Some time in Vietnam

We Can't Forget

An hour-long production of KWTX, interviews of veterans who have waited four and a half, five decades to be welcomed home from war

Waco – The closing scene of the documentary, “We Can’t Forget Vietnam,” is a vivid shot of the reflecting pool and the Washington Monument, clearly depicting the symbolic obelisk, a representation of the nation’s first Commander-in-Chief, seated in the east, the sun rising, and Lincoln, unseen, seated behind the camera, gazing over the viewers’ shoulders from his chair in a Greek temple in the west – a wealthy railroad lawyer – the last soldier killed in the Civil War, shot by a spy.

Jim Peeler, veteran camera man and the dean of Waco newsmen, made the shot with a shoulder-mounted camera at dawn.

Asked, “Did you use a filter, Jim?” he replies with a characteristic grin, “No, I used an early morning.” He has seen a lot of them.

Jim Peeler

Jim Peeler, veteran news camera man and dean of Waco newsmen

He goes on to say that all the interviews of combat warriors who served in-country in the green hell of Vietnam – Laos, Cambodia, Thailand – were conducted with the soldier or Marine seated in the same little wooden chair visitors to his office use. “We carried it with us, everywhere we went. Everybody sat in that same chair.”

Earlier, he said of the project he and Don Smith shot and edited of men who spent the earliest days of their adult lives, “These guys are in the zone…Most people have never heard this part. It’s usually about a battle or something like that. This is about how they got there.” The moment lingers. It slowly dawns that he means how they got there, to the zone, and throw their voices from there at will, traveling to a point from which no man returns.

Before the video rolled, General Manager Mike Wright, who grew up in Mexia where his dad edited the newspaper, said “Some people go into some very dark recesses in their minds.”

In a private conversation, he mentioned that he has twins, a boy and girl, who are 15. “They’re only three years younger than these men were when they went away to serve in the war.”

He let that sink in.

Don Smith, Mike Wright

Don Smith, producer, and Mike Wright, General Manager, KWTX

In introductory remarks, Wright told the audience of more than a hundred men and women grown into their senior years that, “Because of the emotional depth, we want to show this to you first.” Certain language, terms of badinage, peculiar to war and fighting men, spouts from the lips of the grandfatherly individuals seated in the little wooden chair from Jim Peeler’s office as they speak into his lens, their voices clearly captured by the shotgun mike, cinematic lights reflected from the lenses of their bifocals.

Interstitial cuts of their wartime faces are difficult to recognize as the same man.

They speak in the terms of the young warrior, men of an average age of 19, men tempered in the fire of war, men who call their enemies by pejorative terms related to their mothers.

You can see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices. As they speak, they are there, in the free fire zone, the mine field, the triple-canopy forest strewn with booby traps and trip wires, deadfalls and sharpened pungee stakes smeared with human excrement – the killing fields where nearly 60,000 of their number breathed their last in a world of pain and utter terror.

In an anguished tone, a teen-aged voice comes out of the face of a man approaching seventy, who says, “They told us, ‘Rip up your pictures. You’re gonna die here.’” They told them that. Yes. 

A man with a Santa Claus complexion and white hair says of his experience with killing, “You never really trust anyone – ever – again. The person you trust least of all is yourself.” He speaks of setting the trip wire, arming the booby trap that killed a little kid, then taking up a collection that amounted to $40 to have the child buried in a proper Buddhist grave.

I wake up every night to that child.”

Another man says that when you shoot someone, “They look surprised.” Their eyes get really big and surprised, he says, again.

A man who served as a war correspondent speaks of the learning curve. “Sixty-five percent of casualties were experienced in the first three months of the tour.” Lessons of combat are expensive, reckoned in blood, the bill paid in pain, the effects permanent.

Keeping pressure on a friend’s torn femoral artery, a wound that is nevertheless gushing his life’s blood, a warrior declares, he told a man who was “like a brother” that he would for sure be all right as he watched the light fade from his eyes and he died.

Sometimes a guy would get a wound, a through and through gunshot wound with no real complications, and his friends congratulated him on getting a ticket on the freedom bird, back to the world – only to learn he died some time the next afternoon of a raging infection.

There is darkness on the edge of town, you see, down by the old graveyard, in a world where drivers of Yellow cabs sometimes delivered telegrams from the Department of Defense stating, simply, that the government regretted to inform a soldier’s next of kin that he had been killed in action. Someone spit on him. Another one threw a bag of feces at him. A balloon of urine. Called him a baby killer. Painful as it may be, had he not killed, and killed with precision, he himself would have perished, never seen his babies, seen another Thanksgiving. 

Then there’s the guilt. To think that I made it when my friends didn’t. It’s not easy.

Another man recalls his wife finding him in the middle of the night, seated, his body in a ball, nude, in a corner. “She was a good woman, up until the day she died.” His eyes are haunted. He is staring at a point 1,000 yards in the distance. He is alone. Utterly.

Marines

These are the true costs of war. They cannot be sugar coated, nor can they be ignored, no matter if you call their cause a “conflict,” or a “police action.” This is a movie without heros.

To take “real estate,” secure it, watch men die in agony, pick up their bodies and load them on trucks and choppers while maggots eat their rotting flesh, and then stand by to stand by and obey orders while the officers tell everyone to leave the area to the enemy, to allow an implacable foe who is willing to kill you without the least emotional involvement, as if swatting a fly, or hammering a nail, go and reoccupy the killing field won that very day, at such a cost.

That’s crazy,” says a man who has lived his years into maturity while an excellent stereo track blasts John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, shouting his blues, “Fortunate Son,” and a camera’s unblinking eye comes to rest on a multimillion dollar “Hughie” gunship.

The presentation will be exhibited at the Hippodrome, 724 Austin Ave., in Waco, on Veterans Day, Wednesday, November 11, and Thursday, November 12, at 6:30 p.m.

 

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