Making "Vietnam in HD"
By Barry Romo with Dave Curry
It won't surprise those who know me well that my first reaction to being asked by Reba Productions to let them include my story in their planned documentary "Vietnam in HD" was apprehension. My apprehension had multiple sources. It's not that I haven't told my story before. I have told my story more often than most veterans who experienced combat in Vietnam, but this time was different. A documentary for the History Channel promised a greater audience and responsibility than my prior interviews. The proposed length of the interview meant that I had to entrust my story and its future context to the folks at Reba Productions. Finally there is, of course, my own PTSD and the vulnerability associated with it. Trust in the reactions of others is not an emotion that comes easy to any Vietnam veteran.
The trust necessary for my participation in the film was engendered by my preliminary telephone interactions with Liz, the associate director of the project, and one of the screen writers. Their level of sincerity and sensitivity made my involvement much easier. Encouragement from friends and family, as always, strengthened my resolve to contribute to the project.
The really hard news for me was that the film makers wanted to shoot my interviews in eastern Pennsylvania. This meant spatially separating myself from my apartment and my closest friends. I have appeared in documentaries produced as far away as Paris and Germany, but the filming was always done in my apartment. I wouldn't have friends to hide with between film sessions. I would be alone with my guilt and shame with no one to tell me that I'm still "okay."
I flew to New York. There I was picked up by a limo service and driven to a nice bed and breakfast in Pennsylvania where I was to sleep for two nights. The bed and breakfast provided the backdrops seen in the film. The first ten hours of filming began early the next day.
The film crew was very international in composition including Chinese-Canadians and a Haitian sound man. Later I would learn that the sound man had lost his mother in his country's earthquakes. On that first day we covered every aspect of my combat, military, and life experiences. Everything was filmed twice. While necessary for the quality of the final product, this process meant my going over the depressing aspects of my life at least twice. At least twice, I had to describe each of the six human beings whom I killed during my tour of duty. At least twice, I had to recount the details of my nephew Bobby's life and death. Bobby and I were about the same age and grew up more like brothers than uncle and nephew. Sometimes, I'd break down. Liz, the assistant director, had already gained my confidence in our initial phone conversations. Liz was essential to my getting through the interview process. She helped me keep my story on target.
Still by the end of the day, I was psychologically very broken down. A local Vietnam vet took me out to dinner where the restaurant owner gave us some free ouzo. I didn't drink much or take medication to sleep, because I was told to anticipate eight more intense hours the next day.
That night I called friends and family in every time zone. Of course, I couldn't sleep, and I couldn't stop crying. The second day was as difficult as the first. That day was devoted to shooting what the film makers called "B Roll" or background. With each take, I'd get more and more nervous. Throughout the interviews I rubbed a "worry stone" that I'd found in front of my son's and his partner's apartment building. I rubbed that stone so constantly that I imagined the stone becoming soft. When I finished on the second day the Haitian sound man personally thanked me for helping him better understand what Vietnam had meant to those of us who fought there.
After the second day, the production company owner Scott Reba took me out for a big Italian meal. This time I felt comfortable enough to enjoy his generous indulgence of me with Italian beer. He left me with a quart of Italian wine to take back to my room.
On my return to the airport, the owner of the limo service drove me himself. When he asked what kind of music I'd like to hear, I realized that I didn't want to hear any music. After that my driver courteously left me to my own thoughts.
Throughout the process, I was well treated by the production supervisors and crew. I still worried a little about what the final version of the film would be like. In the weeks that followed, my fears were allayed as representatives of Reba Productions shared production CD's and solicited comments. Friends came over and held my hand while I watched the material.
I'm very pleased with the finished product. The film captures well the contradiction between duty and command. That contradiction is embodied in trying to keep your friends alive while crossing the line while engaging in our slaughter of the Vietnamese people. The film and its creation make my story a little easier to bear. I have had total strangers contact me to discuss our shared PTSD. One of my squad leaders from 1968 contacted me to say that he is proud of me. Only a minority of others' reactions to the film have been negative. I consider most of these negative reactions to be from war wimps or racist ideologues. One individual even said, "I'm glad your nephew died."
My nephew died at age 20. He was a virgin who didn't want to go to Vietnam. I feel the series gives Bobby a form of "continuing life." Bobby had written me in Vietnam. He was excited that I was an officer at battalion headquarters. He hoped that I could help him get out of Vietnam. All I was ultimately able to do was formally escort his coffin home.
Barry Romo and Dave Curry are long-time members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.