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

March 21, 2018

Friendly Fire–Fifty Years Gone

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March 21, 1968

On the morning of March 21, 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, went outside the wire. As far as I know, it was the first time anyone had ventured out into the hellscape surrounding the combat base since the Ghost Patrol debacle of 25February1968.

We went out early as the ever-present fog and mist lifted. We got on line, something Marines have done since the United States Marine Corps’ inception in 1775, and we swept off to the southeast towards one of the NVA’s trenchlines.

1st Squad was on the left, 2nd Squad in the middle and 3rd Squad on the right. The platoon sergeant and I were behind the formation, bringing up the rear. I was his radio operator.

Being a short-timer, I shivered and my mouth felt like the cracked bottom of a dry creek bed. I didn’t know what awaited. We went as feelers to test the enemy’s strength. I felt like a little chunk of chum to bait the NVA.

As we tread down an incline into a shallow valley, .50 caliber machine guns opened up from our rear, firing over our heads, giving all of us some cover. I could see the tracer rounds as they streaked like red jets into the tree line on the opposite ridge, our initial destination.

Grenade. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

As our formation neared the summit of the ridge, the .50 calibers firing from our lines were supposed to cease fire. As 3rd Squad reached the summit of the ridge, the .50 caliber fire continued. I witnessed as those big, hot rounds began hitting amongst our marines.

Busy monitoring the radio I carried made it difficult to process what I saw: that instantaneous chaos up there where that friendly fire had hit around our men.

That’s what we called it, “friendly fire,” like it was nothing to worry about. It was our friends shooting at us. So why worry?

My first encounter with friendly fire was on June 7, 1967, when the fire team I was in went out on an LP on Hill 881 South. One of our own men evidently hadn’t received the word about our departure. We exited the south gate and swung around on the west side below the wire a ways and settled in.

Not long after, something bounced in among us and the fire team leader, a seasoned warrior name John T. Poorman, said, “Grenade.” It went off right there amongst the four of us. We didn’t wait around, thinking it was the NVA sneaking up for an assault. We went straight up, with Poorman jabbering into the handset of our radio that we were “coming in.” We barged through the wire barrier in front of one of our machine gun bunkers.

Fortunately only one person was hit. It was Corporal Poorman, and his wound wasn’t serious.
We soon found out that one of our machine gunners, thinking the hill was about to be probed, lobbed that grenade down there. He was a “friendly.”

On a sunny morning in the fall of 1967, 2nd Platoon patrolled at the bottom of Hill 881 South when attacked by two Marine Corps Hueys. Lucky for us, a lot of big boulders were lodged in the creek we followed so we dove behind them and lay low while our lieutenant pleaded with someone out in radio frequency land to get those choppers to stop firing rockets and machine guns at us. They were friendly, too, and luckily, no one was hit this time.

But on 21March1968, someone did get hit, in the back, by friendly fire. Corporal Jacobs, 3rd Squad’s leader, took one in the back that destroyed his flak jacket and flayed the skin and muscles of his back. He required a lot of stitches but lived and went on to fight and earn laurels for his bravery and leadership in Vietnam. He was a hell of a Marine.

I have always marveled at the way the military, or large organizations of most kinds, like to coin a term for something that lowers war’s brutal nature to a case where the brutality appears less vicious, damaging, deadly.

Friendly fire. The word is accurate but infers incongruity, and if you are the one getting hit by friendly fire, it ain’t friendly.

People tend to blame things like friendly fire on the chaos of war and I suppose there is some truth to that, but there is also the human factor: not paying attention to what is going on and not doing your job, like passing along word about something, your own guys, your allies moving into harm’s way.

On 21Mar68 we made it back into the base and were exhilarated because, other than five Marines wounded by enemy activity and one by friendly fire, we got in the enemy’s trench, reached all our checkpoints and returned to our area without any of our own being KIA.

Blogger Kn Rodgers at Khe Sanh in 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

At the time, I recall thinking that the enemy had finally hightailed it back into Laos or up north to their own country. But the next night, the NVA laid an artillery shelling on us like we’d only endured a few times. They pounded the hell out of Bravo Company’s lines and I spent the night with my face buried in a fighting bunker. Unbeknownst to us, not far from our lines, the NVA massed for an attack with the intent of overrunning us, killing us all, or if not all, then marching our remnants up the Ho Chi Minh Trail into years of captivity.

But that assault was shattered by our own air strikes and artillery and lucky for us, none of that supporting fire went awry to kill any of us with “friendly fire.”

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DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

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

March 6, 2018

March 6—50 Years Gone

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In late February and on the 1st Day of March, 1968, the NVA massed at least a regiment out to our front with the intention of overrunning the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Deep down in our guts, where the kind of knowledge resides that keeps you alive—not the information we learn later in life, but the intuitive stuff that dwells in our guts from our early ages—we knew they were out there and that they meant to kill or imprison us all. Knowing that turned us into salty, irreverent and determined men. We cleaned and loaded our M16s, our M60s, our M79s and waited for death to show his face.

Lucky for us, B-52 raids and heavy artillery attacks on the massing enemy forces blunted the impending assault.

Ron Ryan, KIA 6March68. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

Even though we never had to face crack NVA sappers breaching our concertina wire barriers during the 77 day seige, the consistent pounding of the incoming rounds and the threat of more attacks wore on us like big-gritted sandpaper rasping on soft wood.

On March 6th, a C-130 with the call sign BOOKIE 762 flew to Khe Sanh from Danang with a load of Marines, Navy Corpsmen and the freelance photographer Robert Ellison whose photos of the Siege of Khe Sanh became famous and who we’ve written about before in this blog series.

