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

May 15, 2015

The Thunderbolts

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I don’t recall much about the Marine who recruited me into the Corps in the summer of 1966. A lot of men who served with me know the names of their recruiters, but I only recall a hazy image of a rawboned, hardened man who piqued my interest by advising me that the Corps was tough and to make it a young man had to overcome a series of obstacles, and the difficulty of those obstacles limited the number of men who would eventually call themselves Marines.

My recruiter was right about the challenges of becoming a Marine, especially the overcoming of the obstacles that bar one from becoming part of that fraternity of men who can call themselves Devil Dogs.

An upshot of being part of the Marines is an attitude that as a Marine, you served with the best. Not one of the best, but the absolute best. And for me, it followed that all other services were generally inferior to the Marine Corps. I learned to call men and women who served in the Army “dogfaces,” men and women who served in the Navy “squids,” “swabbies” or “ducks.” Folks who served in the Air Force were “fly boys” or “wing-wipers.”

Even if you were in the Corps, if you worked in supply or chow or the armory, you were a “pogue.” If you were in the Marine Air Wing, you were, once again, a “wing-wiper.”

When I joined the Marine Corps, my recruiter guaranteed me a spot in the Air Wing if I went in for four years. By the time I finished my recruit training, when they told me I was to be a grunt, I had no desire to raise hell about not being made a “wing-wiper.” By then I was indoctrinated. I was—and indeed wanted to be—in “the best.” My service at Khe Sanh reinforced my opinion about the ranking of services. The men I fought with were the best. No doubt in my mind.

BRAVO! Marine Ron Rees, right, visits with Thunderbolt pilots.

BRAVO! Marine Ron Rees, right, visits with Thunderbolt pilots.

Yet though we, the Marines of Khe Sanh, withstood the onslaught of North Vietnamese Army fury for over seventy days, it would be naive not to give credit to the people who supported us. The pilots and other warriors who bombed the enemy to our front, who supplied us, who worked in the rear to make sure the necessary supplies and ordnance were available . . . the men and women who did that were “dog faces,” “ducks,” “wing-wipers” and “pogues.”

I believe that without the efforts expended by those folks on our behalf, I very well could have been either dead or locked up in an NVA prison camp.

Nevertheless, over the ensuing years since surviving my time in Vietnam, I have on too many occasions referred to “dog faces” and “swabbies.”

And it wasn’t just a one-way pejorative harangue from Marines towards other services. I’ve been called “sea going bell hop” and “jarhead” more instances than I care to count. My father, who was a top sergeant in the Army, took every chance he could to derogate Marines. Often he called them “gyrenes” coupled with any one of a number of expletives that I will not mention.

But true to all that is existentially Jarhead, I laughed at all those pejoratives and interpreted them as loving nicknames that the lesser warriors of the world employed to name the finest.

With that as background, last week, BRAVO! Marine Ron Rees, BRAVO! supporter and Navy pilot Leland Nelson, Betty and I ventured down to Mountain Home Air Force Base in Mountain Home, Idaho, where we had the honor of screening BRAVO! for the pilots, navigators and support personnel of the United States Air Force’s 389th Fighter Squadron, the Thunderbolts.

We met a number of pilots and navigators and weapons officers, and I must say, these young warriors were mighty impressive. They gave us a look at some of their jet planes, the F15E Strike Eagles, one of the Air Force’s more successful fighter-bomber aircraft.

The jets our warriors fly into harm’s way are so high tech that the people asked to fly and maintain these planes need to be smart, tech-savvy, and own nerves of steel. At the speeds these weapon systems fly, split second decisions are the name of the game and those who participate must be physically fit and mentally sharp.

The folks we met at Mountain Home, from my observations, seemed to own all the necessary skills to fly the F15E, plus they are funny, curious, polite and driven to serve the nation.

I don’t really care if one hates war or loves it or ignores it, the young folks we have operating these high grade weapon systems, be they F15E or stealth weapons or tanks or choppers, are worthy of our respect and admiration. They don’t make policy for this country. They aren’t politicians or generals. They are the folks who do the deed when called upon.

And all of us who journeyed down to Mountain Home couldn’t have been more impressed or prouder of these “kids,” as I like to call them.

These “fly boys” and “fly girls” are a special breed of folks who are willing to put their lives on the line and do so at high speeds.

Driving home, I decided to stop referring to our servicemen and women as “Squids” and “Dogfaces” and “Wing-Wipers.”
They deserve to be called warriors.

Christina Iverson, a big friend of BRAVO! and one of the folks responsible for the film’s great reception in Idaho served with the Thunderbolts prior to mustering out of the Air Force. She had this to say about the 389th Fighter Squadron: “The best life lessons for me were while I was assigned to the 389th Fighter Squadron: Thunderbolts. Hard job, good people.”

Christina Iverson, BRAVO! supporter extraordinaire. Photo courtesy of Mike Shipman, Blue Planet Photography

Christina Iverson, BRAVO! supporter.
Photo courtesy of Mike Shipman, Blue Planet Photography

A big Marine Corps OOORAH! to Air Force Major Staci “Rio” Landers for setting up this event.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. 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?ref=hl.

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

May 1, 2015

After the Siege

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The Siege of Khe Sanh ended for me the moment I got on a CH-46 and flew to Dong Ha. As far as I can recall, that happened around April 4, 1968. As the big bird swooped off, I looked back at Khe Sanh and began to let the notion that I had survived soak into my soul. I was gone.

I hopped flights from Dong Ha to Phu Bai to Danang to Okinawa to El Toro and finally to Arizona on April 11. No more killing. No more hiding in a hole. No more whiz bang smash crash kaboom from incoming; except in my dreams.

As I traveled from the war to home and then from bar to bar to bar in the United States, I fought like hell any attempts to wonder about what was going on at Khe Sanh. I read the papers every morning and read the daily death tolls but I had already managed to jam a metaphorical arm’s length between the Khe Sanh Combat Base and me.

The last few days in Khe Sanh I’d promised Alvarado that I’d contact his uncle as soon as I returned and I promised Jake the Snake I’d send him a fifth of Chivas Regal and I suspect I promised a lot of other things to the men I fought with. But as soon as my legs steadied on the tarmac at El Toro, I let all the promises drain out of me along with a ton of the tension that tied my neck in knots.

I immersed myself in the glory of home, my buddies, the alcohol, and the women, not that I could get close to them or anyone, family or otherwise. But I tried to forget it all and I for sure didn’t wonder what was happening at Khe Sanh.
For me it was kaput, finis, dead, over.

