Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

September 17, 2014

Alan Heathcock–The Valor of Story: Why the Silent Man Fights Alone

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In anticipation of the September 25th screening of BRAVO! at the Elks Lodge in Nampa, Idaho, we repost a visceral essay by the screening’s Master of Ceremonies, Alan Heathcock. Al is an award winning short story writer and in this piece he muses on Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, his life, and the value of story.

The Valor of Story: Why the Silent Man Fights Alone, by Alan Heathcock

The day was sweltering, the sky a shimmering white. It was July in Hazel Crest, the town where I grew up, in the southland area of south Chicago. I was nineteen years old, working at a public swimming pool. After my shift, I was to walk to a friend’s house a couple miles away. Coming out of a neighborhood, approaching a highway overpass, I spotted a large man on the walkway ahead of me. This road was isolated, and there was no one else around. Growing up in Chicago, I knew not to look people in the eye, knew to change course if it seemed there was trouble ahead. But I knew this guy. I worked the front desk at the pool, knew everybody. This guy was not a regular, but he’d been there. He smiled at me, and I nodded to him.
“Hey little man,” he said. “You got some money I could borrow. My car’s out of gas and I just need a few bucks to get to work.”

Alan Heathcock Photo by Mathew Wordell

Alan Heathcock
Photo by Mathew Wordell

I was no fool. I guessed the man probably didn’t have a car or a job, and for some reason that mattered. “No,” I said. “Sorry, man.”

“Just a couple of dollars,” he said. “I’ll pay you back.”

“I don’t have it. Wish I could help.”

And then, in a blink, he hit me, his huge fist striking the side of my head like a stone on a chain. I fell hard, wheeled in a panic to see him standing over me. I scrambled to get away, but he had my shirtfront and hit me again. His face had changed. His eyes were crazy. I reached into my pockets and thrust the few wadded dollars I had up at him. Then he let me loose. He didn’t run, didn’t look around to see if anyone had witnessed what’d happened. He just walked away.

I walked away, too, holding my busted lip, and just went on to my friend’s house.

I’ve never told this to anyone. Even at the time, I said nothing to my friends, not my parents, certainly not the police. At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal. Or I tried to make myself believe it wasn’t a big deal. These things happened. We all took our turn. In fact, I’d been hit before, hit harder. So I just got on with things, went about business as usual.
The money was not missed. The bruise on the cheek faded. What remained was a feeling. It never went away. I feel it now, writing this essay. An anger pointed at the man who hit me, at the world that created him. Anger at myself for not spotting the potential danger. Shame in being beaten down, in not fighting back, in just giving up the money (though that was the right thing to do). Mainly, I feel a heavy sadness, a profound disappointment in the world of men.

All these years I’ve carried this stuff around inside me, its weight a part of how I slog myself around, wary always of who’s standing on the walkway.

When I was nine years old, my Grandpa Heathcock sat me up on his lap and told me a story about a time he was working as a foreman for Sinclair Oil. He said he was driving a one-lane road through the oil fields when his truck came nose to nose with another truck. The road was too narrow, the ditches too steep, for either truck to pass or turn around. One of them would have to back up the way they came. My grandpa said he got out of his truck and told the other driver he was trespassing on company land and had to put his truck in reverse. The man refused. I remember clearly my grandpa balled a big meaty fist and told me, “So I hit that man until he went back from where he came.”

For a long time I thought my grandpa was giving me instruction on the nature of man, on how a man has to stick up for himself, sometimes has to fight. But then an interesting thing happened. Several years after his death I was on a fishing trip with my father and brother. I told them the story of Grandpa’s fight on the dirt road. My brother had never heard the story. My father agreed that he vaguely remembered something like that happening, but never recalled Grandpa ever talking about it. After asking around, I came to realize my grandpa had told only me, and that fact changed my understanding of the telling.

I now see that the story wasn’t a lesson at all. It was a burden. I’m convinced that for the same reasons I’d never told anyone about being robbed by the highway, Grandpa had never told anyone about the incident in the oil field. I’m convinced the reason he told me about the incident was compelled by the likewise impulse I have now in writing this essay.

The other night I was granted the privilege of seeing the first cut of Ken Rodgers’ film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, a documentary about the seventy-seven day siege where 6,000 men faced relentless attacks in the Vietnamese valley of Khe Sanh. These were Marines, the toughest of our toughest, the born warriors. These were some of the best-trained, most tenacious soldiers the world has ever known. The film consisted of interviews, with fifteen survivors talking about their experiences during those seventy-seven days and beyond. What was striking to me, beyond their amazing and often terrifying stories of ambushes, of fox-holes filled with bodies, of soldiers lost and alone on a battlefield, of mortar fire that never ceased, was that for the most part the men had kept these stories to themselves. If you were to meet them on the street, or in the grocery store, or down the pew, you couldn’t glimpse the roil of combat still alive inside them.

One of the Marines, a sharply dressed gentleman in a coat and tie, one of the men I’d wrongly supposed—judging him strictly by appearance—had been able to find his equilibrium after the war, said that even forty years after the fact, each and every morning he pulled his legs out from the bed covers, put his feet on the floor, and heard mortar fire. Bombs. Every morning. Secret bombs. Bombs exploding inside him. Bombs silent to the rest of us.