A near mishap with another aircraft forced BOOKIE 762 to abort its landing. The C-130 flew away from the combat base and crashed into a fog-enshrouded mountain, killing all aboard.

Stretchers at Khe Sanh. Photo by Dave Powell.

There were at least five Marines from Bravo, 1/26 on that flight, most returning from R & R. There were also a number of PFCs listed as being with H & S Company, 1/26, some of whom I am sure were new guys bound for Bravo Company as replacements for the casualties of the Ghost Patrol.

There were two men on that flight that I knew or knew of: the photographer, Ellison, and Corporal Ron Ryan, a machine gun team leader who had been with Bravo since the fall of ’67.

When people you know, and people you are related to by virtue of being in the same company, die, the realization that they will not be coming back gets up on your shoulders and weighs you down, and when the deaths accumulate, the accumulated burden debilitates more and more and more.

When I think of those deaths now, fifty years later, the thoughts still dredge up images of those Khe Sanh days, reminding me of the stacks of stretchers we would see outside the battalion aid station or Charlie Med.

The American poet, Dorianne Laux has written, “No matter what the grief, its weight,/we are obliged to carry it.”*

And with the added burden of the deaths of the men on BOOKIE 762, our grief, its weight, drove us down down down further into the depths of despair. And as the verse says, we were definitely bound to bear the weight. Which we did. Which we do.

When the word came down of the wreck of that plane, a bunch of us were standing in the trench jiving around, and “shooting the moose,” as I recall it. And then we were informed of the deaths—more deaths—and it was like there was no end to death and there would be no end and we were there to receive it and see it and deal with it.

We choked on the words stuffed down our throats, wanting to let them out. But they were trapped inside. All of us sucked long, hard drags on a Lucky, a Winston or a Salem and stared at the red mud deck, the chiseled red walls of the trench. Our thoughts about those men, Ryan, and the others, shrouded us, left us wondering if we would be next. Would it be us?

Lance Corporal R, a former mortician’s assistant from Albany, Georgia, with whom I had served in Bravo Company for almost a year, looked at me and shook his head.

A genuine wit and one of the great homespun philosophers with whom I have ever come in contact, he shook his head again and whispered to me, “Lord, don’t you know it’s a terrible thing.”

He paused, and from experience I knew he had more to say on the subject. He looked me dead in the eye for what seemed like a long time—his eyes seemed bigger than normal, their whites like lighted flares in the night—and then he said, “Better them than me.”

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh prior to the beginning of the siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

The brutal honesty of that saying, that moment, bored right down inside my guts and made me stop and ask myself what the hell I thought I was doing in Khe Sanh, the Marine Corps. Was a world so brutal as what we found at Khe Sanh something I wanted to be part of?

And even though I realized I agreed with him, and secretly reveled in my survival, I still felt some kind of guilt, some kind of loss, because those men would not be coming back to us—their family in Vietnam—nor would they go back to hug their mothers and their sisters, their wives and girlfriends.

And there was a passel of grief tied up in the notions that bombarded me as I kept thinking of those men, thinking of Lance Corporal R’s words, feeling guilty because I was alive.

And the grief weighed down and I am obliged to carry it—even now.

*Dorianne Laux, “For the Sake of Strangers,” from her book of poems, WHAT WE CARRY.

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DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

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

February 25, 2018

The Ghost Patrol—Fifty Years Gone

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3rd and 1st Platoons of Bravo Company, 1/26 walked into two ambushes that decimated 3rd Platoon and a little later, part of 1st Platoon while it moved to reinforce 3rd Platoon. The event remains one of the most horrifying of my memories of that long and terrible siege.

Prior to this date, back in 1968, Bravo Company ran patrols out on the south and east sides of Khe Sanh without much action, and it was a surprise when 3rd Platoon marched into the initial ambush that morning.

The patrol is well documented in books and films, and the action’s memories haunt the Marines and Navy Corpsmen who managed to work their way back to the combat base. For some of the men, it took hours to get back. Some don’t really recall coming back. It is a horror story. The few Marines I recall seeing and talking with that day looked at me with eyes haunted by the terrors of that fire fight.

For us, back in the base, the news about the debacle out in the field came through radio communications. If one stood radio watch, he heard the sad and frightening blow-by-blow account through the frantic calls of radio operators on site. We also got the news from the sounds of warfare out to our front.

Photo of Marines on the Ghost Patrol. Photo courtesy of Robert Ellison/Blackstar

It was misty that day, as it was on many days at Khe Sanh, but that didn’t deter the report of explosions and small arms fire that flew at us from out of the field.

We sat and waited and wondered if we would go out to relieve them. Several squads from our platoon, 2nd Platoon, mustered and saddled up and made way to the gate near the trash dump, and awaited orders to go out and help the Marines trapped in those ambushes.

Not picked to go out, I received orders to man a portion of the trench where our platoon was billeted. Instead of Marines in fighting holes all over the place, large gaps appeared between our manned positions. I recall thinking that if the NVA came at us right then and breached the concertina barrier, we were all, as the saying goes, “toast.”

That scared me. I recall Corporal A, who arrived at Bravo Company about the same time I did, being in charge of those of us manning the lines, and it was a great comfort to me when I heard the scuff of his boots in the red mud. I wasn’t alone.

Later, the Marines of 2nd Platoon who had been ordered to stand by to go out in the field began filtering back into our positions with wild tales of incoming pinning them down as they tried to move out the gate. They also cussed the higher-ups who put out the incomprehensible word that any relief for those wounded and dying Marines out there would not come to pass. Orders came down—some opinions I’ve heard and read attribute the orders to Lyndon B. Johnson, president at the time—for us to remain inside the combat base. We abandoned those men.

The stories that followed ate the inside of my guts, and that sensation remains with me today.

