Documenting A Search for Healing from the Vietnam War
By Kris Gilbertson
Margot Carlson Delogne’s father, Capt. John W. Carlson, was an Air Force pilot shot down near Bien Hoa, Vietnam, on December 7, 1966. Margot was two years old. “The only things I thought about that country were pretty much, I hate it because they killed my father, and I’m never, ever going there,” she says. “I grew up like that, focused on what I had lost.”
When she got older, Margot started thinking about how her father had dropped bombs on people, and that there was another side to this, that there must be a daughter like herself, in Vietnam, who lost her dad. She wondered about how that woman grew up, what she felt, and how she explained what happened to herself and her children.
In March 2015, Margot heard a story on NPR about two sides that had come together to fight the closing of a plant. “They’d been really opposed to each other but came together for this common purpose and got it done,” she says. “I remember getting to work that day thinking, I’ve got to get a start on this.”
Delogne is Vice President of Corporate Communications for Patients Like Me, a website for people living with chronic medical conditions. She reached out to her wide network, explaining that she wanted to take Gold Star sons and daughters to Vietnam to visit the sites where their fathers died and to meet with their Vietnamese counterparts. She called it The 2 Sides Project; she had no idea how to proceed.
Planning the 2 Sides Project
One contact who offered to help was a Vietnamese man who had worked with military personnel after the war. Within three weeks Delogne was sitting in the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, DC, proposing the 2 Sides Project to senior government officials Hoang Vu, PhD, and Dzung Huy Nguyen. They said, “Our countries have come together, but our people have not, and [we] think your project could really help this.”
“It all came about in a fast, wonderful way. I knew that the children on both sides had never formally met and I wanted to make sure to document it,” says Delogne. But it would be a big, and very expensive, project.
She called her long-time friend and sometime colleague, Anthony Istrico, of Istrico Productions in Alexandria, to ask about a “friends and family rate” and to talk about his coming with her to Vietnam. She said straight out that she had no idea what would happen.
“Margot, this sounds amazing!” said Anthony. “Of course we’re going to do this.” Istrico Productions took the project on at their own expense.
Anthony Istrico grew up on Staten Island, went to St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and graduate school at Seton Hall in New Jersey. His father, a U.S. Treasury Department employee, was based in Brooklyn but managed a team in DC and spent considerable time there. “We came down lots of times to visit my dad,” Istrico says. “I’ve always loved Washington.”
Fascinated by government, policy, and related subjects, Anthony earned graduate degrees in international relations and public administration. He moved to DC in 2006 to find work in the government.
But, he says, “I always had this production thing, and always loved photography and film.” He took a job as an events and broadcast producer at the international public relations agency Porter Novelli. “It was a great fit,” he says. “The DC office was the events and broadcast department for the whole agency.”
In five years at Porter Novelli, Istrico traveled the world and met Heather Garlich, his future wife. He left PN in 2011 so he could stop spending three weeks each month on the road, and he could start selecting the clients he would work with.
Established and expanding
Istrico Productions grew through word of mouth, with clients ranging from Patients Like Me to Habitat for Humanity, from the Selective Service System to the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. Within a year, IP staff expanded to include Nora Kubach and Jared Groneman. Nora majored in theater at NYU, where she honed her innate storytelling skills. Jared came with a background in IT, a strong desire to do more creative work, and is, says Anthony, “a brilliant cameraman with an amazing eye.” In 2016, Marco Duran brought further technical skill and artistry to the staff.
Anthony keeps the agency’s emphasis on aligning with clients’ issues. “A 30-second video can take weeks or months,” he says. “We want to understand [the issue], so that we are speaking in [the client’s] terms when we tell their story. It’s important to believe in the work we and they do. It’s an intense, deadline driven industry. Long days, long hours, a lot of time.”
