Documentary uncovers scars of Vietnam

It’s well after midnight by the time Oscar Soliz clicks off his lamps and shuts down his computer. His brown eyes are strained, his neck and back are stiff, his hands tingle. He rubs his salt-and-pepper beard; it’s time for bed.

He’s just finished another 13-hour day producing a documentary about four local Vietnam vets and how their powerful memories have barely diminished with the passage of time.

The hour-long documentary, titled “Deep Scars,” features retired Staff Sgt. Edward Brown Jr., retired Sgt. Trini Cruz, retired 1st Sgt. William J. Johnson and retired Sgt. 1st Class Dion Soliz III. The veterans, all Purple Heart recipients, recount their struggles on the battlefield and off.

“I’m showing the feelings and fears of being in combat as well as its affect on their lives after returning home,” says Soliz, a self-taught videographer and owner of Ozman Visual Media Productions. “There are so many stories. So much had happened to them.”

The documentary opens with images and narration explaining the politics of the Vietnam War, the lives lost and the toll it took on men such as Brown.

“Hmm, lemme see, I’ve been recovering from my injuries for 44 years and counting,” Brown, 63, says with a chuckle. “Physically, I spent 32 months in various hospitals.” Brown was injured on May 14, 1968, in Binh Duong Province, Vietnam. In the uncut version of the film, Brown recounted how his fellow soldier Ron E. Clark fell into him after being hit by a grenade from a rocket-propelled launcher. “I looked into his eyes as he died,” Brown said. “His death was fast, and his survivors should know he didn’t suffer (alone).”

The documentary also recounts the hostile reactions many returning vets received from their fellow citizens.

Cruz spent 39 months in different hospitals recovering from his injuries. In the film, he tearfully recounts arriving back home in the United States still in uniform and walking with a cane. Cruz wanted a cup of coffee but he had no money. “I gave [the man behind the counter] one of my medals and said I’ll come back and pay for it. The man said, ‘We don’t take medals. We take cash here. I can’t give you a cup of coffee.’ We’re over there fighting this war, and nobody would give me a cup of coffee.”

Soliz is seeking a distribution deal for the film and, in the meantime, hopes to show it to various local veteran organizations. For now, he’s working on it primarily for the men featured in the video.

The documentary has been a year in the making, the last three months on editing alone

“You can get lost in editing,” he says. “Sure, I get tired and frustrated but that’s nothing. It’s a difficult documentary.”

“Deep Scars” had an effect on the subjects of the documentary.

“Being a part of Oscar’s movie is the first time I ever talked in-depth about my experiences in Vietnam,” says Dion Soliz, 64, Oscar’s brother. “And now I want my daughters to see the movie and understand what the nightmares and screaming at night were all about.”

It’s also had an effect on its director, who did not serve in Vietnam.

“I have a good life, but I still think I should have been over there,” Oscar says. “I have guilt of not going to Vietnam. But since my brother was enlisted, I couldn’t go; he wouldn’t allow it.”

Soliz’s only sibling served three tours in Vietnam (1967-1971) and was awarded the Purple Heart and four Bronze Stars.

“No need for mom to lose us both,” says Dion, explaining why he wouldn’t allow his younger brother to follow him into battle. “It wasn’t the politics so much as I felt it was my duty. But once you’re over there, family is all you live for. It keeps you going.”

Funding for the film came from $5,000 in prize money Soliz, 63, won in the 2011 Pepsi Challenge Grant. The program awarded grants for projects that benefit the community, environment and schools. While $5,000 is a pittance compared to what most films – even documentaries – cost, Soliz spent carefully and stayed within his budget.

“I bought the things I truly needed, like the green screen and software and some things I bought at a discount, like the Sony mc2000 camera.” Soliz said.

The film includes both comedic and painful recollections, such as Cruz’s having a tailbone removed, Soliz’s encounter with an elephant, Brown’s blown eardrums and the time Johnson was shot twice in two days.

Soliz says that for him, an unforeseen benefit of his working on the film is that he is now closer to his brother because he better understands Dion’s wartime traumas. “I’m trying to draw out the inner feelings of their reality. To understand how the wounded veterans survived during and after the war,” he says.