It took almost two months for the remains of those brave and forsaken men to be retrieved.

I recall, late on this date, fifty years ago, sitting in the trench with a Marine, Lance Corporal W, whom I knew from 3rd Platoon. A Native-American, he’d participated and lived through most of the combat action that Bravo Company had seen. He told me about what happened out there. About the death of 2nd Lieutenant Don Jacques, platoon commander of 3rd Platoon, about the ambush, and how he and others had carried the body of Lt. Jacques back. When he talked about bodies and wounds, the gunfire and death, I shivered.

Forty years later, when I first heard the fire fight of February 25th termed Ghost Patrol, I thought of cheesy movies and found the glib nature of the name offensive. But over the years, I’ve gotten used to it. I think it very appropriate, because the ghosts of those men keep appearing in my memory.

The ghosts show up in the families of the fallen, too. Last year I came in contact with a brother of one of the men who died on that patrol. He is haunted by the recollections of his brother back when they were young, and when his brother joined the Marines and went off for adventure and to do what generations of 20th Century America did: Joined up and fought. And what remains for him and for all of us, is the ghost, the ghosts.

Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of the late Dan Horton.

The men of the Ghost Patrol are now just names to most people but the images of them lying in bomb craters with red water in the bottom, waiting for us to save them inhabit my being.

The ghosts often show up in my dreams. Together we man a trench in a night so dark it is almost impossible to see. I hear them breathing, the sound of dungarees swishing with motion, the clink and clack of weapons. And occasionally, I see some light, maybe the moon, the stars, or a flare, reflecting off the whites of their eyes.

And it haunts me.

****

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

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

February 21, 2018

February 21, 1968—Fifty Years Gone

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A lot of the great followers of BRAVO! have become personal friends, too. Back when we first dreamed of making a film, Lance and Pam Thompson became some of our initial mentors and have been supporters for years. Recently they gifted me a beautiful book of narrative and photographs titled REQUIEM centered on the work of all the photographers who were killed or went missing in the Indo-China, Vietnam and Cambodian wars of the mid-twentieth century.

One of the first photos I found as I thumbed through the striking pictures was a portrait of Robert Ellison who snapped a lot of photos of Bravo Company during the siege before his untimely death on a flight into Khe Sanh on the 6th of March, 1968.

Jarheads like me often sat around the trench aware that Ellison might sneak up and photograph one of us and if you were lucky enough for that to happen, you wanted to appear most vigilant, squared away, warlike, masculine. I doubt he was interested in capturing any image except what was to him, the emotional truth of a moment, the ragged determination, the fright, the courage the defenders of Khe Sanh exhibited.

Marines of Bravo Company, 1/26, on February 25, 1968. Photo by Robert Ellison. Used with permission.

We saw him often, in the trench with his camera, trying to be insignificant. But he knew his job was to portray the reality of war and so he willingly appeared at moments the grunts in the trenches tried to avoid such as the ammo dump going up in red and orange flame on 21 January, a trench full of very frightened men trying not to be pulverized by incoming 152 MM artillery rounds, the ambushed Marines of the Ghost Patrol. It was his job to show the world the ugliness of war in a stark and beautiful way.

My most memorable experience with him was on a day about a month into the siege when the base was taking an awful pounding from the NVA. When that happened—round after round after round of small stuff and big stuff and everything in-between shaking our world—I looked for a place to hide and so did most of the other Marines with whom I served.

We tried to get small. We tried to get away, but there was none of that—getting away. On the day in question, I sat in a bunker, back against a wall. On my left, the trenchline to the north, on my right, the trenchline to the south, and to my front, the trench itself passing right through the bunker where I sat.

I had my knees up against my chest and my head down on my knees, and I flinched with every explosion, and I bounced from the impact of the big ones that landed close and I…I don’t know if I can explain how it feels to be overwhelmed with the fear that all that artillery delivers along with the concussion and shrapnel and roar.

I do know that on that day, I sank deeper and deeper into an abyss. In reality, there was no escaping the physical aspects, the screams and the chaos, the men you knew were probably dying. No escape unless you could hide somewhere inside the mind.

Enduring the barrages allowed agony to creep into the small parts of your body, liver and lungs, vessels and veins, cells, molecules. It was physical input, what was happening outside, feeding what you were on the inside—the great and the ignominious.

Author Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara.

I recall it well, after fifty years. My mind hightailed it away from my body. I could see myself not just sitting on my butt in the damp red mud, but also walking on a tightrope, or maybe a roof peak. On my left was insanity. On my right, sanity but with a caveat that outside, the end of the world as I knew it stalked. I was confused and didn’t know whether to jump to the left, to the side that whispered to me of safety (and some sort of insanity), or to the right, into the outside, the known, the specter of death, or maybe a leg gone, or an arm. No eyes, no jaw.

Lucky for me, I heard the snap of a camera shutter which drew me out of my mind, my fear. I looked to my right and there knelt Robert Ellison, taking photos of me.

I think I had mixed emotions. He had found me in a battle inside my mind, maybe at one of my worst moments at Khe Sanh, maybe the worst moment of my life. I was vulnerable, exposed, caught in the act of battling cowardice. (You couldn’t afford to be a coward there. Peer pressure would gobble you up, not to mention the guilt that would ride your back, spurring you like a devilish master for the rest of your life.) But I also understood that his intervention in my moment of doubt probably saved me from going crazy. And that has earned him my undying thanks.

***

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

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

February 9, 2018

9 February 1968—Fifty Years Ago Today

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Early in the sequence of events that make up this blog, I sat on top of a bunker with a Marine as he fired a fifty-caliber machine gun at anything that moved outside the concertina wire. F-4 Phantoms, F-8 Crusaders and A-4 Skyhawks swooped down and dropped bombs and napalm. Suddenly, in flames, enemy warriors erupted from a depression in the landscape. Like burning matchsticks with legs, they ran and we pomp-pomp-pomped at them with that fifty-caliber.