American warrior on Hill 471.

American warrior on Hill 471.

But it wasn’t. Men were still being killed and maimed at my old homestead. Besides the warriors still trapped inside the combat base and surrounding hills, elements of the 1st and 3rd Marine Regiments and the United States Army’s 1st Air Cav, in what was named Operation Pegasus, were driving up Route 9 in an attempt to relieve Khe Sanh.

On April 6 while I was in Phu Bai turning in my gear at the battalion rear, Marines and Corpsmen from Bravo 1/26 and Delta 1/26 went out on a patrol and picked up the remaining bodies of the Bravo Company men who were killed on February 25.
On April 6 through April 8, Marines from 2/26 were moving off of Hill 558 to drive the enemy from the field and were engaged in three days of vicious combat.

On April 13, two days after I got home, Felix Poilane, the French national whose family owned one of the coffee plantations at Khe Sanh, was killed in a plane crash while coming back to Khe Sanh. That day, I was already running around with my old college roommate drinking cases of Coors.

On April 14, Operation Pegasus was complete and Operation Scotland II began, and the main breakout by the Marines of Khe Sanh started.

In Operation Scotland II, elements of the 26th and 9th Marines began to drive into the surrounding country and maul the North Vietnamese Army. 1/9 hit Hill 689. Marines from 3/26 assaulted Hill 881-N, which had always been a symbol of the North Vietnamese Army’s ability to battle toe-to-toe with us.

While all this fighting was going on, I was boozing it up on Cinco de Mayo in Nogales, Mexico, and traveling to Phoenix to hang out in honkytonks. Then I was with 5th Battalion Recon at Camp Horno, and all the time, for me, Khe Sanh was over.
Later, while I was rappelling on San Clemente Island and running along the beach at Camp Pendleton, the Marines were still fighting and dying at Khe Sanh.

On June 18, Operation Charlie began with the abandonment of the Khe Sanh Combat Base a primary goal. To get this job done, more Marines died. Khe Sanh was destroyed by our own forces.

On October 9, 1968, a ceremony was held at Khe Sanh—or more specific, the base’s remains—to memorialize the men who died defending the place. By the time of the Khe Sanh ceremony in October, I had been transferred to San Diego to begin a year of . . . even though I was still a Marine . . . living somewhat like a civilian.

After the Siege ended, over 600 Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force personnel perished in Operations Pegasus, Scotland II and Charlie. That number is much larger than the number of men who died during the Siege itself.

To be honest, in the back of my mind, while I lived my stateside life, I knew men were dying over there. But I was trying to stuff all those thoughts and the memories they led to. But some encounters made it impossible to hide from the recollections of my time at Khe Sanh.

Casualties on Hill 689.

Casualties on Hill 689.

For instance, one of the men I served with as a radio operator at Khe Sanh was stationed with me at San Diego. We had shared a bunker for over a month during the Siege. In San Diego we never spoke of our time in Vietnam. I suspect he was doing the same thing I was, trying to bury the recent past. But every time I looked in his face, his weary eyes talked to me about the days and nights spent cooped up like rats, the times we went outside the wire and assaulted NVA trenchlines.

I was also stationed with a Marine who was an engineer with the unit that blew up the Combat Base during Operation Charlie. One night he described to me the action, explosion by explosion. It all made me sick with disgust.

All those men who had died before, during, and after the Siege . . . thinking of them made me think, what a waste. Those brave and frightened men who died during the relief and the breakout, men of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 9th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 26th Marines, 3rd Recon, and associated support units, pilots and flight crews. Seabees and Corpsmen and pilots and air crews from the Navy, pilots and air crews with the Air Force, pilots, air crews, special forces and ground-pounders with the United States Army. People like the photographer Robert Ellison, killed while serving as a civilian photojournalist. All the ARVNS and the local Bru montagnards who fought with us and died. Yes, it all made me sick with disgust.

I think a lot of fellow Vietnam veterans still battle memories of their time in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. For their sake, I hope the sacrifices made on both sides accomplished something beyond the death and despair.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. 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?ref=hl.

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

April 22, 2015

On Lincoln’s Hearse and Veterans

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From 1 May 2015 through 3 May 2015, the City of Springfield, Illinois, will be the site for a re-enactment of President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. It’s been one-hundred-fifty years and a few days since President Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, by John Wilkes Booth.

BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR folks know Springfield as the home of Tom Quigley who served with Bravo Company, 1/26, during the Siege of Khe Sanh. Tom is also one of the men in the film.

Last June, 2014, Tom and his buddy, PJ Staab of Staab Funeral Homes, arranged for BRAVO! to be screened at the Hoogland Center for the Arts located in Springfield. A number of Marines and Corpsmen from Bravo Company attended the event.

PJ is a man who, I believe, wants to help heal the wounds we have on the inside of us, our damaged spirits. He is also one of those individuals who dreams of events or projects and then makes them happen. While we were there in Springfield, he told us about a project he had started in concert with the re-enactment of President Lincoln’s funeral. His dream for the re-enactment was to create an exact replica of the hearse that bore Lincoln’s body to his tomb and to have the hearse built by veterans. Lo and behold, here we are in 2015 and sure enough, the hearse has been completed for all intents and purposes.

But there’s more to the story. Last February, Betty and I were in Arizona for a screening of BRAVO! and a visit with friends and family. PJ was in California, picking up the partially completed Lincoln Hearse in Eureka in preparation for hauling it to Tombstone, Arizona. He contacted us and said if we were available he’d like us to meet up with him and see the hearse.

At the time, we were visiting BRAVO! friend and supporter Susan Parker whom we told about the trip from Eureka to Tombstone. She’s from Eureka originally, so she had an idea who might have built that part of the hearse, her old schoolmate, Eric Hollenbeck. When PJ called, I asked if by any chance a Mr. Eric Hollenbeck was with him, and he said, “Yes!”

So we put Susan on the phone with Eric and we all made a date to meet in Tombstone on February 22nd.

It was cool and breezy on the way down from Tucson to Tombstone and we met up with PJ there at around 9:00 AM. Susan and Eric visited about Eureka back in the 60s, before Eric went into the Army and then on to Vietnam.

Left to right: Eric Hollenbeck and Susan Parker. Lincoln Hearse in the background. © Betty Rodgers 2015

Left to right, Eric Hollenbeck and Susan Parker. Lincoln Hearse in the background. © Betty Rodgers 2015

We visited with PJ, admired the hearse, and subsequently talked to Eric about his creation. Eric and his students at the Blue Ox Mill School for Veterans, which is a vocational school for combat veterans, built the box for the hearse.