The highest purpose of story is to give voice to silent bombs. I write so that my grandpa’s pain is not lost to the grave. I write about my own fights so that they don’t sit like stones in the depths of my private shame. Even more profound is the document Ken Rodgers has created with his film, not meant to politicize war, not meant as propaganda to bolster the military, to mythologize the soldier. Ken Rodgers simply allowed his fellow Marines to release the truth, muted for too long inside men whose stories are the foundation of the greater human drama that has always included warfare, from the first hurled stones to the H-Bomb. Silence breeds confusion. Silence enables Hollywood’s trite action-figure nonsense to be peddled to the masses. There’s nothing more noble than the voice that finally breaks the silence, even and especially if the message delivered is one that makes us confront the best and worst of who we are. Who we all are. The message Ken Rodgers’ film delivered was not that war was separate from us, made from some government machine, some blueprint drawn up in a windowless room in the basement of the Pentagon, but that warfare comes from us. We are war. It lives inside us. It is not the violence, but the men, in all their bravery and heroism, in all their shame and demons, in all their pride and tears. And in their silence that is silent no more.

Not long ago my mother sent me pages from the diary of a man named Floyd Barker, a great uncle of mine five generations back. Floyd’s writings covered a lot of subjects, family life, marriages and travel and farming, but there was a passage that shook me awake. It reads: “After passing the present site of Brandenburg, Ky., the party was attacked by Indians and those not killed were made prisoners. It is said that one of the Barker boys tried to escape by swimming the river but was killed in the water and his body caught and the heart taken out and broiled and an effort made to compel his mother to eat it. However, this she refused to do.”

Upon first reading this, after the momentary shock of it, the brutality of the images making me recoil, I felt a deep connection with Floyd, a comfort. For isn’t this the truth of stories—the one Floyd told, the one my grandpa told me, the stories spoken by those brave Marines in Ken’s film, and my own stories, too—that we find, as almost a surprise though it should be obvious, that we are made of the same stuff, are plagued by the same feelings, are bolstered in that we are as much the same as different and by letting our stories be known, by breaking the silence of shame and anger and sadness, we are connecting with the greater fabric of humanity and from that point forward we are unburdened, made lighter, in simply understanding that we are not alone.

Alan Heathcock lives, teaches and writes in Boise, Idaho. He is the award winning author of VOLT. For more information, visit www.alanheathcock.com.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information, go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way to stay up on our news and help us reach more people.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

September 10, 2014

Nampa, Idaho Screening to Benefit Wyakin Warriors

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On September 25, 2014, BRAVO!, COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR will be screened at the Elks Lodge in Nampa, Idaho. Doors will open at 6:00 PM with the screening of the film at 6:30, followed by a Q & A session. Suggested donation, $10.00 to benefit the Wyakin Warrior Foundation.

We are delighted to announce two very special guests for the event: BRAVO! Marine Ron Rees, and noted Boise author Alan Heathcock who will be the Master of Ceremonies.

Alan Heathcock Photo by Mathew Wordell

Alan Heathcock
Photo by Mathew Wordell

The Wyakin Warriors Foundation is a local nonprofit that provides a comprehensive education, mentoring, professional development, networking and job placement program for severely wounded and injured veterans. Wyakin Warrior Foundation’s motto is “Battle Tested, Business Ready.”

Wyakin’s goal is to prepare its clients for success. Since September 11, 2001, there have been in excess of fifty-one-thousand seriously injured service members who, when they finally get home, face unemployment rates of up to thirty percent for veterans in the eighteen to twenty-four year age range.

These veterans have been trained to fight and serve our country, but they haven’t been trained to function well in the civilian world. That’s where Wyakin comes in with six major tenets: Financial support, mentoring, professional development seminars, service projects completed by the veterans while they are still in school, networking, and active annual follow-up to monitor the veterans’ emotional, physical and professional status.

Ron Rees Photo by Betty Rodgers

Ron Rees
Photo by Betty Rodgers

Wyakin Warriors Foundation is a veteran-led organization that relies on a wide variety of volunteers to run its
operations.

Please take a moment to learn more about the Wyakin Warrior Foundation at their website: http://www.wyakin.org.

And come on out to the Napa Elks Lodge at 1116 E First Street, Nampa, Idaho, on September 25th and support this event. The Wyakin Warriors need your help.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information, go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way to stay up on our news and help us reach more people.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

September 3, 2014

Dancing–Redux

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This week the blog revisits a poignant encounter we had at The Wall in Washington DC while photographing the names of deceased Marines of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment.

Bamboo flooring echoes like an old-time wood-floored hallway. The crack of sound rebounds into the corners of rooms and rackets irritatingly when you are trying to film an interview. When the old Marine you are interviewing is nervous and keeps tapping his feet it’s mindful of M-16 fire off in the distance, down in a canyon or a draw denuded of elephant grass and triple-canopy jungle, just raw, red ground pocked by the plague of bomb craters, trenches, and dead snags.

Betty and I found this out the way you usually find things out…the hard way. Right in the middle of an interview, you emerge from the monsoon mist into an ambush of recognition that you didn’t even think about: the need to muffle the sounds the floor makes, or that you need gloves to handle the lights, to keep them from sizzling the fat on your hands. Or from pinching the webbing between the thumb and forefinger, or that you better chat with your subject for a while about the rudiments of interviews so they aren’t in a state of sheer fright when the beams snarl at them and the red light on the camera blinks its message that the interviewee is suddenly naked to the world.

The Wall at night

The Wall at night

And there are other things necessary when you make movies: research—patience, patience, patience—and more research and checking the validity of info, of sources.

This week in Washington, DC, we are doing research at Quantico and the National Archives. We’ve located films and photos and command chronologies and after-action reports and oral interviews conducted during 1968.

And things are moving forward. We will have a final trailer in the coming weeks, and we will then begin the editing process to finish the film.

As my old Marine Corps mate, Michael E. O’Hara, says, Betty and I are pilgrims, pilgrims of the body and the mind, in the realm of movies and film and memories. Across the big flat green eastern United States, roaming around looking for the threads that help it all make sense. The threads of story.