Almost immediately the whistle of rockets sent us diving for cover. In a memory that periodically crashes into my consciousness, I recall a Marine sprinting across a stretch of open ground just before I hit the deck.

When the shock of landing on my head retreated and the stench of explosives cleared my nasal passages, I heard screaming. The fifty-caliber machine gunner and I leapt out of the trench and scrabbled over to the Marine who’d been running. A chunk of shrapnel from one of those incoming rockets had severed his arm and blood shot out like a rampant river.

We tried a tourniquet as we hollered for a corpsman who, mercifully for both the wounded Marine and us, showed up.

That was just the beginning of a series of events that set me to gnawing fingernails.

In the early hours of 5 February, NVA troops attacked and breached the perimeter of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines’ perimeter on Hill 861-A. We hunkered down in our fighting holes on Red Alert and waited to be attacked.

PT-76 Tank

The following night, the NVA attacked the Special Forces installation at the ville of Lang Vei, a community a few miles southwest of the combat base. Again we were up all night on Red Alert.
Word slithered down the trench like a four-foot spitting cobra that the assault on Lang Vei included tanks.

TANKS!!!!

All night I heard the clank of metal, like the sounds tank tracks make as the vehicle turns. The NVA did employ PT-76 tanks that night. I often wonder if those sounds that shivered me with terror were real or if I just made them up, my imagination fueled by fear.

For me the ring of death began to choke our esprit de corps. Facial expressions seemed grimmer, teeth gritted tighter, eyes stared out of sockets like they watched the end of the world. The humor grew as dark as the nights into which we peered. And the incoming kept slamming into our bunkers and trenches, sending debris and red dust flying.

C-130 taking off at Khe Sanh.

On 8 February, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, the celebrated “Walking Dead,” had a platoon overrun in one hell of a nasty firefight near the “rock quarry” west of the main combat base. Again, we stood prepared on Red Alert.

I wondered if I’d ever see my mother again, or my best friend, or my girlfriend—even though I really didn’t have a girlfriend. The pit in my stomach felt bigger than Arizona, where I’m from. I walked around in a perpetual state of dry mouth, trying to keep my hands from shaking, talking a tough, vulgar patois to the men with whom I served. For the most part, I reckon they were doing the same thing.

The next day, the 10th, a C-130 plane approached the combat base. This plane, call sign “Basketball 813,” flew south of the base and the men in my fire team and I watched it as we filled sandbags.

Antiaircraft fire struck “Basketball 813” which struggled around to the west end of the strip. Smoke and fire flared out of the fuselage as it landed. The plane roared down the runway until it careened off the south side of the tarmac and pitched into a ditch. It erupted in flames.

We all broke for the wreckage which wasn’t that far away. One of the most vivid memories I have of my time at Khe Sanh is watching men come out of the cockpit through those big windows at the front of the plane. They hung by their hands and dropped to the earth. It was a long drop.

Blogger Ken Rodgers prior to the beginning of the Siege. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

As I watched that conflagration, it seemed almost unreal. Revulsion, fear, despair did not rear up in me as I realized that whoever was in the back of the plane would burn to death. I was immune. Mayhem and catastrophe were an everyday occurrence. This realization haunts me.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

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

January 21, 2018

Fifty Years Ago Today–The Big Shebang

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Fifty Years Ago Today—January 21, 1968

I jerked awake as one of the Marines in my fire team yanked at my leg and screamed, “Incoming.”

Explosions roared and the earth shook. Dust filled the air along with the scent of fright.

Outside in the black of early morning, Marines screamed, rockets and artillery rounds boomed, our ammo dump went up like ten thousand 4th of Julys.

Men sprinted hear and there.

Khe Sanh Combat Base

My head spun and a notion of what waited out in the dark infected my mind. Along with a lot of other Marines, I fell down in the bottom of the trench and buried my face in the mud.

Something hit my back and burned through my flak jacket. I yelled, “I’m hit, I’m hit.”

The Marine whose skull I split open the day before crawled over and began to laugh.
I thought, “He’s getting even.”

His hand swept across my back as he leaned next to my right ear and whispered, “Clods, Rodgers. Just clods.”

The CS gas that was stored in the exploding ammo dump began sneaking down the trench lines.

I found my gas mask, pulled it over my head and face, and crawled inside the nearest machine gun bunker. The gunner knelt behind his M-60 as we stared out at the edge of our lines. We all knew what would come, an assault led by sappers breaching our concertina wire and then hard core warriors of the NVA following through the holes blasted in our perimeter.

Everyone looked like weird beetles. It was the gas masks.

The platoon right guide sat against the north wall. A nasty gash on his right shin dripped blood. A corpsman came and patched him up after telling him, “Aw, hell, it’s nothing. You’ll get a Purple Heart.”

I don’t know how long we waited for the attack to come. But as the light of day glowed, it seemed we weren’t to be overrun.

Outside, the ammo dump continued to cook off like the worst artillery attack in the world.

Sometime later, a runner came down from the platoon command post and told me the lieutenant wanted to see me. I followed the messenger out the bunker’s back hatch and down the trench.

The lieutenant told me that the unit to our left could not be contacted and he wanted me to go down and see if I could assay the situation.

I didn’t want to go down that trench to see what was happening, but I did. I passed the men of 1st and 2nd squads then came to a bend in the trench, closer to the ammo dump, which by that time had calmed down.

I wondered if there were NVA soldiers around that crook in the trench and that’s why no one could contact the Marines who manned that area.

