I could not look away.
For two hours I sat in an audience of two hundred people and watched as the men recounted their two month ordeal of brutal death, abject terror and pure horror at a remote base in Vietnam known as Khe Sanh. There were about 6,000 of them, although not at the beginning. Facing the Marines and Navy Corpsmen were 20,000 North Vietnamese Army soldiers intent on decimating them.
The NVA had come to the small, forward-deployed outpost – called a FOB or Forward Operating Base in today’s parlance – to overrun and annihilate the Marines.
But during the seventy-seven day siege in 1968, the men witnessed a brutality that haunts them to this day. Their stories – some of which had not been told before – were presented in stark clarity during a showing of “Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor.” As noted author Alan Heathcock wrote, “What was striking to me, beyond their amazing and often terrifying stories of ambushes, of fox-holes filled with bodies, of soldiers lost and alone on a battlefield, of mortar fire that never ceased, was that for the most part the men had kept these stories to themselves.”
On an early autumn evening last week, what had been kept inside was released.
Sitting with the audience were two of the survivors of Khe Sanh: Ken Rodgers, who also directed the documentary in partnership with his wife Betty; and Ron Rees, who lives near enough that he could make the drive. After the movie they were joined by two other combat veterans – one, Cliff Gaston, is a combat-wounded Army helo pilot and Vietnam veteran; the other, George Nickel, is a combat-wounded veteran from Operation Iraqi Freedom. The four recounted not only the savagery of war, but also the challenging journeys they faced when they returned home.
It was a night of shock, brutal honesty, and raw emotion. And yet, despite the terrible backdrop, there was an inner peace – even grace – that each of the combat veterans displayed. They had faced the worst the world could offer, but even though the trauma lives in them still, they emerged alive and significant. Each of them, in his own way, has dedicated a large part of his life to serving others after returning. One coaches, one is a social worker, one is a full time volunteer, and one spent countless hours recording the verbal and photographic memories of 6000 brave men. I could not feel more humble, nor more privileged to be there.
Get it. You will not be disappointed, and you will not be unchanged after viewing it.
Thank you, Ken and Betty, for bringing the film to our part of the world. And to all of you – Ken, Ron, Cliff, George, and the many Vietnam veterans who read this blog, welcome home.