We’ve been to The Wall twice this trip to take photos and film the names. Last Sunday we went down early while the Park Service was tidying up after the twin revivals conducted by Glen Beck and Al Sharpton. The sun glared and dew coated the grass. A few people moved among the endless plastic bags of trash that lined the paths and walkways.

The wall was damp and looked like it had been hosed off and there was little hope we could immediately take any pictures because each name was coated with tiny bullets of water. I dug out my trusty big blue kerchief and began to wipe the water off the names. I started at panel 35 E with Steven Hellwig and was interrupted from my chore by an earnest young man and woman who asked me how to find names, understand the logic on the wall. Inside, I said to myself , what logic, logic to all this? But I didn’t because there isn’t a logic. I said, “Where you from?”

He smiled and so did she. “We’re from Alabama and we’ve been here for the Beck revival and we thought we’d come pay our respects to some men from our town who served and died.” I expected wild-eyed Beck followers but these people were polite and earnest. I explained how The Wall works and then went back to drying names and worked through the subsequent panels until I was at 46 E on my knees wiping off Gregory Kent and Jimmie Lafon McRae when a short man about my age holding a digital camera knelt next to me and asked if he could borrow my kerchief to dry a name when I was done.

He was tanned and had a hard New England accent. For some reason, I blurted, “Who you looking for?”

“Gregory Kent. He and I ran track together in high school and . . .”

I blurted, “I know him.”

He stared at me. “You know him?”

I hesitated. “I knew him. We served together.” The stare on his face made me think he wasn’t sure he believed me.

I pointed my finger at him like a pistol and went on, “You’re from Boston, right?”

“I live in Florida, but yes, I’m from Boston.”

I looked down and wiped the name again. “I served with him until he was killed on March 28, 1968, with this fellow.” I pointed two rows down to Jimmie Lafon McRae.

He sat back on his heels and looked at me like someone contemplating stabbing a snake.

Panel at The Wall with the names of Greg Kent and Jimmie L McRae

Panel at The Wall with the names of Greg Kent and Jimmie L McRae

I hesitated again and then nodded. “They stepped out of a hooch and were talking along with Ron Exum from Philadelphia. A mortar landed between them and Kent and McRae were killed.” I could have told him that there were shrapnel holes in Kent’s chest that spewed like oil gushers, but I didn’t.

The man said, “My name’s Sully Grasso and, and . . .”

I looked at the names and brushed at them though they were already dry. I thought about Greg Kent, and how he liked to talk about dancing. He said he loved to dance, dance, dance.

Sully Grasso said, “Greg Kent won the state championship and could have gone to the Olympic trials but he joined the Marines instead. I’m here for Glen Beck’s memorial and I want to take a picture and a tracing and I want to write an article . . . this is a miracle.”

I don’t think I believe in miracles but I didn’t tell him that. I just cleared my throat as I looked away. He took my photograph, twice, as I knelt there. He asked my name and the pertinent details of Kent’s death.

I wrote on a piece of yellow-lined paper from my yellow pad the barest of details as I remember them. He went to get something to trace names. Betty and I tried to take photos. Sully came back and took some more pictures and traced the names, Gregory Kent and Jimmie L McRae. Then he walked up to me. Tears swelled in his eyes. I couldn’t look at him. He leaned towards me and I stuck out my hand to shake in order to avoid more intimate shows of emotion, but he pulled me close and hugged me. He said, “God knows my heart and he sent you here to meet me. He knows my heart. I didn’t have any idea about how Greg died and now I know.”

I’m not sure I even believe in God, but I didn’t tell him that. The steps of people walking by echoed off the smooth surface of the wall. A multi-colored wreath stood at the junction of the monument’s east and west wings and an old, scuffed jungle boot stood there by itself, in front of panel 22 W. A red rosebud stuck up from inside the boot. I nodded at Sully and thought about how Kent liked to prance around and dance, his energy exploding out of him, and then he was dead.

On the screening front, BRAVO! will be shown in Nampa, Idaho, on September 25, 2014 at the Elks Lodge. Doors will open at 6:00 PM with the screening of the film at 6:30, followed by a Q & A session. Suggested donation, $10.00 to benefit the Wyakin Warrior Foundation. http://www.wyakin.org Joining us for the screening will be BRAVO! Marine Ron Rees. Noted Boise author Alan Heathcock has agreed to be the Master of Ceremonies for this event.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help us reach more people.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Listening Posts,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

August 27, 2014

The Agony and Ecstasy of Listening Posts–Redux

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Four years ago, when we were on the road to shoot interviews in Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska and to conduct research at the National Archives and the Marine History Division in the Washington DC area, I wrote only our fourth blog about the making of BRAVO!. That particular edition joined what has become a hefty variety of pieces about BRAVO!, the Siege of Khe Sanh, and the men and women both in the film and who helped make this project a reality. We think a visit back in time to that fourth blog is an appropriate subject for this week’s blog.

08/05/10

While the grackles, the kingbirds, the cuckoos and kites sung and hunted over San Antonio, Betty, Mark Spear and I interviewed and filmed eight retired or former Marines and a former Navy corpsman. As we sat rapt, listening to the emotion gushing like rain water running down a red Khe Sanh trench, one of the repetitive memories we heard centered on listening posts.

Listening posts—rather mundane words for a mundane (most of the time) night duty related to combat activities in a hostile environment. In the Marine Corps, a fire team usually mans (or in my tenure manned) a listening post (LP). Four men and a radio go outside the outfit’s night perimeter to listen for approaching enemy combatants. Mundane, unless the enemy shows up, and then the men in the listening post become pretty much incidental to the good of the bigger unit, the ones they are doing the listening for. And doing their duty as Marines, they may be trapped and killed, maimed, captured, never to get back to lovers and sons, and if they beat feet towards the security of the perimeter, in front of the enemy, they may get shot by their own men because the listening post personnel are often indistinguishable from the enemy. In Bravo! the documentary, the danger associated with LPs will squeeze your gut.