Debris at Khe Sanh. Photo Courtesy of David Douglas Duncan.

I crept, my M-16 ready if I needed it.

A Marine lay in the trench. He looked like he was dead. All around him spent ordnance that had come from the ammo dump littered the red mud.

I duck-walked up and leaned close. His eyes opened and he blinked. I knew this man. We had arrived at Bravo Company about the same time. I don’t remember his name.

He had a jagged hole ripped in his right trouser leg and the flesh looked like raw hamburger.

He said, “One of those 155 rounds in the dump went up and came down on my leg.” He laughed.

I said, “Need some morphine?”

He shook his head, “I’ve had plenty.”

Ken Rodger at Khe Sanh. Photo courtesy of the late Dan Horton.

The next Marine I found had been hit between the legs by Willie Peter (white phosphorus). I don’t remember the conversation between us but remember wondering if he’d lose his family jewels.

On down the trench, I found men in similar situations—wounded. And if not wounded, in a state of shock that reminded me of stories from World War I.

But they weren’t wiped out.

I reported back to the lieutenant and then marched back to my bunker.

It was day one.

***

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

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,Veterans,Vietnam War

January 11, 2018

Fifty Years Gone

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Today, we start with a series of blogs remembering fifty years ago at the Siege of Khe Sanh as recalled by BRAVO! filmmaker and Marine with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, Ken Rodgers.

25 December, 1967, Christmas Day

I awoke on Hill 881 South to mist and fog and Christmas Morning. The night before had seen us stand one hundred percent watch because we were on red alert. A Christmas Truce was supposed to be in effect but like most truces of the Vietnam War, this one didn’t mean much.

The day before, Christmas Eve, we ran a company minus patrol out the north gate. I walked point for a large portion of that sortie, crossing the eerie and wrecked summit of 881 North then on down the back side a few clicks before being replaced on point.

As I stood beneath vines draping from some stout and tall tree, the new company commander, Captain Ken Pipes came by and actually grinned at me. That was the first and maybe only time a captain in the Marine Corps allowed me a smile.

Steve Foster showing off some Christmas bling. 1967. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara

On Christmas Morning, my fire team, accompanied by Sergeant Michael Dede, exited out the south gate of 881 South and humped down around the creek that ran by the west base of the hill. We stopped at various check points and radioed in to the Six that all was secure. We ended the patrol by going back into the perimeter through the north gate.

Soon to follow was a hot Christmas meal choppered in from the kitchen at Khe Sanh. I don’t recall what it was but I know without a doubt it was better than C-rations.

The next day we left the hill and went into the Gray Sector lines at the east end of the Khe Sanh Combat Base where, less than a month later, we would begin our hell in the Siege of Khe Sanh.

****

New Years Day, 1968

On December 22nd 1967, I wrote to my mother from Hill 881 South.”I’m going on R&R again. I don’t know where, but any place is alright.”

And fifty years ago today I awoke in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I don’t remember a whole lot about the trip now. I flew in on a small Pan Am prop job. My first morning, I went down to the hotel lobby and bought a toothbrush.

I went to a circus. I initially thought it hokey. Yet the man who walked the high wire didn’t fall. There were elephants and tigers. A fakir lay on a bed of nails. He didn’t bleed and he didn’t act like the nails hurt. I thought the name “fakir” was accurate. No one could lie on a bed of nails and not bleed. When I left the circus I saw the fakir’s bed and managed to touch the nails. They were hard and sharp. I wondered if I really knew what I thought I knew.

Marines of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 26th Marines. L to R: Carwile, Foster, O’Hara, Jacobs, Furlong, Rodgers, Richardson. Photo Courtesy of Michael O’Hara.

Outside a man sat on a big green lawn next to the street. He had two baskets and a growing crowd of people gathering around him.

He pulled a mongoose out of one of the baskets and a small cobra out of the other. Immediately, the mongoose began to attack the cobra which attacked in return.

They were both quick. The snake sliding, slithering and striking at the mongoose which managed to dance, leap, and twist just out of reach of the cobra’s fangs. There was a lot of hissing and the sound of scrabbling feet, scales scraping the macadam.

I think the mongoose killed the cobra.

What I witnessed in the vicious little war between the cobra and the mongoose was a metaphor of what was to come at Khe Sanh.

***

11 January, 1968

I turned twenty-one at Khe Sanh.

I still hummed with memories of R and R. I had returned to the combat base with a quart of Smirnoff Vodka and a fifth of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch.

That first evening back from R & R, January 8, 1968, a bunch of us 2nd Platoon Marines gathered in my hooch and got drunk. Later that night they called a red alert. We staggered out of various states of intoxication into the bright light of a full moon and officers and senior NCOs on the prowl.

As I talked with our platoon right guide, who’d had more than his share of Scotch, the company’s XO came barreling down the trench line. Unlike other XOs for Bravo Company, this gentleman was not popular.

The moonlight made it seem like day and we could clearly see the 1st Lieutenant approaching us like he was going to an important formation with captains and colonels and sergeants major. The right guide called out, “Who’s there?”

And the XO didn’t vary his march or respond. The right guide challenged him, “Who’s there and what’s the password?”

But the XO didn’t halt. He came on until he was almost parallel to the right guide and me. That’s when the right guide whipped out a M1911A .45 caliber pistol and jammed it right in the XO’s face as he said, “Who’s there?”

The XO managed to stop dead in his steps and glare at both of us as the right guide hissed, “If you don’t identify yourself and give me the password, I’m going to blow your dumb…”

To this day, I can see the business end of that side arm jammed up against the XO’s gleaming teeth.

