being an average American soldier who loves this country, who loves to honor the fallen and who was able to do it at the highest level. I’m looking forward to sharing stories with funeral directors who have been doing their important work for 30, 40, even 50 years. It’s just incredible.
What are you looking forward to at NFDA?
I love people. I’m looking forward to meeting the funeral directors. As we’ve told more stories and shared The Unknowns, I’ve realized how many amazing people and their stories are sprinkled across the country. I’m excited to spend some time in the Homesteaders booth, talking to funeral professionals and handing out free copies of The Unknowns.
Don’t miss Ethan’s keynote address on Wednesday, October 30th at 12:45 p.m. The special pre-screening of Honor Guard will follow at 2:15 pm. And be sure to stop by the Homesteaders booth (466) from 1:00-2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, October 29, to meet Ethan and secure your copy of The Unknowns.