A lot of friends and followers of BRAVO! have been waiting for a blog about our trip to Soledad, CA, to screen the film to the incarcerated veterans. We did indeed show the film at the penitentiary in Soledad, California, or as it is more specifically titled, the Soledad Correctional Training Facility. Way back at the beginning of this filmmaking adventure, when both Betty and I were brainstorming where this film would be screened, we never could have imagined it happening in a prison. Yet the screening occurred on May 28th and was a successful event. Much thanks to fellow participant Mr. Terry Hubert of the Vietnam Veterans of America’s National Veterans Incarceration Committee for giving Betty and me guidance and support with this screening.
And before I go into my reflections on this event, thanks, too, to Warden Marion Spearman for allowing us to show BRAVO! at the facility. We appreciate the help we received from the staff at Soledad, including their veteran’s staff advisor, Lieutenant Eric DaRosa, as well as Mr. Albert Amaya, the facility’s Community Partnership Manager, and Public Information Officer Lieutenant Roland Ramon.
Further thanks are in order to fellow guests Steven “Tank” Konstenius and his wife Mandy, representing the California Vietnam Veterans of America, and Dr. Jennifer Lanterman of the University of Nevada at Reno. Last but not least, the biggest thanks go to the Veterans Service Officers at Soledad, Michael “Doc” Piper, Ed Muniz and Mike Walker. These three men had a vision about bringing the film to their institution, their home (if that is a worthy choice of words), and made it happen. Doc Piper served with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines and with Charlie Med, the Naval medical detachment at Khe Sanh. He found out about the film and sent me a letter asking if we could bring BRAVO! to Soledad, and we did, and as we marched down the corridors with the longest institutional murals anywhere, I was glad we were going to screen the film there.
The day we arrived at Soledad, the wind funneled up the Salinas River Valley and bent the eucalyptus trees over like rubber-handled mops. I hoped the bluster wasn’t a harbinger of things to come, and it wasn’t, although the experience wasn’t what I’d imagined, and I’m not exactly sure I can even articulate what it was we expected there.
As I entered the sally ports, (not gates or doors, but sally ports) one, two, three, four, I was reminded of my time serving as a guard in the Navy brig at the 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego in 1968-1969; the clang of metal as the sally ports opened and closed, the blare of loudspeakers as the staff made announcements. There was a metal detector so sensitive it beeped at the hooks and eyes of women’s brassieres.
The day following the screening, we were invited back inside the facility to participate with the incarcerated veterans in their Memorial Day Celebration which included a luncheon sponsored and paid for by their very own VVA chapter, Chapter 1065. We got to visit at some length with some of the men we had met the day before as we shared a meal earnestly served us by some of the prisoners and listened to speakers and watched the flag ceremonies.
Since the screening, a number of friends, supporters and followers have commented that they thought the experience must have been life-changing, and maybe it was, but it hasn’t hit home yet how our lives were changed by the Soledad experience. To begin with, and obviously, the place is a prison and there is all that is associated with the milieu and its ramifications, ramifications we outsiders don’t even understand. The men are very stoic and were allowed to attend because of their good behavior and because most of them are veterans. But I can’t say that any of them seemed overcome by the BRAVO!-viewing experience. I am sure these men learn to mask their emotions, not unlike what one experiences in combat; and yes, some of these men went through combat and some of them went through a different kind of combat after returning from war…combat on the street, in the ‘hood, in prison gang fights.
BRAVO! was screened in the prison gymnasium and attended by an estimated one-hundred-thirty-five people. Afterwards the incarcerated veterans treated us to a fifty-minute film about their 2012 Veterans Day celebration. The film was shot and edited by the men in Soledad. And they were very proud of the film and what it represented.
After the screening of BRAVO! they asked some of the most incisive questions about war that we have heard anywhere. And a few of them seemed teared-up. And they lined up to thank us and shake our hands. But in those regards, the experience wasn’t unlike any of the other screenings we have conducted. And even though we hoped we’d unlocked the prisons of their memories, we were not sure.
One of the inmates, a Marine named Enrico, talked to us for some time about a lot of things, and was mostly thankful for having what he called “a normal conversation,” above and beyond the typical talk that goes on in a prison.
Another gentleman whose name I don’t know talked to me at length about BRAVO! and his experiences in Vietnam. He was Latino and my talk with him was reminiscent of hanging out down on the corners of Main and Florence Avenue in Casa Grande, Arizona, back in the days right after I returned from Vietnam. He was an Army Ranger and his harrowing tales of combat made me shiver. As he described his war, I was there. We were both there.
And again, other than the fact that all of us (even though some of us only temporarily) were locked up inside the high chain link fences, inside the off-white walls, under the guns of the men in the towers, the Soledad screening of BRAVO! wasn’t much different than any other.
As we talked to these men, a question arose in our minds, wondering what each of them had done to end up in a place like Soledad. Yet we never asked. At the time it seemed to be taboo, or at least none of our business, and it still seems that way. What they had done, they had done, and there was no going back from that. Yet many of them are Vietnam Veterans who served with honor and distinction in combat, and that is not something that can be gone back on either. Maybe the difficult part is reconciling the two situations. Who they were versus where they are now. What they had done in Vietnam versus what they had done after returning. Maybe the answer lies in not trying to reconcile anything. They served their country with distinction. That’s one of the major things I am going to take away from the experience.
One of the people who seemed most moved was Doc Piper. I think the film took him back to those moments in the Khe Sanh trenches when the blasts from the incoming artillery and rockets shook the earth and forced us all to bury our faces in the red mud, all of this against our will, against our drive to be free men, not trapped by design or circumstance or as a result of our own actions.
It is our hope that this screening was meaningful and in some way helpful to Doc and his fellow veterans.
On a separate note, DVDs of BRAVO! are now for sale at https://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.
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