Blog author, Ken Rodgers, looking like he’s in trouble. January, 1968. Khe Sanh Combat Base. Photo courtesy of Michael O’Hara

The XO barked his name, rank and delivered the password. The M1911A side arm went back into the holster, the XO sneered at both of us as he marched off.

The next morning, scuttlebutt had it that I was going up for a Captain’s Mast because so many of Bravo’s men had been drunk while on watch.

For over a week I tried to hide as we Marines of 2nd Platoon filled sandbags, built bunkers, deepened our trench.

My birthday was spent in anticipation of being deep in the manure pile of Marine Corps discipline instead of enjoying the cakes and cookies my mother and her friends had sent me.

***

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.

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

October 27, 2017

Donna Elliott

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I bet it seems to our readers that all we ever do is post memorials, requiems, obituaries. I guess it’s inevitable since the Vietnam War is five decades past. The Vietnam Veteran generation is approaching its eighth and ninth decades of life. It only stands to reason that we would be announcing the passing of people important to the story of Khe Sanh and the siege.

Today we wish to remember Donna Elliott, the sister of a soldier who went missing in action on January 21, 1968, while on a mission to relieve the soldiers and Marines who were under attack at Khe Sanh Ville. Donna’s brother, Jerry, was a staff sergeant in the United States Army who was acting as a door gunner on one of the choppers that flew in under fire at Khe Sanh Ville. Donna spent much of her lifetime trying to locate his remains.

Donna was a writer and journalist, and a United States Army veteran, who passed on October 22, 2017 and will be interred tomorrow, October 28, in Mountain Home, Arkansas.

Donna E. Elliott

In April of 2012, we shared a guest blog from Donna about her search for Jerry. In memory of Donna and her brother, we are re-sharing her post:

Guest blogger Donna E. Elliott shares her essay, The Blade and the Cross, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Essay Contest prize winner, excerpted from her book, Keeping the Promise (Hellgate Press, 2010).

On 21 January 1968, my brother, SSGT Jerry W. Elliott was declared Missing-In-Action in Khe Sanh, Vietnam. When the 55th Joint Task Force (JTF) investigated the loss site in 1999, his buddy, Mike Teutschman and I were present. After interviewing two local residents who had scavenged the Old French Fort, the team presented me with a charred section of rotor blade from Black Cat #027. The blade had survived a B-40 rocket attack, laid undiscovered in the red dirt of Khe Sanh until found by a farmer, and then spent years holding up the corner of a cow pen. Jerry had left his position as doorgunner on a different chopper to assist survivors from this crashed and burning helicopter when he disappeared.

I brought it back to America. May 2000, found us in the Pentagon parking lot with Run For The Wall, waiting to ride in the Rolling Thunder parade and carry the rotor blade in a pine box to the Wall. Many notables mingled with the bikers, but I never knew the name of the man I remember the most. He stared at the blade for a long time before he spoke. He was one of two survivors from a chopper crash. The other crewmember had managed to return to the crash and recover a small piece of stainless steel from the helicopter, which he used to make two crosses. The vet reached into his pants pocket and a small piece of silver flashed in his palm. He explained this cross was never out of his sight; he carried it with him at all times as a reminder of the friends he had lost. Tears welled up in his eyes when he choked out, “I don’t know why I didn’t die that day; they were all such good men.” Around noon, the lead bikes began to roll out. As soon as the wheels stopped turning, strong hands reached out to carry the heavy wooden box to its final destination at Panel 35E in an honor guard procession. One by one, the riders touched Jerry’s name with bowed heads as a silent statement of respect. Overwhelmed, I left the Wall. Like a moth to a flame, I later returned. While bending over the pine box, which now overflowed with miscellaneous mementos, I lost my balance and leaned into the Wall to break my fall.

Donna Elliott at the Wall, 2000

That’s when I saw it. Tucked deep into a corner of the pine box was the small silver cross! For reasons unknown, the Vietnam vet from the parking lot had chosen to leave his talisman at the Wall in remembrance of Jerry. His gift an anonymous, selfless act, reminiscent of actions I’d heard combat vets share about their brother soldiers on the battlefield. I placed the cross on one end of the blade, where it gleamed boldly. I hope my nameless friend from the parking lot walked away from the Wall that day with as much peace in his heart as I felt at that moment.

Donna E. Elliott, a retired military photojournalist, values the peaceful surroundings of the family farm in the Arkansas Ozark foothills. In civilian life, she utilized her writing skills as a newspaper and radio news reporter, and freelanced as a human interest photojournalist. While in service, she earned the U. S. Army Command FORSCOM 4th Estate Award and three Minaret awards for excellence in journalism. Donna is a member of the Military Writers Society of America.

Used with permission of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (www.buildthecenter.org/) and Donna E. Elliott.

You can read Donna’s obituary here.

And you can find out more about her book, KEEPING THE PROMISE, here.

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

October 20, 2017

Fiddler’s Green

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Earlier this year, Betty and I saw a documentary film by the director/producer Terry Sanders, titled FIGHTING FOR LIFE. The film recognizes how doctors and other medical personnel are trained at “the medical school no one’s ever heard of,” the Uniformed Services University. Besides anatomy and physiology and biology and regular medical training, many of the people who attend this university are trained for going onto the battlefield to heal and patch up the warriors of our country.

I always assumed that medical training is medical training, but as the film shows, the way we are taught to treat the women and men who fight our wars is, in many instances, governed by a different set of needs revolving around combat. It’s a pretty obvious conclusion when I think about it right now, but until seeing the film it hadn’t occurred to me what special skills military doctors, dentists, nurses, medics and corpsmen require in their efforts to save and mend lives.

Miramar National Cemetery, San Diego, California. Photo courtesy of Miramar National Cemetery.

