Hartselle woman creates video series featuring 11 Vietnam veterans
By Catherine Godbey
For the Enquirer
Clad in Vietnam veteran hats and patriotic colors, a group of men gathered together and, for more than 10 hours, talked about the past.
Going back more than 50 years, they discussed the draft, the use of Agent Orange, returning to America and the war’s long-lasting physical, mental and emotional impact.
From outside the circle of veterans, Susie Burgess watched and listened to the men she referred to as heroes.
“What these men did, what they saw and what they sacrificed is unimaginable,” Burgess said. “These are men who might be your neighbors, who you might go to church with, who you might see at the store. We can’t let them be forgotten.”
To ensure the stories of Vietnam veterans and the war continue to be told, Burgess created “Vietnam: Through the Eyes of Our Neighbors.” In the six-
part video series, 11 retired Vietnam veterans from Morgan County share stories of their wartime experience and the aftermath.
“They don’t know what it’s like,” Army Staff Sgt. Larry Thrasher said to his fellow veterans. “You do. I do. And we come back and we’re not the same – never will be.”
Through the videos, Burgess said she hopes people, specifically younger generations, come away with a greater understanding of one of the nation’s most controversial wars.
“It doesn’t matter if it was a good war or a bad war; every war that we have been in has shaped this country in some way and shaped us as people,” she pointed out. “There were a lot of mistakes made and lessons learned and lives changed. I want people to see and understand the impact this war had.”
For Burgess, of Hartselle, the video project began two years ago while she was helping her great-nephew with his high school history homework.
“I realized most of his generation knew nothing about the Vietnam War. When I asked them about the Vietnam War, they had a blank look on their faces,” she said. “To them, it was more of a Hollywood movie than an actual event.”
Although warned of many veterans’ reluctance to talk about their experiences, Burgess reached out to the men who served in the Marine Corps, Army, Air Force and Navy.
Over two filming sessions, one in September 2019 and one in October 2020, the men talked about their service, from arriving in Vietnam — “I remember walking off the ramp of the airplane and looking off in the distance and thinking, ‘There are people right down there that want to kill me,’” said Army Col. James Henderson – to returning home – “There were many people on that airplane … I knew. They never spoke to me, and I
never wore my uniform again,” said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Mike Elam.
They talked about the use of Agent Orange – “At the time it had a purpose. It was a godsend in ambush areas, but I don’t think anyone knew the long term,” said Marine Corps Sgt. Larry Wilson — and visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — “There’s a spirit at the wall. There’s an emotional attachment, not to the wall, but the men,” said Army Spc. Cleo Stubbs.
Combined, the six videos, which are accessible to the public on YouTube, run an hour. Emily Ziegler, a Danville native who works in California editing promotional videos and creating marketing content, volunteered to edit and help shoot the project.
“We did it where high school classes could watch one or two episodes and then discuss. They could take one week and study the Vietnam War using the videos as help,” Burgess said. “By using local veterans, I hope it will help the students connect more with this war. All they’ve seen is Charlie Sheen in ‘Platoon’ or Robert Duvall in ‘Apocalypse Now.’ These men want to share their stories.”
Along with Thrasher, Henderson, Elam, Wilson and Stubbs, the veterans included Army Lt. Col. Barry Goree, Army Spc. Ray Russell, Army Staff Sgt. George Hearring, Marine Corps Maj. Terry Smith, Army Lt. Col. Don Ricks and Air Force Capt. Hal Lee.
Lee, who flew 150 missions in Vietnam, shared about receiving a call from a unit on the ground being overrun by the enemy at night. Lee piloted his C-119 aircraft to the river and targeted the enemy troops.
“I still get chill bumps when I think about it. One of the greatest things I’ve ever done in my whole life was saving that whole little old outpost. To me, it was the hand of God working through me to save these guys on the ground,” Lee said.