Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Salter’

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

July 26, 2013

Guest Blogger Ruth Salter On the Power of Story and Memory

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I recently received my copy of Bravo! in the mail and sat down to watch it again. The first time I experienced it at a screening at Boise State University, I was nearly overwhelmed by the stark power of the storytelling. There was too much to absorb in one sitting: too many deep wounds revealed, too much delayed closure. This is a film jammed with stories that demand re-visitation and reflection.

Something that struck me during my second viewing was the repeated use of “the world” to refer to life outside of Vietnam, life before war and the imagined life after it. Marines promised each other, “I’ll see you back in the world,” which underscored for me how extremely unreal life in the battle zone must have felt. Life in besieged Khe Sanh was so impossible to adapt to and to comprehend that it wasn’t even considered an earthly experience. Recently I heard a Korean War vet relate a similar kind of story: one night while on sentry duty, he watched a beautiful full moon slowly rise above a hill and illuminate the battlefield below. His first thought was that this can’t be the same moon that rises back home. Dislocation and surrealism…hallmarks of many combat veterans’ stories.

Decades later, many Vietnam vets have only made it halfway home, living with one foot in “the world” and one back in the battle zone. Some even have two feet planted in the past, at least for part of each day. I was struck by Michael O’Hara’s revelation in Bravo! that every morning before he is fully awake and has his first cup of coffee, he’s back in a trench at Khe Sanh. Every single morning he feels “bodies up to my kneecaps.” Returning daily to the horrors of combat, straddling two extremely different existences sounds horrific to me—I struggle to understand how someone could ever find peace while seesawing between the past and the present, the trenches and “the world.” But Michael didn’t look horrified. Instead, he states, “That’s OK; I’ve come to accept that. I’m not supposed to forget all that stuff.”

But not all combat vets have come to terms with their wartime experiences. Memory is a double-edged sword, capturing our finest as well as our worst moments. Memories of combat can teach non-participants about the realities of war. And the dead walk again in memory. However, when memories painfully invade and occupy the present, derailing daily routines and relationships, action needs to be taken.

Sharing these memories is powerful medicine. Stories externalized are easier to manage. Somewhere I read the injunction “either own your story or it owns you.” When stories find the light of day after being buried for years, deep healing can occur. In the veterans’ writing group I facilitate, memories are shared aloud in conversation and written down to preserve them. Whether captured on paper or on film, the healing power of storytelling is something that can help unstick boots from battlefield mud and plant them more firmly in the present day.

Sharing stories can help both the teller and the listener find the path to insight and healing. Author and psychologist Edward Tick in War and the Soul explains: “Telling our story is a way of preserving our individual history and at the same time defining our place in the larger flow of events. It reveals patterns and meaning that we might otherwise miss as we go about the mundane activities of living; it invites us to see the universe working through us.” Stories also unite tellers and listeners, forming a community of shared witness. War stories, like those so artfully portrayed in Bravo!, can therefore become tools of reconciliation and restoration.

For information about the Boise Area Veterans’ Writing Group, please visit or contact Ruth at

Ruth Salter has a Master of Fine Arts degree and is a lecturer in the Department of English at Boise State University.

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

September 17, 2012

My First War

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BRAVO! supporter and creative writer Ruth Salter muses on her memories of the Vietnam War and its personal legacy.

I saw another one yesterday while taking a rare trip to the mall: that embroidered bar of yellow, red, and green, this time on the back of a gray-ponytailed biker cruising on the Interstate. The week before, it was on the hat of a panhandler standing quietly near the Vista Boulevard off-ramp. The Vietnam veteran’s service ribbon. Somewhere I read that the yellow and red reflect the flag of the Republic of Vietnam and that the green symbolizes the jungle (ever-present and primeval). On bumper stickers, on lapels, on flags—I’ve been noticing them my whole life.

At this point, you may be thinking I’m related to a Vietnam vet, but it’s not that simple. Although there are several veterans in my family, none of them served in that conflict. I was only in kindergarten in 1975 when it ended. So why does this war haunt me? For decades, why did I feel my insides twist with sharp grief when hearing or reading stories about Vietnam?

Ruth Salter and her daughter Sierra

Last July, at a conference called The Healing Art of Writing, I had time to ponder my knee-jerk responses. On a tiny, tree-filled campus in Northern California, medical professionals, authors, and educators gathered to explore the wondrous fact that simply writing about life’s traumas, including war, can bring healing. The poetry writers like me were expected to write one new poem a day, to be shared in workshops. And the conference leader challenged us to tackle the subjects we’ve been avoiding, those that scared us most.

I wrote my first poem about Vietnam. Late at night in a perfectly silent dorm room, I finally recognized the seeds of dread and sorrow that the war had planted in me. Then I got to work, stitching together shelved memories from childhood—green-clad correspondents yelling news on TV while helicopters hovered in the background; whispered stories about a family friend, an Army medic who broke his back in a chopper crash, the only survivor; the silent, drawn faces of the boat children who joined my classmates in the middle of the school year; the disheveled men who appeared on street corners in their fatigues, begging for change; the piles of camouflage boots at the local military surplus store. There wasn’t room for all those images in that one poem, but I can write more.

The Vietnam War had snaked its green tentacles into my sunny California childhood, reaching all the way into my cozy living room through the TV screen. It taught me a little too early that we humans are capable of horrific violence, of unleashing the kind of agony that can ripple across oceans and across generations.

But Vietnam has also taught me compassion for the displaced and hurting, especially for those with invisible wounds. It has prodded me to encourage veterans to tell their own stories, whether aloud, on paper or through images. It has strengthened me into a willing listener. For these gifts, I am thankful.

My First War

I remember the whop whop of Hueys coming from the TV.
My hand hovering near the staticky glass, I fell
in love with their snub noses and window eyes.
The door gunners looked like my plastic Army men,
arms and legs frozen in readiness, helmets stuck tight.

It was a war without a compass. At least
in Korea you knew which side of a line you were on.
Nam smelled like rotten hell, but nobody talks about that.

Wrestled together with tweezers and orange-scented glue,
the scale models multiplied, cockeyed and sticky.
I hung the wrecks from the ceiling with fishing line,
lay beneath, tracking their slow twirls with the nightly breeze.

By the time we saw the green tracers…too late.
I sat on my helmet so I wouldn’t take one in the ass,
then the belly ripped open.

My favorite fit in my pocket.
Its tiny rotor twirled with my fingertip,
safe from the jungle rushing up to swallow it whole,
half a world away.

Ruth Salter teaches writing at Boise State University as well as local non-profits such as The Cabin Literary Center and the Women and Children’s Alliance. Her award-winning poetry has appeared in several periodicals and anthologies, most recently The Healing Art of Writing, University of California Press. She is currently laying the groundwork for a veterans writing group in the Boise area; please contact her at if you would like to participate in or support this endeavor.