Planning the first trip
In June 2015, Margot Delogne proposed the 2 Sides Project in a session at Sons and Daughters in Touch, a conference staged every 5 years in DC on Father’s Day weekend for U.S. children of servicemen lost in the Vietnam War. She explained that whoever came with her would do two things: 1) visit their dad’s site, and 2) meet with the “other side.”
Many were intrigued with the concept; five signed on (see sidebar). They had the time, the funds, and the commitment to both parts of the itinerary. They were as curious as she about the other side.
In following months, Delogne worked closely with Bui Van Nghi, Secretary General of The Vietnam-USA Society in Hanoi to create an itinerary for the First Six, as they soon became known. Based on the most accurate information available, they would work south from Hanoi, visiting the site where each one’s father had died. They would also visit key war locations and meet with Vietnamese sons and daughters who lost parents in the war.
The First Six would travel as honored guests of the Vietnamese government. Anthony Istrico and Jared Groneman would accompany them at all times, documenting the journey. They would be escorted by a government handler/translator.
The challenge was getting Vietnamese sons and daughters to participate. “Not everyone was willing,” Delogne says. “[The Society] enlisted help from North Vietnamese veterans, the very men who fought our fathers, to reach out to these kids and get them to meet with us.”
Departing the United States
The First Six, with Istrico and Groneman, departed LAX on December 7, 2015. Days prior to that, the DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) sent Margot new coordinates to the likely location of Capt. Carlson’s crash site. (He is still listed MIA.) The night before leaving, Margot and Anthony sat together in the Hyatt LAX restaurant working with those coordinates in Google Maps.
“She’s reading things like ‘the bunker was 40 miles NW of Saigon, a mile long; my dad was shot down at the 7 o’clock position,’” says Anthony. “I’m scrolling the map 40 miles from Saigon and see this sort of artificial line, which appeared to be an elevated bunker or ridge. This is 40 years later, covered with trees and what not, but I’ve never seen a natural elevation that straight. Definitely looked manmade. I’m scrolling around and there’s this V-shaped depression about 150 yards away, and then another V-shaped depression at 7 o’clock on the map.
“I say ‘Margot, I think I just found your dad’s site.’ There’s a dip in the trees, where her dad dropped his bomb, and then the plane went down shortly thereafter. Chills. We’re sitting across from each other in the Hyatt LAX in chills. Everything she read to me in the report I can clearly point out to anyone right here on this map. She said ‘We have to go there.’”
“What I knew about Vietnam was things I got by watching Platoon and other war movies, so I thought it was going to be dense jungle,” says Anthony. “We bust through the clouds after flying from LA to Korea to Vietnam, being in a plane for 20 plus hours, and I see a beautifully manicured golf course. Everything I thought I knew at that point instantly was erased from my mind.”
They were greeted by U.S. Ambassador Tim Osius, with sons and daughters of Vietnamese soldiers and veterans, at the Vietnam-USA Society, overlooking Trúc Bạch Lake (where John McCain’s plane was shot down). They were treated as guests for a couple of days, taken to cruise Ha Long Bay, tour a pearl factory, and see theatrical performances in Hanoi.
“We were exposed to the beauty of Vietnam, its people, its culture, its landscape, but we were worked every day from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. They hoped we would go back and go to sleep and explore nothing on our own,” says Istrico. “So of course, I would drink a 5-hour ENERGY® and sneak out the back of any hotel we were in.”
Then they began the real journey, and when searching out their fathers’ sites they experienced many aspects of Vietnam: warm welcomes by most citizens, many of whom hadn’t seen Americans in decades, or ever; deteriorating roads; inaccurate information; and a brief detainment by Communist party officials in a rural area.
The government provided a 42-person bus for their comfortable transportation, a vehicle that couldn’t navigate many of the secondary roadways they encountered. There was often misinformation about the sites. There are thousands of war-related sites in Vietnam. Identifying specific locations for six individual deaths was a monumental task. Through the DPAA, the First Six often had more accurate coordinates than their hosts. “Up until this point it was a tourist journey—we were exposed to Vietnam, we met some kids and some veterans, but this is when it got real,” says Anthony.