Mark Spear at the 2010 Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion © Betty Rodgers 2010

Mark Spear at the 2010 Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion
© Betty Rodgers 2010

I recall an LP when the siege was raging. We waited until darkness fell and then crept out the east end of the Khe Sanh air strip finally stopping short of our assigned position. I always felt that we should never go to the same spot time after time. We crawled into the jungle grass and covered up with ponchos so we could read a map with a flashlight if we needed to. Below us, the Song Rao Quan cut a deep ravine as it rushed towards its conflict with the saltwater South China Sea. American jets shrieked over. So rocket and artillery shy were we, we cringed at the sound of the jets as they streaked over us and dropped bombs somewhere to our front. We heard the thunk of mortar rounds leaving the tube. In the dark of the night we spotted aiming stakes—enemy aiming stakes illuminated by some type of red lights. We estimated the position and called in artillery, “Fire mission.” The barrage whistled over us like the jets, but with less basso, more tenor, some alto harmonied in. Below in the Rao Quan River valley, the rounds crashed like they were landing in the next century. The aiming stakes still remained. I essayed that they were far beyond where the rounds landed. I whispered into the radio handset—based on where I thought I’d heard the rounds land—“Up 100 left 100.” The voice of the lieutenant repeated my words. We heard the gun mouths bark the next barrage and again it sung over us and landed far below. The enemy mortars still thunk, thunk, thunked. Somewhere to our rear the crash of a rocket round inside our perimeter. The aiming stakes still glowed in the misty pitch black. I adjusted my estimate, again, missed, and we spent the long night with arty going in and out, like a badminton shuttle cock going back and forth over the net. I don’t think we ever hit the target, though we may have scared the hell out of them, because the aiming stakes’ red lights disappeared. The lieutenant barked at me over the radio about ”What kind of spotter was I?” I pouted most of the night about that and in the morning just before the first light we sneaked back in. Off to the west, between Khe Sanh base and Hill 861, I saw rockets spew off the ground. Seconds later I heard them crash into the far end of the air strip. I might have called in and told them where those rockets had come from, but I was still pouting.

Khe Sanh Combat Base, Photo courtesy of www.authentichistory.com

Khe Sanh Combat Base, Photo courtesy of www.authentichistory.com

An LP wasn’t something you wanted to get sent out on, with all that death waiting in the black of the misty nights. A couple of our platoon big shots, the lieutenant’s radioman and the platoon right guide, both went to sleep on radio watch in the command post. We all were deprived of sleep, our eyelids like trap doors on a sniper’s hole. We couldn’t sleep because of duty’s call or because the NVA hammered us day and night, so I wasn’t surprised that they nodded off. I had a way of going half to sleep when I ended up as the platoon sergeant’s radio operator. I could somehow doze and somehow stay alert enough to call in my sit-reps every fifteen minutes and call out to the listening post and get their sit-reps, too. Being a big shot and then getting sent out on an LP was like a kick in the cojones. Everyone sniggered at you behind your back. I’m glad I never got caught sleeping on radio watch.

The last LP I remember going on was later in the siege and I got a surprise from the lieutenant about how it was to be conducted. My team was going out with a fire team of South Vietnamese Rangers. I rolled my eyes at that one and complained, “They can’t even speak English. How the hell we going to communicate?” The lieutenant told me, “Just get your asses out there when it starts getting dark and go out to those slit trenches at the end of the runway and set in for the night. Like you’re supposed to do.” I whined, “But, the NVA know exactly where that. . .” “Shut up,” he barked, “we know exactly where it is, too, so if something happens we can come out and get your asses. “ I kicked at the red clods in the bottom of the trench and said, “Aye aye.” He said, “And if you have to come in early, make sure you come in first so those Marines down there in Alpha Company don’t blow our Ranger friends away.”

There were four of them. Four of us. We Marines were skinny, half starved, but compared to them we were giants. They were bowlegged and short, wiry, though, and they all had flinty looks in their eyes as we sat in a deep Alpha Company bunker lit up with ten or twelve candles. We were wary of them, the rumors we’d heard about them all being North Vietnamese sympathizers. The way they sneaked glances at us made me ponder why they were wary of us.

After the night went totally black, we sneaked out the gate in front of Alpha Company and bent over like bugs scuffling across the airstrip. We hustled out to the two slit trench fighting holes at the end of the strip. I pointed to the left and the four Rangers slipped in and sat down. I could see what light there was reflecting off their eyes which were as big around as the bottom of a forty-millimeter anti-aircraft round. They sat as still as stones.

We Marines plopped in the other trench and I started whispering the watch schedule, two of us awake, two asleep, two hours on, two hours off. I tried to whisper some orders to the Rangers, but either they didn’t hear me or ignored me. The breeze whispered through the tall elephant grass out to our fronts. All night I imagined, or dreamed, a platoon of NVA sneaking up on us. Their helmets festooned with pieces of grass to hide their passage. They didn’t, though, because the next morning in the false light I elbowed the sleeping Marines on each side of me to wake up. I looked up at the Ranger fire team leader who was glaring at me. He took his right index finger and drew it across his Adam’s apple and then nodded to our front. I made a sign with my thumb for him and his team to get up. We bug-scuffled back in the opposite direction of the enemy to the Alpha Company gate. Me in front so they didn’t shoot the Rangers.

As I said in the beginning of this post, what got me thinking about LPs were the men we interviewed for our documentary.

