Q and A with “Turning Point” Filmmaker Sally Shaum

These veterans have incredible stories. Can you relate one of your favorites?

Jeffrey Harris was assigned as an Army Psychiatric Medic.  He cared for psychologically traumatized young men coming out of the field.  These soldiers were diagnosed with what they identified then as Acute Situational Reaction—immediate combat stress.  Jeff was in a unique and difficult situation, overwhelmed with the responsibility of sending these boys back into the field after they were able to recompose and rest.  “I wanted somebody to help me.  I didn’t want this responsibility.  I’m in the position that people that I’m working with… I’m going to send them back quite often and some of them will die.”

For a long time it seemed like the public’s view of the Vietnam War was negative.  How do you think the public views Vietnam vets now?

I think today we can make the distinction between our feelings about a war versus the men and women who serve in that war.  I feel the public’s view is more open. Today we’re experiencing another turning point, and I think there’s a genuine need for us to understand that war, and understand the Vietnam Veteran’s experience.

How do you think politics affected Vietnam soldiers at that time, and how has the Vietnam War affected the political views of Vietnam vets today?

Some of those who served didn’t believe in the war, felt it was political blunder, and they didn’t want to be there, particularly the draftees.  They were counting the days until they could return to “the world.”  Others felt their country called them to serve, and it was their duty (and honor) to do so.  Many veterans believed the United States lost political will and pulled out of Vietnam prematurely.

In terms of veterans’ political views today, I feel it’s a mistake to stereotype or generalize the Vietnam Veteran—his/her political and religious views and lifestyle choices.  I will say that most of the veterans we interviewed passionately support the American troops returning from the Middle East.  “Never again!” they say.  “Never again will our boys be treated like we were treated.”  Our Utah Veterans are also very sensitive to today’s servicemen who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  They understand.  They know.

What do you think was the most difficult/traumatic part of the experience for soldiers (if you could narrow it down to one thing)?

I have to say that one of the most traumatic parts of the war experience took place at the end of their tour… in their own country.  Many painful coming home struggles can be heard in Utah Vietnam War Stories, episode three, which will be broadcast sometime spring of 2013.

Specific to this program, Turning Point, veterans speak of the difficulty of processing death all around them--buddies being killed, witnessing the “body count,” stacks of enemy dead, and the lingering pain in taking another life.  One veteran talks of the difficult moral dilemma within.  “Part of my duties as a missionary was to preach love and peace and harmony and Christian values… and here I was less than a year later and I was a paid professional killer.”  Another veteran talks of the unbearable stress of waiting for that first shot.  “I mean we all had upset stomachs.  And when a firefight happened, it was a release; actually it was a relief.”
Veterans coming out of this conflict experienced so many negative and traumatic things.  What are some positive things that Vietnam vets might have taken away from the experience?

A powerful relationship with fellow vets.  A bond with wartime buddies that only veterans can understand and feel.  A sense of who they are as men and women in service.  A sense of their capacities.   Recognition and gratitude for the Vietnamese people and their culture.  Unforgettable R&R (rest and relaxation) time.   Bootlegged tapes of incredible music, and a great appreciation for a firm mattress and a cold beer. 

Did making this documentary change your feelings about the Vietnam War? Did it enlighten you about anything that you maybe didn’t know about before?

This documentary confirmed my feelings about war in general.  A great deal of my job was to look through hours and hours of war footage.  For the most part, that wasn’t fun.  I feel enlightened through getting to know these men and women.  It was very difficult for some of these veterans to come forward, open up, and share their memories.  I just want to shout out a big THANK YOU to them. 

I also want to note that nurses played a very important role in the Vietnam War.  We interviewed five nurses who tell very compelling stories, with great compassion for the troops.  One nurse talks of feeling incredibly moved when guys from all over answered the call to donate blood for a fellow soldier. And that was the main goal for many of these guys; complete their tour and help each other get out of Vietnam alive.

How did making this documentary affect you?

Again, I feel a great sense of gratitude for the men and women who trusted me with their very touching and painful stories.  Producing this documentary also made me angry and sad knowing how long many of Utah’s Veterans have carried the burden of their Vietnam War experiences.  It’s coming up on 50 years, in fact.