Eric told us that when he started, he had no idea what the dimensions of the hearse were until an original railroad bill of lading was found that noted the size of the rear wheels. With those dimensions, Eric and his team of combat veterans-turned mill workers were able to scale the hearse’s precise dimensions using photos taken back at the time of President Lincoln’s burial.

From there it was skill, dedication and determination.

Eric served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam and saw a lot of combat. The man he delivered the hearse to in Tombstone was Jack Feather who was the hearse’s lead builder and the man who convinced Eric Hollenbeck to work on the hearse in the first place.

Jack was also a Vietnam veteran who saw combat during his tour. After PJ headed for the airport and a flight back to Springfield, Betty, Susan Parker and Eric’s wife Viviana sat in Jack’s office and visited while outside Eric, Jack and I recalled our tours in Vietnam. It was an emotional morning for me and I think for them, too.

Left to right: Jack Feather and P J Staab. Lincoln Hearse in the background. © Betty Rodgers 2015

Left to right: Jack Feather and P J Staab. Lincoln Hearse in the background. © Betty Rodgers 2015

As we talked, a bond that I cannot name developed between us, or maybe it didn’t develop, it may have been there all along just waiting for these days, forty-seven years on, to come to the fore and all made possible by PJ Staab and his drive to honor veterans, veterans’ stories, and to help human hearts heal.

The veterans who helped build the hearse will be flown to Springfield for the May events.

You can find out more about the Lincoln burial re-enactment events in Springfield at http://lincolnfuneraltrain.org/2015_event.php. More information about Blue Ox Millworks is at http://www.blueoxmill.com/index.html. Information about PJ Staab can be found at http://www.staabfuneralhomes.com/staff/paul-john-staab-ii/. More information about Jack Feather’s company, Tombstone Hearse and Trike, is available at http://tombstonehearse.info/.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. 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?ref=hl.

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

April 17, 2015

A Hearty Welcome Home In Idaho

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As nearly everyone knows now, when the Marines of BRAVO! and nearly every other veteran returned from the war in Vietnam, our reception was not what we expected. So it’s with great pleasure that today we can say a big thanks to the state of Idaho for an outstanding reception.

BRAVO! was celebrated throughout the state in late March and early April with screenings in Lewiston, Boise, Twin Falls, Caldwell and at Mountain Home Air Force Base. Capacity crowds amounting to well over a thousand folks came out to generously support the fundraisers and see the film, and as always, we feel we touched a lot of lives.

In concert with the screenings, we worked with a wide array of veterans’ service agencies to support veterans’ courts, the Idaho Veterans’ Network, and the Lighthouse Rescue Mission veterans’ programs. The screenings were fundraisers for these organizations as well as educational events to alert community members to the extensive variety of veteran’s organizations available here in Idaho that help veterans in need.

The people who came together to help us get the film screened were amazing: The Idaho court system, police and sheriffs’ departments, military units, veterans groups, humanities organizations, libraries, private organizations that help veterans, artists, colleges and
other passionate individuals.

Prior to the screening at the Egyptian Theater. Left to right,  Ken Rodgers, Alan Heathcock, Norma Jaeger, Betty Rodgers, Ken Korkow © Mike Shipman 2015

Prior to the screening at the Egyptian Theater. Left to right, Ken Rodgers, Alan Heathcock, Norma Jaeger, Betty Rodgers, Ken Korkow
© Mike Shipman 2015

We were honored that the screenings in Boise and Caldwell were included as the culminating events for the annual Read Me Treasure Valley series, which had a Vietnam veteran focus this year. Nationally known authors who have written books about war and Vietnam came and shared their work. Historians from Boise State University gave lectures on the Vietnam War. In addition, the award-winning author of VOLT, Alan Heathcock, led book discussions. There was a presentation about orphanages in Vietnam, a discussion about PTSD, and a program about music of the Vietnam era.

Joining in the screenings with this wonderful bunch of supporters and participants were BRAVO! Marines Ken Korkow, Steve Wiese and Ron Rees. All three of these Khe Sanh survivors participated in panel discussions following one or more of our events. Ken Korkow also was the guest of honor at a faith-based event at Boise’s Gowen Field, home of Idaho’s Air and Army National Guards. Joining in on the various panels were Dan Ashley, Mischa Brady, Julia N, Mary Kelly and Brian Taylor.

Color Guard entering the Egyptian Theatre on 3-30-2015. © Mike Shipman 3-30-2015

Color Guard entering the Egyptian Theatre on 3-30-2015.
© Mike Shipman 3-30-2015

Also on hand was BRAVO!’s editor John Nutt. John is a veteran of decades of film work and the Vietnam War. As part of the Boise event, John was presented with an award by the director of Idaho Veterans Services, Colonel David M. Brasuell, United States Marine Corps Retired, for John’s exceptional work on BRAVO!

BRAVO! supporter and friend Terry Hubert, also a Marine, came up from Nevada and participated in workshops about disturbed and incarcerated veterans.

Also attending was BRAVO! friend and Marine Dave Beyerlein who originally helped set up our website for the film. Dave served in Vietnam and even though we’d talked to him a bunch, we’d never met him in person.

Noted Boise author, Al Heathcock, once again emceed our Boise and Caldwell screenings and was impressive with his passion, insight and aplomb. Among other duties at the Egyptian Theatre event, Al introduced Boise city council member T J Thompson who read a proclamation from Boise Mayor Dave Bieter declaring March 30, 2015, as Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day. At the Caldwell event, Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas greeted the audience prior to the screening and talked about Caldwell’s Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans proclamation. A color guard from Charlie Company, 4th Tanks, 4th Marine Division posted the colors at both the Boise and Caldwell screenings.

