Vietnam: West Virginians Remember

2018 NETA Awards - Documentary

From: West Virginia Public Broadcasting 

Project Budget: $133,000

When The Vietnam War series aired in the fall of 2017, it was an opportunity for West Virginia Public Broadcasting to produce a companion film to tell West Virginia’s story. After all, per capita, West Virginians served the most and died the most in Vietnam. The film profiles five veterans approximately 50 years after their service, examining their lives before the Vietnam War, chronicling their experiences of combat, and what they faced when they returned home to West Virginia. The documentary allows these men to reflect on the impact of those experiences on their lives – and the lives of their loved ones. They were teenagers from the heart of patriotic and isolated Appalachia, all from modest means. As they tell us in their own words, the trajectory of their lives was each uniquely and profoundly impacted by their time in war. 

What Did the Judges Say?

The program’s open -- Vietnam with a reflection of the West Virginia mountains -- was a very effective way to visually tie Ken Burns’ Vietnam War to their program. All of the interviewees are male, so having a strong female voiceover was a good counterbalance and held viewer interest. The original music score added to the period feel of the program. The lighting for the interviews was exceptionally well done. 

Well shot, edited and well told. The editing of this program was solidly done, keeping the tears and emotion, not sanitizing the story and the war. It struck the right balance of preserving the emotion without sensationalizing it. 

The approach to this story was very standard, but appropriate.It was a good choice not to distract from the story with innovations. Having the former CBS news correspondent and two historians added context and dimension to the story. With WV PTV budget cuts and layoffs during the production, it is fortunate that it was completed, as it is such a gift to the state and beyond. This is a good example of what local public television can accomplish. 

This entry had the best outcome documentation that I’ve ever seen. It captured a wonderful cross section of oral histories, shared them with viewers, and preserved them for future generations. Beyond that, the show is being used in schools, and the oral histories, photos, etc. were used to establish a permanent Vietnam archives at the West Virginia State Archives. 

VIETNAM: WEST VIRGINIANS REMEMBER executive producer Suzanne Higgins writes: 

“As producer, the most frequently asked question I receive is, ‘How did you select your veterans?’ 

“The answer is simple: We took the first five who said ‘yes.’ And we had to go through about a dozen before we had five. 

“As we began our research we reached out to local veterans’ organizations including the State Council and several local chapters of Vietnam Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars. We worked with the Beckley VA Medical Center, Huntington VA Medical Center, the Beckley Vet Counseling Center, the Huntington Vet Counseling Center, and the WV Department of Veterans Assistance. And we reached out to family and friends who are either Vietnam veterans or have connections to Vietnam veterans. 

“All of these entities welcomed us with literally dozens of veterans talking to me off camera about their general thoughts on the war, but sharing very little about their specific experiences. They were incredibly grateful that we were pursuing the project, but we learned many are not yet ready to talk on camera about their experiences in Vietnam. 

“That said, the five who agreed to share their stories were all combat servicemen, representing all regions of the state, with varying political beliefs, are all living today with varying degrees of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

“Something to note: When approaching veterans for participation in our film, I simply asked if they saw combat and if they’d be willing to talk about their service. If they said yes, that’s where it stopped. I did not ask them to give me any details beyond their branch of service and their rank. My thinking was, this way, our filmed conversation would be fresh without the loss of details that often don’t get repeated in a second telling. However, the result was the camera captured at one time or another each of these men remembering and talking aloud of events they have never shared with anyone, told spontaneously with raw emotion. 

The one exception to this MO was with U.S. Marine Roger Booth. At the end of our in-depth phone conversation I asked him if he’d participate in our documentary. He politely declined, saying ‘Honey, this is more than I’ve ever talked about it, and I just don’t think my heart could handle it again.’ ”