Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Archive for September, 2010

Other Musings

September 22, 2010


Whap whap, the chopper blades bailed up the red dust as I ran into the rear of the CH-46 just before it lifted off, taking me away from Khe Sanh for the last time. The bird was chock-full of scrawny Marines in worn, red-mud-stained utilities, helmets with stained covers, stained rifle stocks, a look in their eyes like they’d seen the angel of death, or something worse. I wanted to sit down but something inside my gut sloshed venom into my brain every time I started to put my butt on one of the web seats against the chopper’s bulkhead. My muscles prickled with the imagined smash of AK-47 bullets busting through the chopper’s skin, into my back, knocking me halfway across the deck where I would bleed to death.

So I stood and fidgeted and chewed my fingernails until they bled and kept peering out the bird’s portholes to uncover who was out there. After escaping the bomb-crater-scarred red ground of Khe Sanh, all I saw was a lush green landscape that could have passed for a version of the Garden of Eden. Yes, lush, thick, triple-canopied forests—a rich and lusty green—swept on and on, a fabulous hiding place for bamboo vipers, Indochinese tigers, kraits, enemy snipers and quad 14.5 millimeter anti-aircraft guns. I kept moving around the helicopter’s metal deck, as if that might negate any chance I had of getting my foot blown off.  But nothing happened, except for the chopper crew chief who stared at me, then looked away with a wry smirk on his face.

We landed at Dong Ha and when I stepped out onto the ground, I would have dropped down to kiss the earth but I thought it unseemly for a Marine. As the other men hustled off to the transient barracks for a hot shower and some hot chow, I stood and gawked up at the green line of hills off to the east where I thought Khe Sanh must be. Right then, I thought to myself, I can’t believe I lived through that. What were my odds of not getting vaporized by incoming, or being struck by a sniper bullet right through my temple? What were the odds . . .

I thought, there’s a story, here. One that must be told. My story. I mentally pointed up towards the hills and thought, their story. But when I got to the States, no one wanted to hear our story. When I started talking about incoming 151s and red mud, bayonet charges, flame throwers cooking enemy flesh, my family, my friends, my lovers looked away from me like they were trying to snatch the arrival of an angel, or anything to save them from having to talk about killing.

For years I remained mum, and then I wrote poems and stories.  I even wrote a novel about Khe Sanh (which remains unfinished), but the thick skin of my dissatisfaction and the depth of story required more telling, and yet more telling.  And now Betty and I are making a documentary and maybe I can store all the memories in their proper compartment. Maybe I can adequately tell this story.

The funny thing about all this movie-making, especially the interviews, is how a lot of the memories I witnessed and later doubted have been proven to be true, even when I’d come to believe they were figments of my own creation:  battlefield executions, torture of North Vietnamese. And before we all begin to point indignant fingers, I’d like to smack down a caveat about those actions: They were done within the context of savagery, and though savage, I cannot condemn them. We were all savages when we needed to be. Other things we were: hungry, brutal, aggressive, frightened, frustrated, loving, frightened, frightened.

After interviewing five more Khe Sanh survivors while on our long trip—8000 miles, 38 days, 18 states plus DC—I can still smell the specter of all that fear in the air, for them and for me, and, too, for the nine men we interviewed in San Antonio at the annual Khe Sanh Veterans reunion.

I won’t go into a litany of the problems that have hopefully been recognized by the military as long-term disabilities resulting from all that fear of death.

Yet despite recognition by society, the fear of PTSD’s recognition by its victims seems to be one of the major hindrances to having it taken care of. Who, me? Not me. Nothing wrong with me! Don’t ask me again or I’ll forearm-shiver your nose, and poke your eye out.

Traveling around meeting with these men, talking to them, what I see sitting there in the interviewees’ chairs is  wary men, still nervous about who is behind their back, who is outside in the privet bushes, what that other sound is, not the drip of fog off the eaves, but those faint footsteps on the patio. The whisper caught in the wind. The whisper of savagery.

Yet despite our handicaps, we contribute to the good of our societies, and move forward. We hold jobs, help create and raise families, create art, go to our shrinks, meet with other Vietnam veterans and talk about what we possess in common. Holding a long view of the horrors of combat, we reach out to help the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. We fund scholarships in the name of the dead for the benefit of the living.

Next we will interview Dr. David Walker, a military historian who teaches military history at Boise State University. Dr. Walker is a former Jarhead, so he knows some of the ins and outs of MarineCorpsdom.

We will be moving into our post-production phase and that will take more money. Please consider donating to our cause so that the story of Bravo! gets told. We will soon have a way for you to make donations on our website or you could send a check to Bravo! The Project, P. O. Box 1224, Eagle, ID 83616. We have filed with the IRS for 501 (c) 3 non-profit status. You can also find Bravo!theproject on Facebook.

Semper Fidelis.

Update: Bravo!theproject—Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines

Other Musings

September 1, 2010


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.

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.

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.