On the screening front, BRAVO! will be shown in Nampa, Idaho, on September 25, 2014 at the Elks Lodge. Doors will open at 6:00 PM with the screening of the film at 6:30, followed by a Q & A session. Suggested donation, $10.00 to benefit the Wyakin Warrior Foundation. http://www.wyakin.org.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help us reach more people.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Vietnam War

August 20, 2014

Honors for BRAVO! Marine Michael E. O’Hara

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Last week BRAVO! Marine Michael E. O’Hara was awarded the Congressional Veterans Commendation for the Ninth Congressional District of Indiana. This prestigious award was presented by Congressman Todd Young in a special ceremony in southern Indiana’s Martinsville.

O’Hara was a member of Second Platoon, Bravo Company, before and during the Siege of Khe Sanh. During the Siege, he earned three Purple Hearts. O’Hara then returned to garrison duty where he became a Primary Weapons Instructor training over 120,000 young Marines at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California. Back home in Indiana, he became a homebuilder and has been actively and unselfishly involved in local Veterans affairs since 1993.

Michael E. O'Hara during his interview for Bravo! Photo by Betty Rodgers

Michael E. O’Hara during his interview for Bravo!
Photo by Betty Rodgers

Honored alongside Michael were Colonel Shirley M. Ohta and Staff Sergeant Merrill E. St. John. Eligibility for the award is based on the following items. A candidate must reside in Indiana’s Ninth Congressional District and must have served on active duty in the Armed Services of the United States or have been in a branch of the Armed Forces reserve and called up to active duty. Candidates must also have been retired or honorably discharged. Candidates are chosen by a review board comprised of Ninth District veterans.

Congressman Todd Young is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and was a captain in the Marine Corps.

Michael E O'Hara and Congressman Todd Young.

Michael E O’Hara and Congressman Todd Young.

Attending the honors ceremony along with Michael were his soulmate, Maxine Bailey, his daughter, Charlene Folz, and his brother Wayne (also a Marine).

I personally served with Michael in the Third Squad, Second Platoon, of Bravo Company. He was, as Bravo Skipper Ken Pipes calls him, a “gunfighter.” He was a squared-away Marine then and he’s squared-away now.

Congratulations, Michael E. O’Hara, you have made your BRAVO! brothers proud.

Left to Right: Charlene Folz, Michael E O'Hara and Maxine Bailey.

Left to Right: Charlene Folz, Michael E O’Hara and Maxine Bailey.

On the screening front, BRAVO! will be shown in Nampa, Idaho, on September 25, 2014 at the Elks Lodge. Doors will open at 6:00 PM with the screening of the film at 6:30, followed by a Q & A session. Suggested donation, $10.00 to benefit the Wyakin Warrior Foundation. http://www.wyakin.org.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help us reach more people.

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

August 13, 2014

New Honors for the Fallen of Khe Sanh

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We posted a blog in June of this year that pondered, among other things, a firefight that occurred northwest of Hill 881 South on June 7, 1967. Two platoons of Bravo Company, 1/26, were involved in that battle. Before the acrid scent of gunpowder had disappeared, it was clear that Bravo had taken a significant number of casualties.

One of the men killed in that action was HN (Corpsman) Gregory Vercruysse. Last month I heard from Gregory’s younger brother, Dean. Dean and I have traded e-mails about that day, about Gregory, about memory and honor.

Marines on Hill 881 South. Photo courtesy of NamViet News

Marines on Hill 881 South. Photo courtesy of NamViet News

In November of this year, Gregory is to be posthumously honored by the city of Liberty Lake, Washington. Greg (as his brother Dean refers to him) will be memorialized at the City of Liberty Lake’s Fallen Heroes Circuit Course by having a circuit station named after him. First dedicated in September 2013, the course’s stations will all be designated in the name of one of Liberty Lake’s fallen.

This isn’t the first time that a blog we have written about one of the men who served at Khe Sanh has given rise to a member of the family contacting us. We receive queries about loved ones who were killed in action or who were wounded or who managed to get home in one piece but who are now gone.

Sometimes all this blogging and filmmaking and creating art and recording history about the events centered around the Khe Sanh locale gets to be a heavy load. Yet, when it starts to feel like we are spitting into the wind, someone like Dean Vercruysse contacts us about his brother or a cousin and suddenly the importance of what we are doing becomes clear again.

If you are interested in seeking out more about the City of Liberty Lake’s Fallen Heroes Circuit Course, you can find information HERE.

Bravo Blogger Ken Rodgers looking back at you.

Bravo Blogger Ken Rodgers looking back at you.

On the screening front, BRAVO! will be shown in Nampa, Idaho, on September 25, 2014 at the Elks Lodge. Doors will open at 6:00 PM with the screening of the film at 6:30, followed by a Q & A session. Suggested donation, $10.00 to benefit the Wyakin Warrior Foundation. http://www.wyakin.org.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help us reach more people like Dean Vercruysse.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

August 6, 2014

The War Was In My Throat

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The war was in my throat; the need to shout it out. I thought I’d bust wide open. (1)

In the late 1960s I was asked not to talk about it. It bummed people out. People couldn’t look me in the eye when I tried to explain what happened to me at Khe Sanh.

In the 1970s I got told by veterans of previous wars that we (the men and women who served and fought in Vietnam) were the worst Americans who ever went to combat. My first wife informed me that I hadn’t undergone anything worse than anyone else had. I shut my mouth.

In the 1980s I worked with people who had no inkling that I had been a Marine, that I had survived the Siege of Khe Sanh. I didn’t talk about it, and neither did a lot of my fellow Vietnam vets.

Not that keeping your trap shut is just a phenomenon exclusive to Vietnam Veterans. I think silence about battle is common with all combat vets, no matter what the war.

Regardless, in the 1990s we started to talk about it: our war, our horrors. For me it came out through art. I wrote poems and stories, some fiction, some not; mostly autobiographical at the roots.