“I know my brother is real patriotic and feels plenty of guilt about not going over to serve in Vietnam,” said Dion Soliz. “But I tell him ‘Hey, I served your time and mine. I served for America, and that includes you.’ “

By, Elena Brown, Special to the San Antonio Express News

Elena’s Story_Doc uncovers scars of Vietnam

Son finally gets fuller picture of ‘SGT. MAC’

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Mike Mc-Cullough has been trying to find information about the man in the family photo albums alongside his mother.

The man whose picture sits in a frame on her china cabinet.

The tall man with the piercing blue eyes, similar to his own.

The man who was his father.

“I used to sneak around the house and look at the old photo albums and newspaper articles that my mom had,” he said. “I’ve always been wondering just who my dad was.”

Sgt. 1st Class Alfred McCullough was killed in Vietnam when Mike was 1 year old.

“I wonder how I would have turned out had he been around,” Mike McCullough said.

After his father’s death, his mother moved the family from Germany to Colorado Springs, never remarrying.

Mike McCullough was 37 when he started going on the Internet to search for information about his father. Now 40, the Pikes Peak Community College employee hit pay dirt over the weekend after he and his mother were invited to attend a reunion of his father’s unit in Louisville.

Silver-haired men gathered around a table to meet and share their 40-year-old memories and thoughts about “Sgt. Mac.”

Alfred McCullough served in the Army for 12 years and was 33 when he was killed by small-arms fire in Binh Tuy, South Vietnam.

He is buried at Fort Riley in Kansas.

He left behind five children; Mike is the youngest.

“I knew right off the bat that was Sgt. Mac’s kid when I looked in those blue eyes,” Ron Betz said. Alfred McCullough “was a tall quiet man with a thick reddish mustache. I remember he died in the morning. We lost three men that day.”

Retired Sgt. Edward Brown Jr. added, “He was a gentleman’s soldier. He brought his point across in a smooth way. He was a real good man that took good care of us.”

Both men served under Alfred McCullough in Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry A-Troop in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.

The McCulloughs were contacted by the Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia this year.

The organization aims to honor those who fought and died during Vietnam. It formed Operation Embrace last year to locate, notify and welcome the families of men who died into the “Band of Brothers,” said Charles Schmidt, president of the organization.

Mike and his mother, Johanna, represented one of about 60 families that attended alongside the 1,500 members in Louisville over the weekend.

Johanna McCullough, 72, brought military photos and newspaper articles to the reunion, including an article about her receiving her husband’s Silver Star for service in combat.

“There are more photos I can bring next year” when the unit will reunite again in Chicago, she said.

“When I saw ‘McCullough’ on the name tag I thought, ‘That’s Sgt. Mac’s boy!’ and gave him a big hug,” said Jack Morrison, 59. “I didn’t cry, but I was close.”

“McCullough was my platoon sergeant,” Morrison said. “My memory is not what it used to be, but I told him (Mike) what I could about his father.”

It was far more than Mike McCullough had known before going to Kentucky.

“I do wish there was more discussion about my father when I was younger, but I’ve discovered it’s never too late to learn about your family,” he said.

Mother and son said the weekend brought them closer.

“It’s so nice to know our family was not forgotten,” she said.

Mike said all he wanted was to get a bit of information about his father.

“And now, through these men, I have a stronger bond to him,” he said.

(Published in the Colorado Springs newspaper, The Gazette on September 10, 2007)

Memories flow at Vietnam Veterans Reunion

As they finish registering and making their way to the bunker, hearing aids and canes are of little consequence.

The gray hair and arthritis are forgotten. There’s no talk or thought of heart or liver or other ailments. The men are transformed into “fit-to-serve” as they pass through the threshold into the arms of their buddies.

“Welcome home, brother,” says a man to my father. “It’s good to see you back.”

My 58-year-old dad smiles. And the men hug.

The men of the Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry’s Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia embrace each other with the welcome they never received when they returned home from the war decades ago.

My dad, retired Army Sgt. Edward Brown Jr., and I try to make the annual four-day reunions together every year, as we did last week when it was in Colorado Springs. It’s our father-daughter time. It’s where stories I never heard at home are shared. Where people can sit at any table and look at pictures of teenagers in tanks thousands of miles away. Where most stories start with “Remember when?” or “How about the time?”