Chamber music quartet playing prior to the start of the Caldwell screening. © Mike Shipman 4-1-2015

Chamber music quartet playing prior to the start of the Caldwell screening.
© Mike Shipman 4-1-2015

We would be remiss if we didn’t thank all the individuals and organizations that made the screenings of BRAVO! a smashing success: The indefatigable leaders of this massive effort, Norma Jaeger and Mike Moser aided by Christina Iverson of the Idaho Supreme Court, Reverend Bill Roscoe of the Boise Rescue Mission, Jamie Shropshire, Steve Orr, Linda Wright, Rich Neu, Steve Conger, Dan Ashley of the Boise Vets Center, Bill Bankhead, Travis Dryden, Mike and Monique Shipman, Pam and Lance and Kearney Thompson, John and Heather Taylor who are cousins of BRAVO! Marine Ken Korkow, Heather Paredes of the Eagle Field of Honor. Thanks too, to Mark Heilman, Lori Sprague and R K Williams of Boise State University; Mitzi Cheldelin and the rest of the folks at the Boise Police Department; the Ada and Canyon County sheriff’s departments, BRAVO!’s longtime supporters Leland and Trisha Nelson; Dona Butler of the Canyon County Veterans’ Court; the Idaho Division of Veterans’ Services; Cloverdale Cemetery and Funeral Home; Blue Planet Photography; Rick Ardinger and the Idaho Humanities Council, Mary DeWalt and Ada Community Library, Business Psychology Associates, Idaho Army National Guard, Joining Forces for Treasure Valley Veterans, Idaho Veteran’s Network, Office Depot, Destiny McGinley and the staff of the Egyptian Theater; Diane Raptosh and the folks at College of Idaho; Lewis and Clark College in Lewiston, Idaho, College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, Idaho, Terry Hubert, Ken Korkow, Steve Wiese, Ron Rees, John and Ann Nutt and all the other individuals and organizations who helped out with this event.

Back in 1968, thousands of Vietnam Veterans came back home to, at best, a tepid reception, but in Idaho during March and April 2015, they received a hearty Welcome Home.

Documentary Film,Guest Blogs,Khe Sanh,Vietnam War

April 1, 2015

Composing for Khe Sanh

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It began about two years ago, when I sat down with Ken and Betty Rodgers over coffee to talk music. The Rodgers had completed a documentary film, a legacy project, honoring the heroic men of Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment. They were in need of a composer to finalize an almost-complete soundtrack, teeming with an impressive list of musicians that had eagerly contributed their talents.

I felt a growing connection to the Rodgers as I learned about their project: an authentic documentary honoring war heroes and their families, preserving priceless historic and emotional accounts of the brave Khe Sanh Marines both living and passed on. I wanted to learn more, and was honored by the possibility that my music might be part of something so universally important. I also started to realize that it could be important to me on a personal level as well . . .

My grandfather served in World War II as a Marine during the battle of Iwo Jima, and he had been an elusive mystery to my family ever since his return after the war ended. Growing up, I never had much of a relationship with my grandfather; he made it quite clear to the family that he preferred isolation—a need that was ever-increasing toward the end. When I found out he took his life, there were so many questions unanswered, and my family was left in emotional confusion.

Robin Zimmermann's grandfather in the USMC. Photo courtesy of Robin Zimmermann.

Robin Zimmermann’s grandfather in the USMC. Photo courtesy of Robin Zimmermann.

Briefly hearing Ken’s accounts, I started to think about the opportunity to learn about war, about the toll it takes on soldiers, from the men who have the most important stories to tell. For many reasons, I missed the opportunity to learn about war from my grandfather. Now I had the opportunity to do so, exploring a world foreign to me through something so personal—creating music.

Leaving the meeting with a DVD, I went home and watched Bravo! for the first time. It emotionally overwhelmed me, it challenged my thoughts, it changed everything I ever knew about war. The endless complexity of emotions, ranging anywhere from rage, fear, devastation, and emptiness, to youth, hope, family, love. It opened my eyes to the ravages of Khe Sanh, and to the horrors of battle that veterans such as my grandfather had seen.

I started to think how it could at all be possible to reflect war and its compound emotions by eight simple notes. I was more driven than ever to compose these pieces of music—but now the question was . . . how?

Accepting the challenge, and accompanied with the fear that I wouldn’t—even couldn’t—get it right, I got to work. I began by interviewing Betty and Ken, asking for words, colors, emotions, thoughts that they wanted to portray. A ritual with every filmmaker I work with, I’ve learned throughout the years that the emotions and thoughts I take away from watching a film may not be exactly the emotions the filmmaker wants to portray to the viewer. Emotions are different than messages, and messages are the bridge between the film and audience.

A young Robin Zimmermann with her grandfather. Photo courtesy of Robin Zimmermann.

A young Robin Zimmermann with her grandfather. Photo courtesy of Robin Zimmermann.

A lengthy back-and-forth ensued as I wrote, presented, Ken and Betty listened, and I altered as requested. Because there was so much complexity, there were lots of experiments with different approaches—sometimes from a female, motherly voice, sometimes brooding and dark, sometimes lilting and requiem-reminiscent.

Leaving my emotion aside and focusing entirely on the film in front of me was tough. Initially, I believe my thoughts got in the way and contributed to some cluttered and confused musical compositions. What instruments to employ was a topic highly discussed. Strings such as violin and viola sometimes seemed right, sometimes not at all. There was a delicate balance between an orchestral feel vs. too heavy-handed and hymn-like. One prominent color that Ken felt represented the film’s Ghost Patrol scene was gray—feeling cold, stunned, numb, isolated.

Repeatedly composing to scenes of devastation did take a toll on me. The more I watched the heroic men on screen, the more familiar they became to me, although we hadn’t met. Spending hours in a studio with no-one but your film protagonists, you develop a sense of familiarity with those you repeatedly observe, and their pain and tears become increasingly more personal. That familiarity, combined with a clear understanding of my grandfather’s pain, made for a highly challenging yet enormously rewarding journey.

Ken and Betty were wonderfully supportive in the creative process, and equally as supportive in helping me to understand my grandfather’s actions as a result of war. Their musical suggestions and edits pushed me and challenged me; I am a better composer because of it, and I feel a greater understanding and sense of catharsis about my grandfather. A heartfelt thanks to Ken and Betty for the life-changing experience, and to our war heroes who fought (and continue to fight) for our safety and freedom.

-Robin Zimmermann, 2015

Robin Zimmermann is a Los Angeles-based composer, performer and sound creator for independent film and multimedia. A musician for over 20 years with classical training in piano, flute and voice, her works span genres and fields, creating unique and eclectic soundscapes designed to heighten space and simulate environments. In 2010, Robin was honored as one of four internationally selected composer fellows for the Sundance Institute Composer and Documentary Lab.

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

March 30, 2015

Skipper Ken Pipes Writes About March 30, 1968

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BRAVO! Skipper Ken Pipes remembers the actions of 30 March 1968 in the following piece that was published, among other places, in October 2014 for the Military Order of the World Wars.

One of the most sobering experiences in life is the responsibility of leading young Marines into the teeth of the enemy knowing that some of them will not come out of it alive. It takes courage, faith, an indomitable spirit, and an unfailing trust in the capabilities of the men entrusted to your care.

