After more than 40 years of silence, Utah's Vietnam veterans are speaking out about the war, their lives and feelings they have buried for decades.
KUED Channel 7 is airing a new three-part documentary series, "Utah Vietnam War Stories," with part one, "Escalation," at 7 p.m. Monday. It will air several times after that and will be available on the KUED website.
The other two parts, "Turning Point" and "Draw Down," are scheduled for broadcast this fall and next winter.
Series producer Elizabeth Searles and her colleagues spent more than a year interviewing 90 Vietnam veterans across the state. Many of the veterans live in Northern Utah, including fighter pilot Jay Hess of Farmington, combat engineer Larry Strait of Ogden, and fighter pilot Jerry Cannon of Pleasant View.
Being interviewed for KUED is the first time many of the veterans have spoken publicly about their Vietnam experience. "I haven't talked about it in 47 years," Strait said.
"It's a very unique documentary of the people who were in Vietnam," said Ken Verdoia, KUED director of production and the writer of the series. "While many of us recall the war, we must not forget the voices of the men and women who served there."
The movie includes interviews from men and women in military service -- everyone from foot soldiers to medics.
Cannon grew up during World War II and joined the military voluntarily. "All I ever wanted to do was be a fighter pilot -- all my life," he said.
Each veteran's story differs greatly depending on his/her experiences.
However, all have similar feelings regarding society's negative perspective of the Vietnam War, as compared with the modern-day attitudes and support for those serving overseas today. The era was a time of great political unrest and cultural upheaval.
The Vietnam War, which was fought in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, lasted from November 1955 to April 1975. It was between North Vietnam and its communist allies against South Vietnam, which was supported by the United States and other anti-communist allies. It is estimated 58,220 U.S. service members died in the conflict.
Speaking out on the KUED documentary has been empowering, said Cannon, 78.
"A lot of people don't understand what the Vietnam War was all about," he said. "I think this is a good way of educating Americans about the war. What it was -- why we were there."
Hess, 81, spent 5 1/2 years of the Vietnam War as a prisoner of war. Lt. Col. Hess was captured after his plane was shot down and he parachuted out.
What got him through each day was simply the human will to survive.
"You just do what you have to do," he said. "If you had any idea at the beginning how hard it was going to be, you would bang your head against the wall or something. We had no idea of the future, so we just had the hope and the will to make it through the day."
There were beatings and torture, and also brainwashing. His captors said, "Who are you?" and Hess said, "I am an Air Force pilot." "No," they said. "You are our prisoner."
"It was a battle of the will and minds," Hess said. "They tried to fill us with propaganda."
The prisoners were always hungry. "A hamburger," Hess said, "that's what I dreamed of."
Hess was released at the end of the war in a prisoner exchange. Unfortunately, back in that era, support services for military veterans weren't as extensive as today.
"You're kinda crazy when you come out of there," he said. Society simply expected veterans to deal with it on their own, Hess said.
When he began his service in Vietnam in 1967, his son was in the sixth grade. When Hess returned, the boy was a senior in high school. "My son was about 6 inches taller than me," Hess said. "There is a big hole in my life. There were a lot of things to work out."
Coming from complete isolation to the modern bustling world in the '70s was a gradual adjustment, Hess said. "It was a whole different world. It was like Rip Van Winkle -- you go to sleep and wake up in a different time. I came back to bell bottoms and short dresses. Norms had changed considerably and it was uncomfortable -- there were different values."
Sometimes Hess just watches the sunrise and the sunset and appreciates his life.
On the anniversary of his release, which is March 1973, he generally celebrates by going out to dinner with his wife. He has attended some military reunions. "I have a lot of respect and admiration for the people I was with," he said.
Hess says he doesn't hate the Vietnamese people. "I feel sorry for them," he said. "I went to war. They went to war."
Staff Sgt. Strait joined the military when he was 17; his father was a Marine in World War II. Strait served three tours in Vietnam between 1965 and 1969 as a combat engineer. His job was to dismantle traps and land mines, and to blow up bridges and bunkers. He was attached to an infantry unit.
"I enjoyed blowing things up," he said. "They (other soldiers) respected us; we lived a dangerous life."
Strait, now 64, traveled with 40 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives strapped to his back.
He was single during the war and kept many love letters he received from young women back home.
When he returned home, he was psychologically and physically disabled. "They told us to just get a job and deal with it," he said. "People treated us like crap."
Strait said the Veteran's Administration was of little help back then. "The war changes you. We were having nightmares, flashbacks, fits of rage, problems with intimacy, and not dealing well with people," he said. "They just told us to pop a pill."
Lt. Col. Cannon, who was a fighter pilot in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973, agrees.
"It's entirely different now," he said. "People support the troops. During Vietnam, they hated us. I had more nasty signals (hand gestures) flashed at me."
Cannon recalls, when stationed in Colorado Springs, Colo., a fellow serviceman told him how he went, in uniform, to Denver to pick up his wife. Some men slapped his hat off, then shoved him and pulled the ribbons and metals off his uniform.
"Everyone just stood around and watched. No one helped him," Cannon recalls.
"They blamed us for the war," he said. "It's a 100 percent different feeling now toward the war."