I was a witness to what happened at Khe Sanh. Not everything, of course. That would be impossible. Nevertheless, I was a witness and so I have been telling the story of my experience. Story is how humans pass on what we learn about life from one generation to the next. Does that mean that anybody learns from our story? Probably not. If they did, we wouldn’t be fighting war after war after war.

Notwithstanding the fact that we don’t seem to learn any of the human stuff passed from one generation to the next, it is still incumbent on us to tell the story.

Some of the incredible architectural detail inside the Pritzker. © Betty Rodgers 2014

Some of the incredible architectural detail inside the Pritzker. © Betty Rodgers 2014

While Betty and I were in Chicago screening BRAVO!, we went to visit the Pritzker Military Museum and Library. Several people familiar with the city had told us it would be worth our time to go there, and since the Pritzker co-sponsored our screening there, we were eager to show up and view the photography, the art, the architecture, the library.

The Pritzker has a steady stream of visitors arriving at their doors all through the day and researchers are in the library researching on the computer terminals, watching DVDs, sorting through stacks of books on library tables.

While at the museum, we met the coordinator of the veteran’s oral history project, Mr. Thomas Webb, who convinced me to give an interview, and we scheduled it for the following day. I asked how long it would take, and he said they liked to get a couple of hour’s worth of material.

Preparing for an oral interview at the Pritzker. © Betty Rodgers 2014

Preparing for an oral interview at the Pritzker.
© Betty Rodgers 2014

Since I was busy with Chicago, I said I’d give them an hour. I gave them three and one-half hours of war and horror and Marines and life. I could have gone on talking to my interviewer, Mr. Jerrod Howe, but I had things to do. My interview will show up as a podcast on their website later this year.

Mine was interview ninety-six. The previous ninety-five have been veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War, and the Middle East Wars of this century as well Bosnia, Somalia, and other foreign conflicts.

I am particularly thoughtful about those World War II vets. When I was a young veteran, I got told that all the men who fought in that war, that worst of all wars, didn’t need to talk about their war. And of course that was humbug. Guadalcanal Diary, From Here to Eternity, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Thin Red Line, Randall Jarrell’s poems about the Eighth Air Force, the photography that was available to all of us, and Ernie Pyle’s wonderful books about the troops are just a few of the stories that were told about this war. Those examples were mostly veterans telling their stories. And the ones who didn’t talk in 1946 or 1956 and who are still living are giving their histories to the Pritzker’s Holt Oral History Program and hundreds of other regional organizations intent on preserving memories of war.

Let’s face it, war is horrible and in the long run seems pretty senseless, but it’s one of the things that we humans do best, so it is incumbent on us as a species to understand this effort—this social effort—we get involved in quite regularly.

Here in Boise, Idaho, we have several organizations recording oral histories. I’ll bet, if you are a veteran, you can contact such an organization either in your area or elsewhere, and tell your story.

As a matter of fact, Thomas Webb at the Pritzker would like to hear from you because they want you to tell them your story. You don’t have to be in Chicago to get that done. They have multiple ways of chronicling oral history.

The interview. Left to Right, Jerrod Howe, Thomas Webb and Ken Rodgers, seated. © Betty Rodgers 2014

The interview. Left to Right, Jerrod Howe, Thomas Webb and Ken Rodgers, seated. © Betty Rodgers 2014

The Pritzker Military Museum and Library’s website is at http://www.pritzkermilitary.org/. You can find out more about the Pritzker’s Holt Oral History Program at http://www.pritzkermilitary.org/whats_on/holt-oral-history-program/stories-service/.

The mission statement for the Holt Oral History Program states:

“… the Holt Oral History Program is dedicated to conserving the unique Stories of Service of the Citizen Soldier—not just high ranking officers, recognizable faces from history, or soldiers who have had their stories told already—but every man and woman, from all walks of life, who has served and sacrificed for our country.”

We are all witnesses to our time. Share what you have seen and learned.

The war was in my mouth, right behind my teeth. It wanted out. (2)

(1) From the short story, “Party,” from the collection of short stories, The Gods of Angkor Wat, Ken Rodgers, BK Publications, 2014, p 137

(2) From the short story, “Party,” from the collection of short stories, The Gods of Angkor Wat, Ken Rodgers, BK Publications, 2014, p 138

On the screening front, BRAVO! will be screened in Nampa, Idaho on September 25, 2014 at the Elks Club. Doors will open at 6:00 PM with the screening of the film at 6:30. Screening will be followed by a Q & A session. Suggested donation, $10.00 to benefit Wyakin Warrior Foundation.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help spread the word about the film.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Vietnam War

July 30, 2014

CHICAGO!!!

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We needed help finding the train, what is officially termed the CTA, the Chicago Transit Authority, from Midway Airport into downtown Chicago. We had notions about traveling on the system but really had no idea how you actually got it done. Was it like New York’s subway? Were we going to get held up or witness a shooting and what about the weather? Hot and humid? Tornadoes? Our concerns were initiated by what we see on the national news.

At the airport we found the information desk and the man behind it wore a Khe Sanh Veterans ball cap. He was lean and fit and confident. Betty started our conversation with him by saying I had been at Khe Sanh. We shook hands. What a strong grip he owned and I asked him his unit. His name was Rich, and he served with the Third Battalion, Third Marines. I said, “1/26.” He nodded and then proceeded to explain how one gets from Midway to the Orange Line and from there to the Brown Line. He told us we were going to love Chicago.

Downtown Chicago. © Ken Rodgers 2014

Downtown Chicago.
© Ken Rodgers 2014

And we did love Chicago. The big-muscled hubbub, the Midwest practicality, the friendliness, the food.