Searching for the sites
The first site was where Margaret Von Lienen’s father, Navy pilot CDR Robert Saavedra, was shot down in an area northwest of Dong Hoi. This was the first experience with misdirection, first to a village where there was a crash site, but Ron Reyes, a GPS expert, confirmed that the crash site was two hours south. They started driving, but the road deteriorated until they had to abandon the bus and flag down and pay a local minibus driver to take them to the location. In darkest night, Margaret honored her father where his plane went down. Solemnly, they got back in the van to return to the bus.
Party officials in the area, however, were unaware that a band of Americans would travel through. Fifteen minutes into the drive, a party official ran into the street waving a flashlight. With the confusion of finding the minibus, the group’s handler had left her paperwork on the bus, but after heated discussion, it appeared that she settled the problem.
Detained in a rural area
“We get five minutes down the road and there’s a roadblock set up, with militarized uniforms on several individuals,” says Istrico. “We were a little scared; they did have weapons. We were directed into the party official’s headquarters. They closed and locked the gate behind us, and they took our translator into the facility, and the driver of the bus—the only other people who spoke Vietnamese.
“When we were first stopped, Jared and I instantly took the memory cards out of the cameras. One went in my shoe, one in my wallet; one went in Jared’s sock, one went in his pack of gum. They could take the cameras, but we knew this [day] would never be recreated.
“After a while the guys are outside, just joking. It looked to me that they got anyone who had a military uniform, no matter their age, and asked them to stand around. Somebody had an AK-47 without a clip in it, so I didn’t think we were in danger. People began to gather outside the fence. This was closer to the border with Cambodia and they hadn’t seen Americans since the war. We were a novelty. It was the weekend entertainment.”
For four hours, well into the night, Anthony, Jared, and Mike Burkett communicated with the Vietnamese in any way possible—photos of Mike’s kids on his phone, admiring somebody’s scooter, pantomiming a volley ball game—with an insurmountable language barrier, except for Google translations on Jared’s phone.
“We spent hours at that facility before the regional party officials show up in a luxury SUV, cleanly pressed, crisp uniforms, and simply asked to see our passports and apologized that they didn’t have a warmer welcome there, as they were uncertain that we would be coming,” says Anthony. “My wife jokes that’s the longest text message I’ve ever sent her. When we got back to the bus, I kind of fired it off. Everyone was unsure if that was going to be the tone for the rest of the trip. But it was the only issue we had.”
The hardest part
For most of the First Six, the hardest part was dealing with wrenching emotions that came with attaching a death they had imagined for decades to a real location.
Ron Reyes was described as the rock everyone leaned on. But when he reached his father’s site at Khe Sanh, he got very quiet, dropped down, and wept. “Ron’s dad was a Marine,” says Anthony. “You light a cigarette for them, you dump out a beer. In the Vietnamese tradition, they burned incense and Ron played his dad and mom’s favorite song, I’m Your Puppet, a Motown song back then. We were in this little valley, with jungle on one side and rolling coffee plantations, and this sound, in all its analog, mono glory resonated throughout the whole place. Playing from his iPhone, it was acoustically perfect. I get chills thinking about it.”
Ron knew the exact location because his dad was killed in action and carried from the battlefield by a friend whom, as soon as they all got back on the bus, Ron called and simply said, “I’m here.”
While leading a patrol in Quang Ngai province in 1971, Mike Burkett’s father, Army SP4 Curtis Burkett, came to a river they had to cross. The water was smooth as glass. He stepped in first, and was instantly swept away; his body was recovered 30 minutes later, miles downstream.
When Patty Young Loew reached her father’s site, she told the group that she felt she didn’t really belong there. Navy HM1 Jack Young had a history of trouble with alcohol and the military implied he may have killed himself. The group embraced her, pointing out “your father wasn’t here on vacation.” Back home, Patty connected through a veterans Facebook page with “Doc,” who told her he’d been with Jack Young when he was killed, that Jack was not drinking and did not commit suicide. In fact, he was caring for local children on a MEDCAP patrol when they were ambushed. Four were wounded, only Jack died.
