Vietnam Veterans’ Share Thoughts On New Ken Burns Documentary

Bill DeArmond (left) and his friend John Stillman at a Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1028 weekly breakfast meeting in Fenton, Mo. DeArmond and Stillman have been friends since the second grade and they left for military service together. They did not serve in the same unit in Vietnam. Photo by Holly Shanks.

South County Times Oct. 6, 2017.

The Vietnam War is forever intertwined with a part of American history that saw a country fiercely divided, governed by questionable politics, and rocked by social unrest.

Recently, a new documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War, gave viewers an unprecedented look at this controversial time in history and the lasting consequences to the American and Vietnamese societies.

The documentary aired on St. Louis’ Nine Network (PBS). The network formed an advisory committee to help understand the complicated, and possibly painful, reactions Vietnam veterans and the public might have to the film.

John Stillman, a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1028 in Fenton, sat on the advisory committee with his daughter, Lori. She explained the documentary explores more than U.S. Vietnam veterans’ point of view.

“The network only aired the series because they knew the quality of Ken Burns’ work. If it had been anyone else they would not have done it because they felt it would have been too controversial,” Lori said. “Burns interviewed, which had never been done before, the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists), the North Vietnamese Army, the war protesters, the draft dodgers, he covered everything, he didn’t just do it from the U.S. veteran’s point of view, he also interviewed the enemy – he gave the enemy a voice.”

Lori said the advisory committee wanted to bring more public awareness the Vietnamese refugees who settled in the St. Louis area. And provide a place for veterans and the community to submit personal memories and stories about the Vietnam War era. Those submissions will ultimately be archived with the Missouri History Museum. More information about submitting a story can be found online at stories.ninenet.org/shareastory/

The initial airing of the 10-part, 18-hour documentary film series has finished. Four Vietnam Veterans, all members of the VVA 1028 in Fenton, shared their thoughts on the new film.

Pictured: Gary Keeney

Gary Keeney

Keeney graduated from Webster Groves High School in 1966. He served in Vietnam from 1968 – 1969 with the Army in the 41st Signal Battalion, 1st Signal Brigade.

Keeney said the documentary was good and there were parts that were hard to watch, but he made it through it. He said the series should have come out earlier because for many years people did not care about the Korean or Vietnam wars. This film will be good for people to see and to “open their eyes up to what servicemen went through.”

Keeney explained that many Vietnam veterans never talked about the war or their experiences. They feared public ridicule and commendation. He said upon returning from the war he, and other veterans, were called “baby killers” and suffered other indignations.

Today, Keeney said public support has changed and in the last 10 years many veterans have started wearing hats showing their military service, which were not seen before that.

“Reconciliation has happened to an extent. I’ve had people come up and say thank you for my service. I have also been in restaurants with my wife and had my lunch bought for me without knowing who did it,” Keeney said. “My wife and I try to do the same thing for other veterans.”

Pictured: John Stillman

John Stillman

Stillman graduated from Webster Groves High School in 1966. He served in Vietnam from 1967-1968 as an Army paratrooper with the 101st Airborne – also known as the Screaming Eagles. He survived the Tet Offensive.

“I thought the whole documentary was very good. Could Burns say more – yes – but then you’d have to watch it every night for a whole year,” Stillman said. “I thought he also did a good job with showing everybody’s viewpoint. He was fair to everybody.”

Stillman admitted at times it was hard to watch, especially the episode that included the Tet Offensive. But he made it through the entire documentary from start to finish.

In relation to how Vietnam veterans are treated today, Stillman says things have gotten better but described his experiences as sometimes mixed.

“I still, whether it’s my imagination or not, can be in a store with my hat on showing I’m a Vietnam veteran and have people come up to me and thank me for my service,” Stillman said. “And then I have other people, you know, people that would be around my age, glare at me like they are still mad at me.”

Pictured: Russ Whitener (second from the right)

Russ Whitener

Whitener, Crestwood, served in Vietnam from 1969 – 1970 with A Battery, 2nd Battalion of the 94th Field Artillery.

Whitener viewed the first six or seven episodes then turned it off. He said he watched it with mixed emotions. The images of servicemen fighting in Vietnam and the details of people protesting back in the U.S. were hard to see, especially when the soldiers and protesters were approximately the same age.

“I’ve seen the images of the protesters over the years and it has always bothered me. It’s just seeing the images and everything that was going on politically behind the scenes just got to be too much,” Whitener said. “Finally, I said why torture myself and turned it off.”

Difficult images Whitener said he has seen in the past are of the last helicopters leaving the U.S. embassy rooftop in Saigon as the U.S. pulled out of the war.

“Not only were we running out of there with our tail tucked between our legs, but we left a lot of South Vietnamese behind that were use to dealing with Americans,” Whitener said. “A lot of them were probably executed and many sent to re-education camps. I guess things got pretty brutal in those – I can only imagine.”

Whitener said people now thank the veterans for their service and some will be apologetic for the way the Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned home.

“Today, I enjoy people thanking me for my service and making kind comments,” Whitener said. “Once we got back from over there we sure as hell didn’t get them.”

Pictured: Bill DeArmond

Bill DeArmond

DeArmond graduated from Webster Groves High School in 1966. He served in Vietnam from 1967 – 1968 in the Army with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, 2nd Ranger Battalion.

DeArmond has watched several episodes of the documentary and recorded the rest to watch later. He said what he had seen so far was great and especially likes the chronological order of dates and historical facts, which has allowed him to relate where he was located and what was happening during that time.

Some of the footage DeArmond saw was near the location and time his childhood friend, Gary E. Smith, was killed. He said seeing the images and thinking about the friends he had lost in the war was not easy.

DeArmond said it was time for this kind of documentary to come out because people should not forget what happened in Vietnam.

“We shouldn’t allow our government to let us get in something like this again,” DeArmond said. “Because there were 58,240 men who lost their lives for nothing, including some very close friends.”

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