The one-hour documentary, written and produced by award winning Executive Producer Suzanne Higgins, features the experiences of 5 West Virginia combat servicemen.
“When PBS announced Ken Burns’ series The Vietnam War would air this fall, we realized it presented a special opportunity to produce a companion film to tell West Virginia’s story by capturing and preserving the oral histories of our own Vietnam veterans,” said Scott Finn, Executive Director of WVPB.
Per capita, West Virginians served the most and died the most in Vietnam. The war lives on as America’s most controversial – with questions unanswered, lessons not learned, and for veterans who survive, including thousands of West Virginians, haunting memories remain.
“The process of making this film has taught me there are as many perspectives on the Vietnam War as there are those who served, each one unique,” said Higgins, who met and talked with dozens of Vietnam veterans. “But I’ve heard shared experiences as well: fear, horror, loss, rejection, disillusionment, detachment, anger – and perseverance.”
Vietnam: West Virginians Remember profiles 5 veterans approximately 50 years after their service, examining their lives before the war, chronicling their experiences of combat, and allowing these men to reflect on the impact of those experiences on the rest of their lives – and the lives of their loved ones.
The film explores the reasons why more than 36,000 West Virginians served during the Vietnam War, and speculates on why the death rate was so high for West Virginians who served. It examines the conservatism and political environment of the time, both nationally and in the Mountain State. It also traces public opinion of the war, from support of actions by the Kennedy administration through the U.S.’s ultimate pullout of Southeast Asia in 1973.
With an original musical score, Vietnam: West Virginians Remember threads these intimate conversations with Vietnam veterans with background and analysis, using personal photos and home movies. Additional video and film was provided by the West Virginia State Archives, the James E. Morrow Library of Marshall University, and the West Virginia and Regional History Center at WVU Libraries.
Visual material was also obtained through the National Archives, the Library of Congress, veterans groups, the U.S. Defense Department, and various private and public domain collections. “We are grateful to all the Vietnam Veterans who have inspired and contributed in so many ways to this program,” said Higgins. “We are humbled to tell their stories.”
Vietnam: West Virginians Remember is presented with financial assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations do not necessarily represent those of the West Virginia Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Additional funding has been provided by AARP, the WV Lottery, and Bowles Rice, Attorneys at Law.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Dave Evans, U.S. Marine Corps, Vietnam 1969 -1971
Dave Evans of Cabin Creek, WV was the oldest of 5 sons. After his father left, he helped his mom raise his younger brothers, and enlisted into the U.S. Marines at age 17. He estimates it was about day 300 of his 13-month tour that he stepped on an explosive booby-trap along a rice paddy dike, while on assignment to retrieve the bodies of 2 helicopter pilots. His legs were blown off; he was 18. After a year in rehab hospitals where he was fitted with prosthetic limbs, he returned to West Virginia and joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, at the same time going to school for prosthetic design and fitting.
He became a national board member of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, and West Virginia’s first state president of the State Council of Vietnam Veterans of America. Evans has spent the last 30 years traveling to war-torn countries, fitting victims of war with prosthetic limbs. “I went there (Vietnam) wanting to defend the Constitution and I believe my activity in the anti-war movement when I returned was also in defense of the U.S. Constitution,” said Evans.
Mossie Wright, U.S Army, Vietnam 1969-1970
Mossie Wright of Bunker Hill, WV says he was not a politically aware teenager; in fact he was very naïve about what was going on in politics in the late 1960’s. He was the oldest of 10 children, loved playing high school football, and had his sights set on college. But when he got a draft notice in 1968, he accepted it without question. In Vietnam: West Virginians Remember, Mossie discusses his time in the U.S. Army infantry, and how that 12-month tour as a combat soldier impacted the rest of his life. He discusses the Civil Rights movement and racism in the military. He says certain sights, sounds, and smells today can trigger horrific memories of search and destroy missions he carried out as a teenager in Vietnam.
In addition to the ongoing therapy Mossie receives today at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center, he says his leadership of the Martinsburg Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America is also a form of therapy for him – helping veterans and their families navigate the veterans’ benefits system.
Lou Nutter U.S. Army, Vietnam 1971-1972
Lou was born in Keyser, WV and says in his family and community, it was an honor and duty to serve your country in time of war. Lou was assigned to the 554 Combat Engineers, building the road dubbed Highway One through South Vietnam which was constantly coming under enemy fire. Helicopters would transport these combat engineers in and out of their work sites; ambushes were the norm even with protection of both U.S. and South Vietnam troops.
In spite of a successful career, Lou discusses the scars of his war experience – anger and alcohol addiction – in Vietnam: West Virginians Remember. Confiding that it is a struggle every day to get out of bed,Lou explains how counseling at his local Martinsburg VA Med Center has impacted his life and therefor the lives of his loved ones.