We met up with our Internet friends who are now our real friends, the writer and teacher Patricia Ann McNair and her husband, the visual artist and writer Philip Hartigan, and they showed us some of Chicago’s famous neighborhoods and points of interest and we had Vietnamese, German and Italian food. We attended literary events. I even read from my book of short stories at one of the readings and we got to hear Chicago author and professor Eric May read from his new book.

Both Eric May and Patricia Ann McNair are professors at Chicago’s Columbia College. Betty and I visited their writing program offices and were impressed with the faculty and staff we met there.

The buffet at the ULCC screening. © Betty Rodgers 2014

The buffet at the ULCC screening.
© Betty Rodgers 2014

We were graciously put up in a grand room at the Union League Club of Chicago (ULCC), where we met former Navy pilot Jan Donatelli, the major force behind the screening event, and the ULCC’s Kathy Hurley whose herculean efforts made our stay and our screening there a tremendous success. We offer our thanks to the ULCC’s executive director of Public Affairs, Mr. David Kohn, who made sure we received a warm welcome when we checked into the hotel.

We were invited to the regular luncheon of Union League’s American Legion Post 758. A big thank you to Post Commander Matt Iverson for making sure we had an excellent meal and reception, and to boot, the post underwrote a significant portion of our travel expenses. They hosted our screening, as well, which included a sumptuous buffet for those who attended.

One of the other major sponsors of our trip was the Pritzker Military Museum and Library. The Museum, housed in a beautifully restored building in the heart of downtown, is a cache of American veteran memorabilia, research material, books, movies, photography, and more. At the time of our visit, they sported an impressive exhibit on United States Navy SEALs.

The hall at the Prizker Military Museum and Library © Betty Rodgers 2014

The hall at the Prizker Military Museum and Library
© Betty Rodgers 2014

Mr. Kenneth Clarke, the CEO of the Pritzker, personally greeted Betty and me. While there, we found the copy of BRAVO! which had been donated by the Paddock family, and I gave them an interview for their oral history project. I originally said I was interested in talking for an hour or so about my experiences at Khe Sanh, but ended up reminiscing for three and one-half hours.

A big thanks to Mr. Thomas Webb and Mr. Jerrod Howe of the Pritzker, both for scheduling the time to interview, and for conducting the interview. Jerrod Howe is in the Cinema Arts and Sciences MFA program at Columbia College.

The screening was well attended by old friends and new friends. BRAVO! Marine Michael E. O’Hara came all the way from Indiana to share some time with us and participate in the Q & A following the screening.

Another distinguished guest was Tom Eichler, who served during the Siege of Khe Sanh with Echo Company, 2/26. Tom was awarded the Silver Star for some of his actions during the Siege. He is also the president and treasurer of the Khe Sanh Veterans Association. Both Tom and the association have been strong supporters of our efforts to make and screen BRAVO!.

Left to right: Tom Eichler, Michael O'Hara, Ken Rodgers and Matt Iverson © Betty Rodgers 2014

Left to right:
Tom Eichler, Michael O’Hara, Ken Rodgers and Matt Iverson
© Betty Rodgers 2014

One of the great things about traveling around the country, screening the film, is how old friends show up in new contexts. Betty has known Mr. Donald Hovey for four decades. They met in New England and have remained friends all the intervening years. Donald is a tenor and agreed to sing the national anthem at our ceremony and he did a fantastic job to much applause.

Finally, we wish to thank our Cowboy Poetry friends, John and Judy George, members of the Union League Club and the folks who initiated this BRAVO! debut in Chicago. Also, kudos to Colonel Jennifer Pritzker who helped sponsor our trip to Chicago, and to esteemed Medal of Honor recipient Mr. Allen Lynch for attending the screening. We also wish to express our gratitude to the evening’s emcee, Mr. Bill Wigoda, and to Vietnam War author Julie Titone who helped pave the way for this memorable experience on our BRAVO! journey.

We began our trip to Chicago not knowing what to expect, but we can say without hesitation that we loved the city and the residents there. We hope to return.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help spread the word about the film.

Film Screenings

July 23, 2014

BRAVO! in CHICAGO!

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Tomorrow night, BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR will be screened in the Crystal Room at the Union League Club of Chicago, 65 W Jackson Blvd, Chicago, Illinois. Registration will begin at 5:00 PM, with opening remarks at 5:15. The screening will begin promptly at 5:30. A question and answer period will follow the screening from 7:30 to 8:00. On hand for the Q & A will be BRAVO! Marine Michael E. O’Hara, Khe Sanh Veteran and retired Chicago police officer Tom Eichler, and Co-producers of the film, Ken and Betty Rodgers.

Union League Club of Chicago

Union League Club of Chicago

The event is free but you must reserve a seat by going to: https://bravofilm.eventbrite.com. There will be snacks available and a signature/cash bar with beverages of your choice. Please note, the attire is business casual: no jeans, no denim, no shorts; shirts must have collars.

The screening is sponsored in part by American Legion Post 758, the Union League Club of Chicago, and the Pritzker Military Museum and Library.

Here are the bios for the folks on the Q & A panel:

Michael E. O'Hara during his interview for Bravo! Photo by Betty Rodgers

Michael E. O’Hara during his interview for Bravo!
Photo by Betty Rodgers

Michael O’Hara was wounded three times at Khe Sanh before he returned to the US to finish his enlistment as a Primary Weapons Instructor. After his release from active duty on the early release program, Michael went back to Indiana to become a homebuilder. For more than 20 years, he has been a major force in Brown County, Indiana veterans affairs, owning a big heart for all combat veterans past and present.