Fighting at Khe Sanh, Republic of Vietnam in 1967–1968, was an ongoing, brutal fight to the death between Marines and soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army. Subsequently, this battle has become the title of a two-hour documentary film, “Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor,” produced and directed by Ken and Betty Rodgers. Ken was a member of Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marines, before and during the Siege of Khe Sanh.

The Skipper at Khe Sanh

The Skipper at Khe Sanh

On 30 March 1968, Company B, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines (B/1/26) proceeded from the perimeter of the Khe Sanh Combat Base to their pre-designated line of departure located near forward units of the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA’s) 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment, 304th (Hanoi) Iron Division. Poised against each other in the coming attack were lineal descendants of one of the most famous divisions involved in the siege against the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and elements of the 26th Marines—one of three Marine regiments of the 5th Marine Division that led the assault against Japan’s island fortress of Iwo Jima in February/March 1945.

The attack was scheduled for first light, but it was delayed by heavy ground fog that obscured the entire objective area. As the blinding fog began to lift, our Marines, with bayonets fixed, crossed the line of departure outside the wire of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Immediately upon commencing the assault, the two lead platoons came under extremely heavy mortar, rocket-propelled grenade, automatic weapons, and small arms fire from the 8th NVA Battalion who occupied extensive, well-constructed, mutually supporting bunkers and trench systems.

Under the umbrella of withering fire from nine batteries of Marine and Army artillery that pummeled the flanks of the objective area and created a rolling barrage 50 to 70 meters in front of the two attack platoons, the Marines began breaching the NVA positions. The fight for fire superiority hung in the balance until the attached flame section and combat engineer detachment entered the fray. As their predecessors did on Iwo Jima, these units, covered and assisted by Marine riflemen, began to blind, blast, and burn their way into the NVA fortifications.

For the next four hours, the Marines of Company B, some of whom had undergone 70-plus days and nights of continuing, killing bombardment by NVA heavy artillery, rocket, mortar, and concentrated sniper fire, gained some measure of retribution as they routed the NVA soldiers from their fiercely defended positions. Within the breached positions, our Marine riflemen were literally walking over the dead and dying NVA defenders.

From the moment of close contact until some four hours later when we received the order to withdraw back into the combat base, the fight was hand to hand, bayonet to bayonet, knife to knife, grenade against grenade, and rifleman against rifleman, with the trump card being, as always, Marines using flamethrowers and combat engineers employing demolitions!

It may seem to some readers that this was just another example of a typical seasoned Marine combat unit doing its job. It was not. The Marine rifle company that attacked the NVA that Saturday morning was not the same company that had moved from Hill 881 South three months earlier to participate in a battalion sweep toward the Laotian border, and then moved into the perimeter of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. The continuous enemy bombardment while we were in the combat base had hurt B/1/26 more than any other similarly-sized defending unit, exacerbated by the tragic loss of most of an entire platoon on 25 February resulting from an ambush by a reinforced company from the 8th NVA Battalion.

Most of the Marines in Company B on 30 March had joined during the siege as replacements after the siege had begun. These young men had traveled a hard road including boot camp, skills training at the Infantry Training Regiment, Staging Battalion at Camp Pendleton, a flight to Vietnam, reporting in to the 26th Marines, exiting the aircraft at the Khe Sanh Combat Base under fire, reporting for assignment to 1st Battalion, and finally, still under fire, joining Company B. To a rifleman, they had no combat experience at the fire team, squad, platoon, or company level.

As it has always been in combat, if it had not been for the leveling skills of a handful of short-timer leaders, privates first class and corporals, led by an experienced company executive officer, company gunnery sergeant, and outstanding platoon commanders, the execution of this company-sized raid on 30 March 1968 would never have moved beyond our frontline trenches.

As noted by the commanding officer of 1/26 and the S–3 (operations officer) who planned the company raid, “The members of Company B performed individually and collectively in a manner normally expected only of seasoned and combat-experienced Marines.”

I believe that their brilliant feat can only be attributed to their deep and overriding desire to avenge the prior loss of Marines of their company, most of whom they never knew or met! To them and them alone goes the credit for executing, arguably, the first successful company-sized offensive assault outside the wire since the ambush of their mates on 25 February, and for making it such a success!

These Marines totally decimated the 8th NVA Battalion, including the enemy battalion commander and his staff. In so doing, intercepted enemy radio traffic revealed the Marines of Company B killed at least 115 NVA officers and soldiers and wounded an untold number of their survivors.

Skipper Ken Pipes © Betty Rodgers 2014

Skipper Ken Pipes
© Betty Rodgers 2014

Still later, Marines from B/1/26 (none above the rank of corporal) who had participated in the raid, were awarded two Navy Crosses, nine Silver Stars, eight Bronze Stars, and two Navy Commendation Medals with Combat “V” for valor for individual acts of courage, gallantry, and heroism! Additionally, Marines received over 100 Purple Hearts, with several of these Marines earning their awards for receiving a second and third wound.

Subsequent to the fighting on 30 March 1968, the company was the recipient of the following from the commanding general of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam:

Officers and men of B/1/26 USMC deserve highest praise for aggressive patrol action north of Khe Sanh on 30 March. Heavy casualties inflicted on bunkers and entrenched enemy forces indicate typical Marine esprit de corps and professionalism. Well done!

Gen William Westmoreland

Just as is the case with their predecessors from Iwo Jima, to a man, the Khe Sanh Marines of Company B remain intensely proud of their 26th Marines heritage! We will always feel we were privileged to serve with Bravo’s young, inexperienced, Marine infantrymen that fateful Saturday morning. We were truly in the company of men who were, are, and will always be, “The Immortals!”

Lieutenant Colonel Pipes was the Officer Commanding Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marines, during the Siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base, TET, 1968, RVN. Ken and his wife, Sharon, have lived in Fallbrook, California since their retirement from the Marine Corps in 1982. They have been married for 52 years. Ken, Sharon and their sons, Dan and Tim, are all members of MOWW’s MajGen Pendleton Chapter, CA.

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

March 25, 2015

March 30, 1968

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Khe Sanh, Vietnam

30 March 1968. The most vicious battle of the Vietnam War is coming to a close. My Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment will depart the Khe Sanh Combat Base pre-dawn this day. A large percentage of our 120-man company are new replacements as we had been mauled badly on 25 February by the Communist North Vietnamese Army. Nearly thirty Marines had been killed during an unescapable ambush and we were ordered to leave them lie some 800 meters to our front.