I bring this up because last Tuesday, October 17, 2017. Lt. Commander Dr. Edward Feldman was buried at Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego, CA, and his interment got me thinking about the medical folks I served with in Vietnam.

Dr. Feldman was one of the physicians who served with the 9th and 26th Marines during the Siege of Khe Sanh. And like so many of the doctors and corpsmen I served with, his story is remarkable. He arrived at Khe Sanh on January 3, 1968, eighteen days before the beginning of the Siege. Almost immediately, on the opening day of the big battle, January 21, 1968, Dr. Feldman was called upon to perform an amazing feat of surgery. He removed a live mortar round from the abdominal cavity of a Marine. For his action, he was awarded a Silver Star. Below is a quote from his Silver Star Award. I will let you read for yourselves what an astounding act this surgery was.

When the Khe Sanh Combat Base came under heavy mortar and rocket attack on 21 January 1968, a wounded Marine was taken to the Battalion Aid Station where preliminary examinations revealed a metal object protruding from a wound in his abdominal region. Further examination disclosed the possibility of the object being a live enemy mortar round. Quickly assessing the situation, Lieutenant Feldman directed the erection of a sandbag barricade around the patient over which he would attempt to operate and summoned an ordnance expert to identify the object and assist in removing the suspected explosive device from the injured man. Disregarding his own safety, Lieutenant Feldman removed his helmet and armored vest and exposed himself to the danger of a possible explosion as he began to operate. Displaying exceptional professional ability while performing the delicate surgery under flashlights, he succeeded in removing the live round from the Marine and directed an assistant to carry it outside for disposal. By his courage, exceptional professionalism and selfless devotion to duty at great personal risk, Lieutenant Feldman undoubtedly saved the life of a Marine and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.

You can read Edward Feldman’s entire Silver Star citation here.

Dr. Edward Feldman. Photo courtesy of Before They Go.

Dr. Feldman was also, during his tour of duty in Vietnam, awarded a Bronze Star with Combat V for his actions with Charlie Med at the Siege. The United States Army awarded him a Bronze Star for Valor when, just before he was to rotate back to the States, he went into the field to medically assist a company of Army warriors and ended up acting as the commanding officer when the unit’s officers and senior NCOs were either killed or wounded in action.

After his service in the United States Navy, Dr. Feldman went on to establish medical practices in New Jersey and then California.

I found a comprehensive interview on the internet that he gave to the Navy and you can access it here.

You can also read Edward Feldman’s obituary here.

The medical folks at Khe Sanh were necessary to the Marines and by virtue of their bravery, from both doctors and corpsmen, earned the undying devotion and respect of the Marines who inhabited that hellhole.

Medical personnel in action during the Siege of Khe Sanh. Photo by Dave Powell.

I don’t know if it was Dr. Feldman, or one of the other physicians who went out with us on the patrol of March 30, 1968, where the Marines of Bravo Company, 1/26 assaulted an NVA battalion entrenched on a ridgeline south-east of the combat base. I guess it doesn’t matter who it was, but in my mind I imagine it being him.

I don’t know what physicians do out on the battlefield except try to save lives, but I imagine there is a set protocol for particular procedures: triage for a quick assessment of a casualty’s chances of surviving, then application of tourniquets, bandages, administration of drugs like morphine and other forms of emergency treatment.

But the thing is, out there on that day, bullets were flying and incoming artillery and mortar rounds fell all around us, killing or wounding many of us. And the doctor, whoever he was, and his corpsmen, were subject to death and dismemberment by the same hostile fire that beset the rest of us.

We often think of doctors in an office, rushing down the halls of a hospital, or even attending to the wounded in a field hospital, but not treating wounded Marines in the bottom of a bomb crater. If Edward Feldman didn’t draw that duty on that day, if ordered to do so, he would have been out there with his scalpel and the other tools he’d need to save lives. I don’t doubt that.

Waiting for the wounded at Khe Sanh. Photo by Dave Powell.

My experience with doctors at Khe Sanh was almost nonexistent. If I had a problem, it was handled by a corpsman so I don’t know if I ever crossed paths with Dr. Feldman. Nevertheless, I salute him—and all the medical personnel who put their lives in danger to save others—for his courage and his skill in the face of imminent danger.

There’s an old Navy myth about a magical afterlife called Fiddler’s Green where sailors go when they die, where never-ending laughter and a fiddle that plays forever and echoes of dancing feet ring.

My company commander at the Siege of Khe Sanh, Lt. Colonel Ken Pipes, mentioned Fiddler’s Green when he alerted all of us old Jarheads of the passing of Dr. Ed Feldman.

Like so much of what makes up the naval milieu, there is a ditty about Fiddler’s Green that goes like this:

At Fiddler’s Green, where seamen true
When here they’ve done their duty
The bowl of grog shall still renew
And pledge to love and beauty.

Revel in your time at Fiddler’s Green, Ed Feldman.

Semper Fi!

*******

Upcoming creening information:

In conjunction with the Ken Burns documentary, the Nampa Public Library in Nampa, Idaho, will screen BRAVO! on November 1, 2017. Doors open at 6:30 PM and the free program will begin at 7:00 PM, followed by a Q&A. A panel discussion with Vietnam Veterans is scheduled for November 8. The Nampa library’s website is http://nampalibrary.org.

On April 7, 2018, the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho, will host a one-day symposium in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Siege. The event will encompass a forum for educating the public about the Siege of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War, as well as an opportunity for a Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion. Activities will include a screening of BRAVO! and guest speakers remembering the battle. Khe Sanh Vet Mike Archer, author of two heralded non-fiction books on his Khe Sanh experiences, will be one of the featured speakers. You can see more about Mike at http://www.michaelarcher.net.

