It would be cliche to say that the cast of The Long Road Home went into production as a group of actors and came out as a group of actors portraying a group of soldiers. During this filming, though, under the guidance of an advisory group composed of Army Rangers and several of the heroic survivors of 2004’s deadly Sadr City ambush, this group of actors came out of this experience locked and loaded in their determination to honor the brave soldiers they portrayed.

The Long Road Home, an eight-hour war docudrama on National Geographic based on the acclaimed book by ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz, chronicles the story of the Army’s First Cavalry Division at a critical moment in Iraq. Made up primarily of recently arrived soldiers who had never seen battle before, the squad was on what it thought was going to be a routine peacekeeping mission through the slums of Sadr City, Iraq, on April 4, 2004. It turned out to be an ambush, forcing the group—which was both poorly equipped for battle and now being used as bait to bring more soldiers into combat—and its brothers toward near-certain death in a firefight that seemed like it would never end.

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“I’m re-creating the worst day of some of these guys’ lives right in front of them, and they’re patting me on the back and thanking me for working so hard to tell this story right,” says actor Jon Beavers, who plays Sgt. Eric Bourquin in the series.

Sgt. Yihjyh “Eddie” L. Chen, who was shot through the lungs and heart, was the first of eight soldiers to die on that day. Sixty-five soldiers were wounded in the attack, including Pfc. Tomas Young, a soldier who jumped at the chance to serve his country following the 9/11 attacks. On just his fourth day in Iraq, he was shot and paralyzed while lying in an open Light Medium Tactical Vehicle, or LMTV, going through Sadr City. Young passed away in 2014.

As Bourquin, Beavers, whose most notable role prior was as the star of the Nickelodeon series The Fresh Beat Band, found the role both inspiring and intimidating, especially considering his character was standing a few feet from him most of the time. But after getting to know the veteran and what he and his team had endured, it made it that much more important to nail the story. “I can speak for myself and some of these other actors pretty confidently when I say we would have literally bled and hurt ourselves to make sure that this story was told as well as it could possibly be,” Beavers says. “It became really personal and a matter of passion for us very quickly, and that bonded us, and that translates to the series as well.”

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Bloodshed wasn’t a prerequisite for the actors—dodging simulated sniper fire, courtesy of former Army Rangers and show consultants Mike Baumgarten and Jariko Denman, however, was part of the cast’s indoctrination into urban warfare training. “It was eye-opening to see just how quickly one single person could just run circles around you through a city environment. It was humbling,” says actor Noel Fisher, who plays Pfc. Young.

The pair was tasked with taking a group of actors, some of whom had never even picked up a weapon, and getting them military-ready with a consolidated three-week Army basic-training crash course. “We needed these actors to be able to move, manipulate a weapons system, then to act like infantrymen—move their head, their body, their step,” says Baumgarten. “And we needed them to do it reflexively so they could just focus on acting and didn’t need us to step in every few minutes to manipulate and adjust them.”

For three weeks in the brutal Texas heat—in full military gear while wearing a 25-pound weight vest—Baumgarten had the actors rep out 50 front raises with each arm to simulate what it’s like to carry a rifle all day. That would be followed by a 300-meter sprint and then 10 burpees, for five rounds.

Workout 2 simulated what it was like to carry a wounded soldier to safety. Holding a 10-pound dumbbell in one hand, each actor would then perform a 1,600-meter fireman’s carry with another castmate. Dropping the dumbbell—or your partner for that matter—would result in a 10-burpee penalty.

“My lower back was starting to hurt because, you know, we were carrying a certain amount of weight, and we were maintaining a ready position with our weapons and running up and down stairs and keeping a watchful eye. It’s real easy to keep tension in the wrong areas,” says actor Jeremy Sisto, who portrays Sgt. Robert Miltenberger, a soldier on the verge of retirement who has been stop-lossed for this deployment, certain he was destined to die on the mission.

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As for Bourquin, watching the actors go through their own basic training jogged memories of his  first encounter—a scared, skinny, and shaved-headed kid when he went through basic training—his first of three. Now discharged from the Army, Bourquin has a new mission: spending as much time as possible with his family. His role on set was to help the actors handle their weapons and to act, well, soldierlike.

“It’s gotta be hard for them to portray someone who’s still got the ability to call you up and be like, ‘Yo, dude,’ ” Bourquin says. “I can understand the amount of heart they put into portraying these guys the best they could. I know Jeremy was able to meet with Robert. Unfortunately, Noel wasn’t able to [meet with Young]. I was present the day Young was hit in the back of the truck. It was the same day that Eddie Chen died. It was a crazy experience.”

For Fisher, perhaps best known as Mickey Milkovich in the Showtime hit Shameless, one of the biggest culture shocks was the size of Fort Hood. “It’s massive,” says Fisher. “It’s like a little miniature city.” He did not know the story of Young at first, so his research involved watching the documentary Body of War, based on the life of Young. “I was  floored—it was really powerful,” he says.

“What Mike [Baumgarten] wanted to press home was how we were to operate and move in a city environment,” adds Fisher, whose previous military role was in 2011’s Battle Los Angeles. “One guy can’t cover everything, so the big part was moving as a team and as a platoon within urban environments where everybody’s responsible for a certain kind of area, and they’re tasked with covering it. That’s what we found made it so hard—everything is a potential threat.”

Day by day, in tiny increments, the cast began evolving as a unit—walking better, knowing their surroundings, and operating as a team, just like the First Cavalry. “[It was like] ‘Holy shit, don’t look now, but we’re kind of behaving like soldiers,’ ” Beavers says. Even the advisers were impressed. “They went from not being able to walk with a rifle in their hands—any object in their hands—fluidly,” Baumgarten says, “to having days in which I had nothing to do because these dudes executed so well. I was incredibly proud of them.”

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Bourquin’s reaction to the series—and the cast—was equally emotional: “It made me cry, as well as my buddies cry. It was very emotionally moving. I was blown away. There’s no doubt about it. There’s so much heart and effort put into trying to re-create these characters and bring these guys to life. And these guys just knocked it out of the park.”

After filming, the cast dispersed and went on with their normal routines. Sisto began  Filming in Vancouver. Beavers traveled to Barcelona, while Fisher was in Boston. But the bond created through this project seems certain to stick.

“By the end,” says Beavers, “when this was all done, [co-star Michael Kelly] told us: ‘This is the kind of cast where if two or three or six of us find out we’re in the same city at the same time, you don’t make an excuse—you drop what you’re doing and show up for at least one beer.’ That’s how special this became.”

Watch The Long Road Home on National Geographic.