Paul Casto, U.S. Marine Corps, Vietnam 1967 - 1969
Paul Casto grew up on his grandparents’ farm in Nicholas County and describes them as having a strict Pentecostal faith. Paul’s dad died very suddenly when he was a sophomore, a traumatic event for the entire family. Paul continued with wrestling and football, hoping for a scholarship to college. But following an injury to his shoulder, he enlisted into the Marines after high school graduation, along with some buddies. He was eventually stationed at Da Nang Air Base, with assignments as far as the A Shau Valley. Paul served 2 tours, was injured both times, earning two Purple Hearts.
When he returned to West Virginia, he joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, got a Masters degree in Counseling, counseled Vietnam veterans at the Morgantown VA Med Center, and today continues to live with PTSD.
Stephen Coonts, U.S. Navy, Vietnam 1969 – 1971
Stephen Coonts grew up in the coal-mining town of Buckhannon, WV, population 6000. He majored in political science at West Virginia University, graduating in 1968 with an A.B. degree. Upon graduation he was commissioned an Ensign in the U.S. Navy and began flight training, ultimately reporting to Attack Squadron 196. His combat cruises were aboard the USS Enterprise.
After his Vietnam tour, he stayed on active duty in the Navy until 1977. After law school he wrote Flight of the Intruder, a New York Times best-selling novel about a Vietnam fighter pilot. He has since penned dozens of other best-selling books. While saying it was an honor to serve his country and to serve with the men he served with, Coonts calls the Vietnam War an American tragedy.
Ed Rabel, CBS News War Correspondent
Broadcast Journalist Ed Rabel was born in Kanawha County and grew up in St. Albans, WV, graduating from St. Albans High School and then from Morris Harvey College in 1963. Rabel worked in local radio before becoming news director of WCHS-TV in Charleston. He became a national CBS news correspondent in the mid-1960's and is known as being one of the last to interview Martin Luther King the day before the Civil Rights leader was assassinated in 1968.
Rabel volunteered to cover the war and left for Vietnam in 1969. He says one of the most dispiriting and angering things about the war for him as a reporter was hearing the "military version" of what was happening in Vietnam, and knowing as an in-country reporter what truly was happening on the battlefield. Those were two very different stories, according to Rabel. Now retired and living in Charleston, Rabel offers his personal observations of the horror of America's "first TV war" .
John Hennen, Ph.D. was born in Huntington, WV, is an Emeritus Professor of History at Morehead State University in Kentucky, and Adjunct Instructor of Appalachian Studies at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. Hennen earned a BA from West Virginia University in 1975, a Masters from Marshall University in 1987, and his doctorate from WVU in 1993. Hennen is the author of Caught Up In Time: Oral History Narratives of Appalachian Vietnam Veterans, which is based on his Masters’ thesis at Marshall, from interviews conducted for a History Department's oral history project on Vietnam veterans. Other areas of interest include Labor Relations and Labor History in Appalachia. Hennen was interviewed for the program and served as an adviser to Vietnam: West Virginians Remember.
Christopher M. White, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history at Marshall University and for several years has taught a class entitled The American Experience in the Vietnam War. White’s course includes several guest speakers, many of whom are Vietnam veterans. White opened up his classroom to WVPB for observation and filming. White is also a professor of Latin American history. He teaches courses on Latin America, the developing world, and U.S. foreign relations and he is the author of Creating a Third World: Mexico, Cuba, and the United States during the Castro Era, as well as The History of El Salvador
and A Global History of the Developing World. White has been recognized with Marshall University’s Artists and Scholars Award. White served as an adviser to Vietnam: West Virginians Remember.
WVPB’s Executive Producer Suzanne Higgins is the writer, producer and narrator of
Vietnam: West Virginians Remember. She recently completed work on the 7th season of Inspiring West Virginians, and produced the network’s 2016 Gubernatorial Candidates forum, the Supreme Court candidates forum, and election night coverage from the Greenbrier.
Other recent work includes leading a team of producers in delivering the Emmy-nominated television special Inside Appalachia: West Virginia’s 1000 Year Flood. In the fall of 2016, Suzanne and fellow producer Russ Barbour won the National Educational Telecommunications Association’s Best Documentary Award for Jay: A Rockefeller's Journey.
Suzanne is also the recipient of the national Pew Charitable Trust’s Batten Award for Excellence in Civic Journalism, the Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting, two Emmy awards, a PRNDI award, several West Virginia Associated Press Broadcasters Association awards, and the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Virginias’ Associated Press Broadcasters Association.
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