Mark your calendars now, as this will be a stellar event in a world-class air museum. We are still in the planning stage, so if you would like to participate and were involved with the siege, or just want to help, please contact me at 208-340-8889. An event like this can only happen with a core group of committed volunteers. We can’t do it without you! For more information on the Warhawk Air Museum, check out their website at https://warhawkairmuseum.org.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

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,Warhawk Air Museum

October 4, 2017

The Standard Bearers of the 1st Marine Division

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On September 13, 2017 the Standard Bearers of Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division, hosted a PME for their Marines and Corpsmen. The acronym, PME, stands for Professional Military Education, which covers a wide array of subjects that the Marine Corps deems critical to achieving its mission.

At the September event, the subject matter of the session was a screening of BRAVO! COMMON MEN, UNCOMMON VALOR followed by a question and answer session with Marines who survived the Siege of Khe Sanh.

At the PME with the Standard Bearers, Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division. Left to right: Colonel Carlos Urbina, Colonel John Kaheny, Bill Rider, Lt Colonel Ken Pipes, Ken Rodgers, Sergeant Major M. P. Chamberlin. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

Colonel Carlos Urbina, commanding officer of Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division, introduced the session by pointing out the future wars will require an awareness of a different kind of combat from the asynchronous fights in which the Marine Corps has been involved since 9/11. The enemy may very well be more like the conventional forces of the United States and thus the fights will be more like what Marines endured in World War II, Korea and in battles between Marines and the North Vietnamese Army in the 1960s and 1970s.

After Colonel Carlos Urbina’s introduction, BRAVO! co-producer and former Marine Ken Rodgers talked a bit about the film to the two-hundred-plus active duty personnel who watched a well-produced screening of BRAVO!.

Colonel John Kaheny and BRAVO! co-director, co-producer Betty Rodgers. Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers.

The question and answer session included Khe Sanh Marines Rodgers, retired Colonel John Kaheny, USMCR, and medically retired sergeant Bill Rider. Colonel Kaheny served an eighteen month tour of duty with the 26th Marines, including command postings with Alpha, Charlie and Delta Companies. Bill Rider was a squad leader and platoon sergeant with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines.

One of the most discussed questions from the audience was how current Marines go about teaching their new Marines to deal with fear. The discussion investigated whether it was even possible to teach someone about being frightened when faced with the possibility of death.

The event finished up with a rousing speech by retired Lieutenant Colonel Ken Pipes, Commanding Officer of Bravo Company, 1/26 during the 77-day Siege of Khe Sanh, about the legacy of the Marines of Bravo Company, 26th Marines at the siege, and a call to action for contemporary Marines to carry on the storied status of the USMC.

Prior to the screening, Colonel Urbina and Battalion Sergeant Major M. P. Chamberlin hosted the guests in their offices. We had a chance to share lunch and talk about the film, the Vietnam War, and the Marine Corps in general.

One of the highlights for us was having Colonel Urbina present both Skipper Pipes and us, the Rodgerses, with handsome plaques that recognized Skipper Pipes for his past, present and ongoing actions and inspiration to and for Marines, and the Rodgerses for creating BRAVO! and educating the public, and Marines, about the events and aftermath related to the Siege of Khe Sanh.

Colonel Carlos Urbina, right, presenting memorial plaque to BRAVO! producers Ken and Betty Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Derek Clark.

BRAVO! continues to be used in schools, colleges and the military, including at The Basic School and at PMEs, as a source of education material relative to both the history of this country and as a lesson to what the future most surely will bring to us. Betty and Ken Rodgers are most gratified that their film has become an educational tool!

You can watch a segment of Lieutenant Colonel Pipe’s stirring remarks here:

Following the screening, the active duty personnel returned to their posts.

As noted by Ken Pipes during his remarks, it appeared to all of us that the future of the United States Marine Corps is in very good hands.

Lt. Colonel Ken Pipes visiting with Marines. Photo courtesy of Derek Clark.

Thanks much to Colonel Carlos Urbina and Sergeant Major M. P. Chamberlin for the grand welcome we received for this event.

In other screening information, Idaho Public Television screened BRAVO! on Sunday, September 24th as a follow up to the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick produced series, THE VIETNAM WAR. The producers of BRAVO! wish to thank Idaho Public Television for this event as well as the Idaho Division of Veterans Services for underwriting the IPTV production of BRAVO!.

For a few more days, BRAVO! will be available to view on Idaho Public Television’s website at :
http://video.idahoptv.org/video/2365119915/.

Also in conjunction with the Ken Burns documentary, the Nampa Public Library in Nampa, Idaho, will screen BRAVO! on November 1, 2017. Doors open at 6:30 PM and the free program will begin at 7:00 PM. A panel discussion with Vietnam Veterans is scheduled to follow. The Nampa library’s website is http://nampalibrary.org.

On April 7, 2018, the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho, will host a one-day symposium in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Siege. The event will encompass a forum for educating the public about the Siege of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War, as well as an opportunity for a Khe Sanh Veterans Reunion. Activities will include a screening of BRAVO! and guest speakers remembering the battle. Khe Sanh Vet Mike Archer, author of two heralded non-fiction books on his Khe Sanh experiences, will be one of the featured speakers. You can see more about Mike at http://www.michaelarcher.net.

Mark your calendars now, as this will be a stellar event in a world-class air museum. We are still in the planning stage, so if you would like to participate and were involved with the siege, or just want to help, please contact me at 208-340-8889. An event like this can only happen with a core group of committed volunteers. We can’t do it without you! For more information on the Warhawk Air Museum, check out their website at https://warhawkairmuseum.org.

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

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. Please consider gifting copies to a veteran, a teacher, a history buff, a library, a friend or family member. For more information, go to https://bravotheproject.com/store/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject?ref=hl.