It would be five long years before we were told that one of our fellow Bravo Company Marines, Sgt Ronald Ridgeway, whom we thought had been killed that day, was actually captured, and held prisoner, and survived the war.

Today, 30 March 1968, the score will be settled tenfold on what will later be known as the “Payback Patrol,” but at the cost of over a dozen more brave young Marine Warriors.

Michael E. O'Hara at Khe Sanh, 1968.

Michael E. O’Hara at Khe Sanh, 1968.

It begins with overhead artillery and what is known as a “Rolling Box Barrage” with the use of multiple batteries of heavy artillery. After the initial prep fires, the end of the box opens up as Bravo moves in to engage what turns out to be a battalion of Communist troops. Once in, the box closes behind us, trapping Marines and NVA alike inside. It becomes a fight of virulent fury.

To see those young Marines—some of whom only six weeks before had been home with their families—charging machine gun bunkers with their flamethrowers, satchel charges and fixed bayonets is a sight to behold. The Communist troops quickly learn what the Germans had learned at Belleau Wood some 50 years before when the German High Command asked: “Wer sind diese Teufelshunde? (Who are these Devil Dogs?)”

When it seems to be coming to a close, hours later, we begin to pull back, collecting our dead and wounded. We realize what a price we just paid. We have fought a very determined, well-disciplined enemy who will always command our respect as fellow warriors.

When our enemies try to reinforce, it is at that point, as they are bearing down on us, that we come to appreciate those Marines who are part of our “Air Wing,” as the F4 Phantoms scream in at treetop level with their napalm bombs, dropping so close we feel the heat of the inferno adjacent to our positions. As one of the pilots rolls his jet around to the left, we see him give us all a “Thumbs Up.”

Our company commander, Captain Ken Pipes, who is seriously wounded and loses most of his command group, maintains contact with the air and artillery and masterfully coordinates their firepower to our benefit.

After attacking numerous bunkers within the enemy complex, Donald Rash, one of our newest members, lays down on the edge of a bomb crater to cover our withdrawal, knowing full well he will never get up again. That kind of heroism and dedication to one’s fellow Marines brings a whole new meaning to the verse in John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

In the end, Bravo would suffer more casualties (56 KIA’s) at Khe Sanh than any other company of the 26th Marine Regiment (REIN). For their valor, they would earn three Navy Crosses, our nation’s second highest award. Only one Marine would live to collect his medal. Don Rash’s mother would be handed a folded American flag along with his Navy Cross.

Michael E. O'Hara.

Michael E. O’Hara.

Ten Silver Star medals and fourteen Bronze Star medals with V for valor were awarded as well. Over two hundred Purple Heart medals were awarded, as many were wounded on multiple occasions. Numerous Navy Commendations were earned, and they contributed greatly toward the entire regiment earning the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation (PUC).

April brought new leadership to the company as many of our officers had been wounded or killed. New men arrived and the wounded were evacuated. Our fallen Marines from the patrol of 25 February’s remains were recovered within days.

It has now been nearly fifty years and those men, those brave young Marines will live in my memory forever. I hope the world will always remember as well.

Where do we get such men? What a privilege and an Honour it was to have served with and to have known them.
Semper Fidelis and may God always hold them in His arms

Michael E. O’Hara, Bravo Company 1/26 USMC 1967-1970

Michael E. O’Hara grew up and continues to live in Brown County in Southern Indiana.

Michael graduated in May 1966 and by April 1967 had voluntarily enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.

Michael “went for four” and served one tour overseas during the Vietnam war with the 26th Marine Regiment, 1st Battalion, Bravo Company during the “Siege ” of Khe Sanh.

Upon returning to the States Michael became a Primary Weapons Instructor for the Marine Corps 2nd Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Pendleton, Ca. Michael was Honorably Discharged on the early release program a year early.

Michael and his partner Maxine have been together 41 years having raised five children, nine grand kids and have two great grand children.

Michael is a retired custom home builder and has spent much of his life dedicated to Veterans affairs and in particular to those with whom he served. He is a life member of the Khe Sanh Veterans Organization.

Michael now spends most of his free time with two of his four smallest granddaughters flying R/C airplanes.

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

February 25, 2015

On the Ghost Patrol and a School at Khe Sanh

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For years I wasn’t sure what date it was but I sure as hell could remember what I now know are the events of February 25, 1968. Now we call it the Ghost Patrol, but back then it was only heeled into my memory as the day of catastrophe.

Mark me, I was a lucky man in Vietnam. Even though Bravo 1/26 saw lots of action, I missed most of the face-to-face fire fights. The Ghost Patrol was one of those events I missed. What I didn’t miss was the mental and emotional responses that arose as a result of me being there at Khe Sanh, watching, listening to, the horror of the Ghost Patrol. Yeah, we could see it, kind of, and we could hear it out there and we watched the survivors straggle back in and we knew that there were Bravo Marines out there, dying, being bayoneted, shot, maybe tortured but we couldn’t go out and get them. Some higher-ups put a stop to the company’s attempts to rescue their brothers.

You probably know that United States Marines pride themselves on the fact that they don’t leave their dead and wounded behind. We bring them back. We go get them. But we didn’t go get them. Not until much later when all hopes of survival were extinguished. So for 47 years, we have been—I say we because I suspect the rest of the men in BRAVO! who missed the action on February 25, 1968 feel like me—ashamed, angry, distraught and, yeah, I know you can’t change the past but sometimes the memories of that day are more like the present; the breath of a deadly mist hanging over the sopping sandbags lining the trench; the sound of Hueys firing rockets; bombs and napalm roaring in the ears. The smell of death and cordite. Yeah, shame and anger.

For years I thought we’d left 33 men out there. I don’t know where that came from. Could have been that’s what the unofficial official figure was. When we went back out to get them on 3/30/68, that’s how many I thought we’d pick up. And for years I’d lie awake in the middle of the night with the memory jabbing me to remember those 33 bodies lying out there doing what dead bodies do. Now I know it was not 33, but 27 men left out there. But the numbers belie the real issue: Warrior brothers left to die out there in the aftermath of the Ghost Patrol on February 25, 1968.

Kids at Khe Sanh school

Kids at Khe Sanh school


Pha
On a more hopeful note, I received a message from a Mr. Bill Shugarts who served with the United States Army in Vietnam and who is now a docent with National Park Service at The Wall. Bill is also involved with a group of folks who travel to Vietnam and help out the locals there with schools and housing.

I told Bill I could put up some photos and info on the BRAVO! blog about what he and others are doing in Vietnam with Global Community Service, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Here’s a link to the website for the organization: http://globalcommunityservice.org/.