It’s where a gray-haired biker with tattoos chats with a grandfather who is an officer of a local homeowners association.

The Vietnam reunion is intense, but the slice of history is filling.

I was 13 when I went to my first reunion in 1987 in Louisville, Ky. I didn’t understand the hugs and songs of the ’60s being played every night.

I’ve attended seven of these reunions, and I’ve watched men return and mourn the men that didn’t. I now understand just how important the reunions are.

Through the years, my dad’s brothers-in-arms became my “honorary uncles.” There’s something comforting about knowing I can be anywhere in America and have a goodhearted man to watch over me.

The banquet this year included awards, prestigious speakers, thousands of dollars in scholarships for the children of men who served and video feeds from Blackhorse troopers in Iraq. Men were honored this year with the Bronze Star for actions of 35 years ago. Here, honor and valor never fade.

The “Blackhorse Salute” slide show signaled the end of the banquet program. Francis “Frank” Gowrie lit up a cigarette at the dinner table. Smoking isn’t allowed at the banquet, but no one complained.

“It’s nerves, baby,” my dad explained as he sipped from his beer. “This can bring up some bad memories.”

Intense images on the four giant screens reminded us — several hundred vets and their friends and family members — why we were here. Pictures from the air and ground showed men at war more than 30 years ago. A radio transmission of combat was played. It freshened the memories of good and bad.

I watched Gowrie, a retired New York City cop, getting increasingly emotional. His tears become my own. But we weren’t alone. My father grabbed my hand, and a member of Gowrie’s unit placed an arm around his shoulder.

During the 20th reunion memorial service at the Shrine of Remembrance, the chaplain asked the crowd if anyone would like to speak on behalf of the fallen. The men stirred, but no one moved. Moments passed and four men climbed the small hill under the warm sun and took to the podium. That was the day I heard my father speak.

He spoke to his brothers and their families about patience struggling with Veterans Administration red tape, of understanding the need to control vices and regaining lost faith.

“Where was God when I was in Vietnam?” he asked the crowd as he recounted Spc. Ron Clark falling into him during the fight when he was also wounded. Clark took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. His death was fast and his survivors should know he didn’t suffer, my dad said.

“God left me here for a reason,” dad said. “He made sure I came back.

“If and when you see a brother falling down, pick him back up.”

When the memorial concluded, a Fort Carson soldier played taps behind the flag snapping in the wind above.

Ron Betz, who was drafted, and my dad, who volunteered, are always selfishly inseparable during the reunions, but it’s OK.

Some of the “newbies” had to learn that when our dads, uncles and grandfathers exclude us it’s not intentional. This is an intense reunion of men who served in an unpopular war. There is a bond that defies race, religion and sometimes manners. Once they return from the shared memory, they’ll introduce and include us — we just have to be patient.

My dad and his buddies would tell me of May 14, 1968, when the 1st Platoon was hit.

“We let loose with everything we had,” dad said.

“It was pretty chaotic; it was a tough one,” Betz agreed. “We lost about five people.”

Dad took most of his injuries on his right side, receiving wounds in his shoulder, chest, hip and leg. The blast perforated his eardrums. He spent three years in the hospital and had 11 surgeries recovering from that one bad episode.

When all was said and done, he received the Purple Heart, Army Commendation, National Defense Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Army Presidential Unit Citation, Gallantry Cross Unit Citation, Army Valorous Unit Citation, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service, Combat Infantry Badge and Army Sharpshooter Badge.

The void that Vietnam left in the souls of vets grows smaller with each reunion, a place to remember and a place to heal.

First-timer Mackenzie Wink, 10, of Amery, Wis., arrived with her grandfather, Dirk McCloud.

“I’m glad my Gramps came back,” she said.

It’s a common feeling, because in the sea of faces, there is probably someone who served with and maybe even saved your loved one.

-Elena Brown

(written in fall of 2005 for The Gazette newspaper.)

 

Published in: on 11/11/2009 at 13:24  Comments (11)  
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