Tom Eichler, a Chicago native son, was with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines at Khe Sanh where he was wounded and awarded the Silver Star for his actions. Discharged in 1968, he joined the Chicago Police Department where he served until his retirement, and remains one of their most decorated officers. He currently serves as President and Treasurer of the Khe Sanh Veterans Association.

Tom Eichler

Tom Eichler

Ken Rodgers is the man who wrote, co-produced and co-directed Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor. He recalls standing on the heliport at Dong Ha after leaving Khe Sanh, looking back at the Annamite Mountains where the battle occurred, and thinking, That’s one hell of a story. It took Ken a lifetime as a controller and business manager to find his true calling as a filmmaker and finally tell this story of the siege, the story of his Bravo Company brothers, his Khe Sanh brothers…the story of all Vietnam veterans.

Ken Rodgers, © Betty Rodgers, 2012

Ken Rodgers, © Betty Rodgers, 2012

Ken’s wife Betty Rodgers grew up in a family of veterans with a WWII-era mother who believed in recording veterans’ stories so their sacrifices would be remembered by future generations. After attending Khe Sanh Veteran reunions with her husband, she realized his story and the story of these men would eventually be lost, so she proposed this film…this collaboration with Ken…as a way to preserve Bravo Company’s unique moment in history.

Betty Rodgers

Betty Rodgers

Please join us for this memorable event.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help spread the word about the film.

Documentary Film,Film Screenings,Khe Sanh,Marines,Meet the Men,Vietnam War

July 16, 2014

Something of Value

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Bravo Company 1/26 came off of Hill 881 South on July 10, 1967, and went into battalion reserve at the combat base, first at the west end and then into the trenches on the north side of the perimeter. Bravo stood line watch, ran patrols, listening posts and ambushes for the next ten days.

On July 21, Mike Company, 3/26, engaged elements of the North Vietnamese Army northeast of the base and suffered five KIA.
If I was aware of Mike Company, 3/26′s casualties, I don’t recall. When units got hit around Khe Sanh I usually went into a funk; scattered, not focused on cleaning my rifle or gathering the rest of my gear in case we charged into the maw of battle. I would flit from task to task, smoke a Camel, clean part of my weapon, grab some grenades, smoke a Camel…I don’t recall doing any of these tasks.

View  looking down on the Quang Tri River Valley where Route 9 ran. Photo by John Corvus

View looking down on the Quang Tri River Valley where Route 9 ran. Photo by John Corvus

On the same date, another Mike Company—Mike 3/3—was also out in the vicinity of Mike 3/26 and they, too, took casualties; 11 KIA. Again, I have no memory of that event or the edgy fear that probably gnawed at the back of my brain as I tried to stay focused and not look like I was afraid.

Also on that same day, Bravo 1/26′s First Platoon was out east of the combat base patrolling down Route 9 when they got ambushed. Three men were killed on that patrol: one 81 MM forward observer with H & S Company, 1/26, and two men from Bravo’s First Platoon. Some of the men in our film BRAVO! were on that patrol.

As soon as Second Platoon, my outfit, got the word about First Platoon being ambushed, Sergeant Michael Dede came down the line and told us to gather our gear.

I shared a bunker with a salty Marine who had come over to Bravo earlier in the year from 3/26. He was a short-timer. I do not recall his name. At that moment, he was teaching me how to play Back Alley Bridge and as we played our cards, he was cleaning out my pockets. We were playing for money—Military Payment Certificates—because, as he told me in his clipped Boston accent, if you weren’t committing something of value, then you wouldn’t be at your best.

Dede told us to get ammo, grenades, poncho liner, and other gear we’d need for a helicopter insertion in support of First Platoon. My bunker mate sat back and grinned, and as I tried to gather my gear, flitting like a mosquito from one item to the next, he cajoled me to keep playing the game since there was no guarantee we’d be going anywhere.

I recall him saying, “You know how it is. Hurry up and wait.”

So as I got my gear together and rumors of death and combat circulated like demons among the men of Second Platoon, he collected more and more of my MPC.

Finally, Sergeant Dede came down the line and told us to assemble on the air strip and await choppers to transport us out to assist First Platoon. My bunker mate was so short he didn’t have to go. I can see him, right now in my mind’s view, leaning back on his rack, smiling, his big red mustache and his disheveled shock of red hair implanted in my memory. He was counting my MPC.

We sat on the air strip in the sun. It was hot and we were nervous. Some of us talked incessantly. Some of us didn’t say anything.

I don’t know that I thought about it then, but I think about it now. Something of value. Some MPC in a game of Back Alley Bridge. Some casualties out on Route 9. My young life available to what…be wounded, killed, captured, honored? Something of value, like the lives of those 19 Marines who died in our TAOR that day, and the wounded men, too, whose names we don’t put up on monuments.

Finally, the helicopters arrived and we loaded up and away we went.

Michael E. O'Hara during his interview for Bravo! Photo by Betty Rodgers

Michael E. O’Hara during his interview for Bravo!
Photo by Betty Rodgers

***

On the screening front, BRAVO! will be screened at the Union League Club of Chicago, 65 West Jackson Blvd, Chicago, Illinois on July 24, 2014. Sponsored by American Legion Post 758, this event begins with registration at 5:00 PM. The film will be screened at 5:30 followed by a Q & A session with Co-producers Betty and Ken Rodgers, BRAVO! Marine Michael E. O’Hara, and Echo Company, 2/26′s Tom Eichler, the president of the Khe Sanh Veterans Association. Complimentary snacks will be provided and there will be a cash bar with beverages of your choice.

The program will end at 8:00 PM. Reservations are required. To reserve your seats please go to the Eventbrite registration page @ https://bravofilm.eventbrite.com/.

Please note, this event is business casual: no jeans, no denim, no shorts; shirts must have collars.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, please contact us immediately.
DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to http://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help spread the word about the film.