At the end of the trip, outside Saigon, Margot Delogne went to the site she and Anthony had located on Google maps. The area was a rubber plantation with trees 30 feet tall. They hesitated, but the owner invited them to come on.
They found the depression, which could have been a bunker, and walked in looking for a dip where nothing grows, which would be explained by contamination from fuel or a bomb. Margot found the depression; Ron confirmed that it wasn’t natural. And Margot dropped to the earth, digging into the soil with her MIA bracelet on. She declared, “This is my site, this is it.” She played her dad’s favorite song, Nature Boy by Nat King Cole, read a letter from her sister, and talked about how much she missed her dad, how she wanted to get to know him.
Margot buried her bracelet in the soil. They joke now that the DPAA is going to exhume the site, based on this information, and they’ll see how good they are if they find the bracelet.
There were meetings throughout the journey with surviving children of Vietnamese soldiers. At the first meeting, says Anthony, “seeing the expressions on the First Six’s faces, as they are sitting across from veterans who survived the war, and children, and instantly there was this connection. Everyone was at the point in their life where they were ready to start the healing process.”
The last meeting, in Ho Chi Minh City, “was really tough. They were all very emotional,” says Anthony, “but one man, Vu Ngoc Xiem, stands up, puts his hands down on the table, and has anger, hate in his eyes. Through the translator he talks about how American bombs killed almost everyone in his school, later killed his dad, killed his mom, and he came here wanting to hate these people, but when he realized that they had loss as well, he [saw] that they were more similar than they were different. It was amazing to see this man’s emotions go from anger to break down crying and embracing each other. It was powerful.”
While all the meetings were intense, they didn’t realize how deeply felt until they returned to the U.S. and had everything translated again, and found out exactly what people had shared.
The group returned just before Christmas, Anthony handed Nora Kubach a hard drive with 150 hours of film footage and said “Go.” Six months later, he says, “Nora gives me one hour and 41 minutes of the most beautiful film.”
“I had no idea what to expect,” Nora says. Leading up to the editing assignment, Nora did extensive research about Vietnam and the war in general. She knew the itinerary, but says she didn’t want to know too much, to avoid preconceptions about the footage.
Beginning in January, she took three weeks to simply view the raw footage. She knew she had the thesis for the film when she heard Margot say, “When you’re in this search for who’s your dad, what you’re really asking is, who am I?” The focus would be on fatherhood, on growing up without a dad.
“The story is so beautiful, and so personal,” Nora says. “I think it makes everybody think about their family, and their lives. It was a beautiful experience to work on that. I’m still very tied to it emotionally. I probably will never let it go, but we’ll see what’s next.”
“Nora is the best editor I’ve ever worked with,” says Margot Delogne. “I don’t know how, but she finds story in things; she’s edited a really lovely film.”
“Nora did a masterful job,” says Anthony. “She knows more about these people than they do.” Nora was in touch with them throughout the editing process. Ron Reyes was overheard saying, “Before I meet Nora, I need to watch 150 hours of her life to understand what I’m getting into.”
Asked about having a camera constantly watching them, Margot said, “I think at first, you’re like, OK there’s a camera, I can’t do anything silly or whatever, so you’re very conscious of it. But I don’t know if it was because it was Anthony or Jared or the situation we were in, but I just forgot them, I forgot them completely—even in the most intimate, emotional moments where someone is standing at the site where their father died. I think it’s a combination of losing yourself in the moment, but also Jared and Anthony’s ability to be seamless, to be one of us, to be observers. It’s less that they were filming and more that they were observing. I think there’s a big distinction there.”
(Editor’s note: The 2 Sides Project feature film will premiere at the G.I. Film Festival on May 25. See below for details.)