Here is a notice about one of the schools their work within Khe Sanh and some of the items Global Community Service provided through the donations they received from folks like you and me:

Khe Sanh Library Project’s Phase 2

Students and teachers at Pa Nho School, a satellite branch of Khe Sanh Primary School, now enjoy a computer, a reading table for ten students, ten reading lamps, four outdoor reading benches, a Cassette/CD player, four big bookshelves, and many new books. In December, over 130 young children enjoyed the new items.
Here’s an anecdote from one of the students at Pa Nho School:

I love the bookshelf very much. It is colorful and it has many books. I like reading picture books. And I also love the CD player. I thought it was for playing music but you can also study English, shared Ho A Dinh (age 9).

As I write this, I think about the dichotomy of it all. Ghost Patrol, bayonets, AK-47s, bodies left behind. A school in Khe Sanh, 47 years hence, pencils and CD players, bookshelves. Maybe there is some good to come from all this. Bill says the people he meets in Vietnam love Americans. Maybe some good came from all that. Was it bad, what occurred…or was it just part of being human?

If you are so inclined, consider putting your computer curser on that web link for the Global Community Service organization (http://globalcommunityservice.org/) and send along a donation, large or small, to help the kids in Khe Sanh.

More kids at Khe Sanh school.

More kids at Khe Sanh school.

On the screening front:

On March 30, 2015, BRAVO! will be shown at the Egyptian Theater in Boise, Idaho. Doors open at 6:00 PM. Program begins at 6:45 PM. Following the screening there will be a panel discussion moderated by Boise author extraordinaire, Alan Heathcock. The panel discussion will include veterans, some of whom are in the film. Proceeds will benefit the Idaho Veterans’ Network and Veterans’ Treatment Courts. Discounted advance tickets are available online from the Egyptian Theater here at http://www.egyptiantheatre.net/event/2886/?instance_id=28.

Additional Idaho screenings to support the Veterans’ Courts and the Idaho Veterans’ Network will be held at the Williams Conference Center at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, on March 27, 2015 from 6:00 PM to 9:00 PM, suggested donation of $5.00, and there will be beverages and snacks provided; Twin Falls, Idaho, on March 31, 2015, at the College of Southern Idaho’s Fine Arts Building, 6:00 to 9:00 PM; Caldwell, Idaho, on April 1, 2015, at College of Idaho’s Langroise Recital Hall, 6:00 to 9:00 PM; and in Pocatello, Idaho, 6:00 to 9:00PM.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this coming spring or summer, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. 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 raise more public awareness of this film.

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

February 18, 2015

On Arizona and Veterans

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A light drizzle washed the dust off the day last Sunday and set the stage for a great screening of BRAVO! at Casa Grande, Arizona’s historic Paramount Theatre. A hundred folks showed up and listened to music, looked at art and saw the film.

The interesting thing to me about the art was that it was all performed and mostly created by veterans. I think the creation of art is a potent tool in helping veterans who suffer from PTSD and TBI to analyze and handle these war-caused maladies.

The screening of BRAVO! was a benefit for the Pinal County non-profit, HOHP (Honoring/Hiring/Helping Our Heroes of Pinal County) that works to assist veterans with all types of issues: homelessness, veteran health benefits, education, housing. You can find out more about HOHP at https://hohp4heroes.org/site/home.

Two enthusiastic ladies selling tickets to the Casa Grande screening on 2-15-2015. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

Two enthusiastic ladies selling tickets to the Casa Grande screening on 2-15-2015.
Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

The event, besides featuring music, art and film, also had silent and live auctions to raise funds for HOHP, and a lunch was served. All of the efforts spent on putting this event together and all of the items auctioned and eaten came about as a result of the fine volunteer folk of Pinal County.

Joining us in Casa Grande was BRAVO! Marine, Ken Korkow, recipient of the Navy Cross for his actions on the Payback Patrol of March 30, 1968, at Khe Sanh. Ken was joined by his wife Liz and friends and members of the extended Korkow family. Ken talked to the folks at the screening about his efforts to help veterans with PTSD and TBI.

Thanks Ken and Liz for all you do for veterans and for BRAVO!

A big Oooorah! goes out to Debby Martin of the Paramount Theatre and all of her wonderful volunteers for their work in making the venue an accepting place to hold such an event. Kudos, too, to Palmer Miller, veteran’s case-worker for Arizona Congressional District One. Besides emceeing this event, Palmer, a 23-year veteran of the United States Army, was responsible for creating a lot of the art on display.

We have been invited back and have worked with Debby and Palmer now on four different screenings at the Paramount and all have been a unique and big success. We saw a lot of old friends and made some new ones and we wish HOHP all the best in their efforts to help the veterans of Pinal County, Arizona.

BRAVO! Marine Ken Korkow addressing the crowd at the 2-15-2015 screening of BRAVO! in Casa Grande, AZ. Photo courtesy of Sharon Miller

BRAVO! Marine Ken Korkow addressing the crowd at the 2-15-2015 screening of BRAVO! in Casa Grande, AZ.
Photo courtesy of Sharon Miller

On the screening front:

On March 30, 2015, BRAVO! will be shown at the Egyptian Theater in Boise, Idaho. Doors open at 6:00 PM. Program begins at 6:45 PM. Following the screening there will be a panel discussion moderated by Boise author extraordinaire, Alan Heathcock. The panel discussion will include veterans, some of whom are in the film. Proceeds will benefit the Idaho Veterans’ Network and Veterans’ Treatment Courts. Tickets are available online from the Egyptian Theater here at http://www.egyptiantheatre.net/event/2886/?instance_id=28.

Additional Idaho screenings to support the Veterans’ Courts and the Idaho Veterans’ Network will be held at the Williams Conference Center at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, on March 27, 2015 from 6:00 PM to 9:00 PM, suggested donation of $5.00 and there will be beverages and snacks provided; Twin Falls, Idaho, on March 31, 2015; at the College of Southern Idaho’s Fine Arts Building, time yet to be determined; Caldwell, Idaho, on April 1, 2015, at College of Idaho’s Langroise Recital Hall, 6:45 PM; and in Pocatello, Idaho, at a time yet to be determined.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this coming spring or summer, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. 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 raise more public awareness of this film.

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

January 28, 2015

On Memory, Leeches and Hill 471

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January 28th at Khe Sanh seems to have no place in my memory. Several Marines were killed that day by incoming but I don’t remember anything about it. That’s one of the things that bugs me about enduring the siege. I have great gaps in what I remember.

