They came from every corner of Utah. From farms and ranches, college campuses and corner gas stations. From small crossroad towns, quiet suburbs and the heart of big cities.
Thousands of young men and women from every walk of life in Utah served during the Vietnam conflict. Almost 400 of them would never return.
For two generations the stories of those who served have seldom been heard. Some veterans fell silent in the face of an indifferent and even hostile reception when they came home. Other vets simply held their silence, choosing not to revisit the personal cost of war. The nation they served wrestled with its emotions, and too often found it convenient to forget the conflict, the controversy and the sacrifice.
Now, those voices will be heard.
Nearly 40 years after the end of U.S. military engagement in Vietnam, KUED captures the powerful, poignant, funny and tearful memories of dozens of Utah's veterans in Utah Vietnam War Stories, a new documentary series. The first episode, "Escalation," debuts Monday, March 12 at 7:00 p.m. on KUED.
Some would walk the killing fields of the foot soldier. Others would risk their lives to save another's. Some would streak across the sky, while many more would sink to their waist in rice paddies and marshes. Some staffed achingly busy hospitals, and a few performed in the U.S.O. They would never forget the heat, the humidity, the terror and the boredom.
"This is some of KUED's most powerful storytelling," says series producer Elizabeth Searles. The driving force behind KUED's acclaimed documentary series Utah World War Two Stories, Searles and her colleagues have interviewed Utah Vietnam veterans for more than a year. "Dozens of veterans have told us this is the first time they have publicly shared the stories of their service," says Searles.
"Some came back ashamed they'd been there," offers former Marine Sergeant Gary Campbell of American Fork. "I wasn't. I looked for opportunities to tell what it was really about and to tell about my brothers."
Time and again, Searles and production team members Dr. Rick Randle, Geoffrey Panos and Sally Shaum heard stories of brothers in arms, friendships that were forged in war and the stories of those friendships lost in combat.
Utah Vietnam War Stories offers a spectrum of experiences. From the shared, head-shaking recollections of the first days "in country" to the stunning moments of quiet beauty that could be found in unlikely settings, to the deafening chaos of hair-trigger fire fights in the dead of night. The stories come from foot soldiers, medics, mechanics, nurses and pilots. No experiences are the same.
"I like to tell people I flew 33 and one-half missions in Vietnam," says retired Air Force Colonel Jay Hess of Farmington. "Unfortunately, I did not keep the number of landings equal to my number of take-offs."
Hess would spend more than 2,000 days in a Hanoi POW camp after being shot down on a bombing run over North Vietnam.
Some of the faces-such as long time Utah journalists Rod Decker and Sterling Poulsen-will look familiar. But most are the faces of those who live and work next to us on a daily basis in quiet anonymity.
"This series is more than telling the story of one state's role in conflict," says KUED Director of Production Ken Verdoia. "This is a long overdue remembrance of a generation that served in combat during a time of great national upheaval. We now live in a time in which appreciation for those serving in the military is quite strong, and it is appropriate to make a place at the table for all who have served their country."
The first in a projected three-part documentary series, Utah Vietnam War Stories: Escalation traces the role of Utah men and women in the first years of American military involvement in Vietnam. In those experiences, romantic images of war give way to the harsh reality of tough jungle combat. The veterans remember moments, places, buddies and service that can never be forgotten.
"I don't always agree with what it does, but I love my country," shares former Marine mortar man Steve Cantonwine of Salt Lake City. "I do love my country. And I would die defending it."
"It's a sense and spirit that runs through every interview," says producer Searles.
Additional episodes of Utah Vietnam War Stories will debut later in 2012 on KUED.
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A sampling of clips from Vietnam War Stories: Escalation
Gary Campbell tells the story about hearing the Vietcong in the bushes one night while he was on watch. He just started shooting. In the morning, he saw their faces -one young man with a bullet through the forehead, the other in the stomach. He chokes up as he says that was the first time he actually saw the faces of those he'd shot and how that affected him. Powerful clip.
Russell Elder, the photographer, talks about his brother telling him, "You'll shoot women and children." After an RPG blew up his boat, he says he looked into the brush and "I would have shot something that crawled out in a diaper. That's a terrible thing to realize about yourself," he says. In another clip, he talks about standing on the boat to photograph the RPG attack and says that as long as he was looking through the lens he felt safe. "It seemed like it was happening over there." Other photographers have said the same thing.
Stu Shipley tells the story of wading through a rice paddy evading enemy fire. His assistant reached out to touch his shoulder after being shot through the heart. Stu turned and met eyes with his fellow soldier. The last thing he heard him say was, "my god, I'm dead."
Doug Hunt talks about the wildlife in Vietnam. While wandering through the jungle a large spider wrapped its legs around his face and he had to pull the behemoth arachnid off.
Doug Hunt talks about traveling through the narrow Chi Chi Tunnel when a grenade was dropped on the other side removing all the oxygen from the connected passages.
J.C. Hess talks about his harrowing 2,000 days as a POW.
Gerald Cannon tells the story of uncovering criminal activity involving Vietnamese who were helping US troops. They were extorting native villages for "protection" money and if a village could not pay they gave American fighter pilots the towns coordinates to target as Viet Cong. Gerald Cannon relates how he had a "feeling" not to drop napalm on one particular village where he saw women and children. He defied orders and later found out that the village was targeted because they had not paid its "protection" money.
Andrew Wilson in uniform
Stu Shipley in Vietnam
Jerald Cannon of Tremonton in uniform
Gary Campbell in Vietnam
Jay Hess, former POW
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