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The 2 Sides Project: the Film
Premiering at the G.I. Film Festival on Thursday, May 25
The 2 Sides Project feature-length documentary will be shown at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 25. The First Six will all be there, as will Director Anthony Istrico and the Istrico Productions staff.
Tickets can be bought at https://gifilmfestival.ticketspice.com/the-2-sides-project
The G.I. Film Festival was founded in 2006 and stands apart from other film festivals by connecting filmmakers, veterans, and their families and supporters to explore, educate, heal, and preserve our veterans’ legacies.
This year’s events will be staged at three venues:
- S. Navy Memorial Theater
- The Canadian Embassy Theater
- Howard University Theater
Schedules, tickets, and venue information about the festival at large are listed at www.GIFilmFestival.com.
This festival is GIFF’s flagship event, held every year in Washington, DC. GIFF also hosts an annual West Coast festival in San Diego each October and has produced a live event military base tour, a National Cinematic Salute to the Troops showcased in 400 theaters across the country, and Best of GIFF television series on The American Heroes Channel and The Pentagon Channel.
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2 Sides Project (2sidesproject.com)
“True reconciliation does not consist in merely forgetting the past.”
The 2 Sides Project (2sidesproject.com) is a nonprofit working to connect sons and daughters who lost their parents on both sides of the Vietnam/American War. (To the Vietnamese, it is the American War, and before that it was the French War.)
Having made the initial journey with six American Gold Star kids who met with more than 20 Vietnamese whose parents also died fighting, 2SP is working to help other sons and daughter make that healing connection. There are many: an estimated 20,000 in the U.S. and 70,000 in Vietnam. And as wars are fought continually, more and more children are losing parents.
When the desire to connect with the other side happens, 2SP wants to be able to help. To do that, 2SP needs financial support. It is a 501c3 organization.
The full, intriguing story of the experiences of the First Six in Vietnam are chronicled in the documentary film 2 Sides Project and on 2sidesproject.com, with biographies, stunning photography, a map indicating locations of their fathers’ sites and meetings with Vietnamese counterparts, and details of the generous assistance received here and in Vietnam to make the journey possible.
“We know that facing the other side and our own fears leads to more understanding, and lasting healing. We discovered that when we came together in Vietnam.”
–Margot Carlson Delogne
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The First Six*
Mike Burkett: Mike’s father, Army SP4 Curtis Earl Burkett, was killed on February 19, 1971 in Quang Ngai Province. Mike said before he
left: “I never really thought about sons and daughters on the other side, but I think it would be amazing to meet them.”
Margot Carlson Delogne, founder of the 2 Sides Project: Capt. John W. Carlson, Air Force, was shot down near Bien Hoa on December 7, 1966. “I grew up hating all things Vietnam. But as I got older, I realized that my father’s bombs had probably killed many people, and that there were sons and daughters like me on the other side who had lost their dads, too.”
Patty Young Loew: HM1 Jack Young, Navy, was killed near Da Nang on March 11, 1969. “All of us kids are innocents. Our fathers made decisions and took sides and all the kids suffered losses like we did.” She wondered before she left: Will they harbor any animosity?
Susan Mitchell-Mattera: EM1, Navy, James C. Mitchell Jr., was killed near Cao Lanh City on January 8, 1970. “I don’t harbor any hard feelings. I can’t say that was the case when I was 5 or 15 years old.”
Ron Reyes: PFC Ronald Reyes (USMC 1st battalion / 9th Marines) was killed
on a hill overlooking Khe Sanh on March 30, 1968. “My dad found out that I was born two weeks before he was killed. I know that he at least saw a picture of me.”
Margaret Von Lienen: CDR Robert Saavedra, a Navy pilot, was shot down over the province of Ha Tinh on April 28, 1968. “I’m nervous about going to Vietnam, and about meeting Vietnamese sons and daughters. What is their reaction going to be? Weren’t our fathers considered invaders?”
*(excerpted from 2sidesproject.com)
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