The American educator and philosopher, John Dewey, said: “Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart’s desire.”

If I think about that quote it leads me to conclude that today, based on my recollections as I write this, my heart’s desire must be that the bulk of my memories of living the Siege be hidden. Am I off base to make that claim? And yet so often I still find myself struggling with trying to remember what happened there.

Memory of the siege comes in spurts. Thinking of day one, I remember that horror. I also remember the listening posts, work parties, standing watch, eating chow, but not when they happened. I recall some conversations, some battles, and other isolated moments during my time there.

I remember watching the ARVN’s 37th Ranger Battalion move in front of us sometime around January 28. I remember how I felt having them out there. I remember thinking that if they got overrun and retreated to our lines, we would probably have shot them all. They were Vietnamese. Good guys or bad, we thought they all looked alike. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with those memories. Being overrun. Killing my allies because they looked like my enemy.

I remember the fall of Lang Vei, and the many days where we received in excess of a thousand rounds of incoming. I remember lying in the trench as the shells battered battered battered the red ground. The kaplunk they made when leaving their tubes. It was creepy suddenly realizing that the round was on its way by the time you heard that kaplunk. And there was the whistle or the scream or the roar they made coming at you. Messengers singing a deadly song aimed at me.

I remember feeling like I was in a little cocoon and all the world around was shaking and rattling and attacking that cocoon. The cocoon wasn’t safe, but it was all I had. What became critical was my ability to stay within my own mind—the last bastion of protection, the kernel, the essence of who I was. That cocoon.

One day, early on, I was lucky enough to survive a near hit. The thing that was branded into my memory right then was the sound I heard when that round left its tube, how it sounded on its way to greet me.

I learned to listen for the sounds of those rounds. 120 MM and 130 MM and 152 MM pieces banging away at me sent me not-so-subtle messages that they were on the way. Funny, thinking about that now: that as they intended to kill me, they also warned me. It was like a game, with weird rules. We’re going to kill you, but with that in mind we’re going to help you out. We’re going to send you a message.

I must have gotten pretty good at hearing those warnings because I’m still alive. That ability to sense where incoming rounds would hit and a healthy dose of luck saved me.

Ken Rodgers. co-producer of BRAVO! Photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

Ken Rodgers. co-producer of BRAVO! Photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

Right this moment I wish that something would have saved my memory. Was my experience there so fraught with fright, so laden with the horrors that man can deliver to man that I have to forget it?

It’s funny, yet much of what I do recall is some of the more mundane events at Khe Sanh, especially before the siege ever began, before it was even a possibility.

If I don’t recall anything about January 28 nor 29, 1968 when a team of Army personnel and some of their Bru cohorts (Bru were local montagnards who often fought with US forces) went out towards Hill 471 and got into a nasty dustup with the NVA, I do remember Hill 471 from an earlier encounter.

In late May of 1967 we went out on a company-sized operation towards the high ground around Hill 471 when the Khe Sanh TAOR still had vegetation that wasn’t blasted to smithereens. Hill 471 was covered with trees. We approached the summit and 3rd Platoon ran into some NVA and shot and killed one. Then we called in air strikes. I recall sitting on the edge of a bomb crater watching A-4 Skyhawks, F-4 Phantoms and F-8 Crusaders swoop down and drop bombs, strafe with cannons and machine guns, and shoot rockets. It was up close and made my heart hammer and the big basso whine of shrapnel winging through the sky sounded like the song of hell. Big chunks of bomb landed all around us and hissed when it hit in damp spots in the bottoms of craters.

That operation is where I met my first leech. Didn’t notice it until it was the size of my thumb. Maybe that’s because they were the size of pencil lead when they latched on and hard to see. I didn’t know what to think and all the old Vietnam salts laughed at me.

That’s where I saw my first bamboo viper, too. Corporal Fritsche and I chased it through—you guessed it—the bamboo, but it eased away like life leaving a wounded man. Besides Fritsche, I remember a lot more names from that time than during the siege: Ward, Blankenship, James, Poorman, Little John, Deedee, Pacheco, Carswell, Callahan, Fideli, Steinhardt, “Fearless” Bosowski, Enyart, Bowers and Lens.

We patrolled around Hill 471 and set up a perimeter for the evening. I recall sitting on top of a ridge most of the night on watch, unable to drift into sleep watching for the NVA to creep between the trunks of trees and slither out of the bamboo thickets to our front. But they didn’t come.

More than once I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t have a shrink hypnotize me and take me back to relive every second of my time at Khe Sanh. I wonder if the hypnotism shouldn’t be taped and transcribed. But as I think about it, I always decide not to do that. I think there may be a good reason why my memories of a lot of my time at Khe Sanh are subdued, hidden, masked.

The American writer John Irving said, “Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you – and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!”

All my Vietnam events are filed away, I suppose, and available to show up if prodded by something…a dream, the way a tree looks in winter, its fallen leaves, the way its naked branches fling shadows on a bank of snow. Or the sound of a truck running down the highway, the rumble trapped against the sides of a retaining wall, the rap rap rap. Or a white bird soaring over a field of snowy corn stubble. The sound of a gun.

On the screening front, mark your calendars for a fundraising screening in Casa Grande, Arizona, on February 15, 2015, at the historic Paramount Theatre. Doors open at Noon, lunch served at 1:00 PM, screening of BRAVO! to follow at 2:00 PM. Ticket cost: $15.00 advance purchase or at the door. Proceeds will benefit the Mobile Veterans Center and Emergency Veterans Services in Pinal County.

On March 30, 2015, BRAVO! will be screened at the Egyptian Theater in Boise Idaho. Doors open at 6:00 PM. Program begins at 6:45 PM. Following the screening there will be a panel discussion moderated by Boise author extraordinaire, Alan Heathcock. The panel discussion will include veterans, some of whom are in the film. Proceeds will benefit the Idaho Veterans’ Network and Veterans’ Treatment Courts. Tickets are available online from the Egyptian Theater here.

Additional Idaho screenings to support the Veterans’ Courts and the Idaho Veterans’ Network will be held in Lewiston, Idaho, on March 18, 2015, time and location to be determined; Twin Falls, Idaho, on March 31, 2015, at the College of Southern Idaho’s Fine Arts Building, time yet to be determined; Caldwell, Idaho, on April 1, 2015, at College of Idaho’s Langroise Recital Hall, time to be determined; and in Pocatello, Idaho, at a time yet to be determined.

If you or your organization would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town next spring or summer, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. 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 raise more public awareness of this film.