The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

July 2004
FEATURE
 
 

In The Shadow Of The Blade: A Story Of Reconciliation
and Coming To Terms
 

BY JIM BELSHAW

In the Shadow of the Blade, a documentary film that follows the flight of a restored UH-1H Huey helicopter, leads to people and places stretching across 10,000 miles of America. It leads to memories and loved ones and the never-ending pain of great loss. It leads to Landing Zones scheduled and Landing Zones found along the way, and last-minute requests from people who ask: "Can you land here?"

The heart of the film is found in veterans who still look skyward at the sound of a helicopter's blades slapping the air; it leads to families imagining a loved one dying alone in a faraway place. It leads to a reunion of a door gunner and the man whose life he saved; a sister's flight with her brother's commanding officer and his pilot as they remember the last day of his life; a former POW who will climb into a Huey for the first time since he was shot down in 1968; a daughter's flight in the co-pilot's seat in memory of her father who died in Vietnam; a Gold Star Mother who still grieves for a son; a memorial built in a mountain valley by the father of a Marine.

It leads to Mary Padilla in Rio Rancho, N.M., when she says of her grievously wounded husband coming home from Vietnam in a wheelchair: "Love is not a burden."

In October 2002, Patrick and Cheryl Fries of Austin, Texas, lifted off with their Arrowhead Film and Video Production crew in a restored Huey to fly across America to record what would become a remarkably moving film. The creator of scores of documentaries, television commercials, and corporate branding campaigns over a 20-year career, Patrick Fries set out on a project like no other he'd seen in his career, calling the people he ran into in the course of making the film "some of the most inspiring people I have met."

He found he had made a movie that changed lives, including his.

"You'd think that after 33 years the wounds would be healed up," Patrick Fries said. "I had no idea that by scratching the surface the wounds would be so fresh."

His wife, Cheryl, creative director and producer of the film, underscores the impact of the stories they recorded.

"We knew the stories would be moving, but what we didn't know was the power that would be unleashed," she said.

About four years ago, on a long helicopter flight across Texas, Patrick Fries chatted up the pilot, a Vietnam veteran. Encouraged by the conversation, the pilot recounted experiences from the Vietnam War. He talked about the Hueys flying in and out all day. It seemed as if the air was never empty. Always there was a Huey up there somewhere.

Fries, a longtime documentary filmmaker with no connection to the Vietnam War either through his own experience or with family members, reflected on the films of the war. He had seen many documentaries on Vietnam and thought it had all been done. There was nothing to tell.

Then he asked the pilot a question: What if you could fly one of those Hueys across America and take it back to the people who depended on it every day?

"The thing that struck me was that every person, whether they were administrative or a cook or a grunt or a pilot, they all had a Huey story," Fries said. "The one common thing to all those people was the Huey. What really fascinated me was what about all the average guys who gave up their lives in Vietnam? Who's going to tell their story? Who cares about them? That's what drove me."

The pilot thought it a grand idea to fly a Huey across America, but told Fries that the filmmaker never would be able to pull it off. Hueys were too hard to find. They were classified as experimental aircraft and very few were in private ownership.

"It will be impossible to find one and get it to fly and land it in these places you're talking about," the pilot said. "It's impossible."

"He was almost right," Fries said.

Back home in Austin, Fries told Cheryl that he had a great idea for a filmfly a Huey across America.

Cheryl Fries remembers her reaction well: "I said, ' What's a Huey?' "

She did an Internet search and found the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. She sent an e-mail to the webmaster, Gary Roush. He would become the film's mission historian, working long hours to verify the accuracy of every story told in the documentary. It just so happened that the association's annual reunion was the next week. The Fries attended the reunion at Roush's suggestion, walking around with a camera, talking with pilots, filming conversations. When they returned home and reviewed the tape, they knew they had a powerful story.

"I figured out pretty quick that for veterans and people on the perimeter of Vietnam that just sitting in a static display of a Huey [at the reunion] had some power," Patrick Fries said. "Then I thought, ' What's going to happen if we allow a woman who lost her father in Vietnam to actually fly, to take the controls of the same kind of helicopter her father flew? What will happen to her? What will we learn and what will she learn? ' I thought it would be pretty cool if we could pull it off."

It took two more years to get it off the ground. One potentially fatal setback came when they thought they'd solved their most difficult problemfinding a helicopter. A Huey belonging to a sheriff's department in Florida had been confirmed for use in the film but at the last minute was pulled.

Two years later, someone from the Texas Air Command Museum accidentally found the Fries' websitewww.intheshadowoftheblade.com and called them.

"You looking for a Huey?" he asked. "We have one."

The Bell helicopter's official name is 65-10091, but goes by 091. Shot up twice and crashed in the Vietnam War, the helicopter itself is a Vietnam veteran that went on to serve in the Army, Navy, Army Reserve, National Guard, and NASA. During the war, more than 7,000 Hueys flew in Vietnam. Nearly half were lost. The Hueys flew more combat hours than any aircraft in history. More than 900,000 patients were airlifted by the workhorse helicopters.

091 was flown by the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company, "The Robin Hoods," in Vietnam. Among the more than 50 Vietnam helicopter pilots to fly 091 during the film was Ernie Bruce. This time around, his daughters flew with him. In New Mexico, a Native American blessed 091 with sage. In Georgia, an artist painted a talisman on it. The helicopter carried veterans, sons daughters, and wives, landing when and where it could and drawing an appreciative audience at every LZ.

When the filming ended, the helicopter was donated to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History for inclusion in a permanent exhibit scheduled to open on Veterans Day 2004.

The filmmakers made a point of assembling a crew of Vietnam veterans:

Retired Lt. Col. Bob Baird, co-pilot and mission logistics coordinator, who served 20 years in the Army with two tours in Vietnam. Bill McDonald, mission chaplain, a former crew chief for the 128th Assault Helicopter Company. Gary Roush, mission historian, a former helicopter pilot with the 242nd Assault Support Helicopter Company. Mike Venable, mission co-pilot, who flew with the 129th and 134th Helicopter Assault Companies.

The Fries conducted many interviews with veterans, logging more than 200 hours of taped interviews, reunions, and ceremonies.

"One of our philosophical principles was that we wanted to stay as close as possible to the history of the veterans at every opportunity," Cheryl Fries said. "So we involved veterans at every level. We always had a Vietnam veteran in the left seat of the aircraft and we had veterans planning the LZs and doing a lot of the crew work. Accuracy was non-negotiable. There was a great deal of respect about this being sacred ground for the people telling the stories. We were committed to being respectful of the veterans and families we were interviewing. In the years of pre-production, we interviewed hundreds of veterans. That's how we formed the philosophical base for the film."

Patrick Fries believed that had they not been faithful to the experience of the veterans, many of the stories would not have been told.

"If you're not accurate, people don't want to talk to you," he said. "They don't want to open up their stories and their photo albums and their pain and suffering only to have it not told accurately."

Accompanied by three support vehicles and an aerial cinematography helicopter, the Fries estimate they flew 10,000 miles, a figure arrived at by Logistics Coordinator Bob Baird, who logged the miles on his SUV between Ft. Rucker, Alabama, and the flight's final LZ, the Angel Fire National Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the mountains of northern New Mexico.

They scheduled 25 Landing Zones and guess at a final tally of 42, a number they are unable to nail down with any precision because many LZs popped up at the last minute, and all followed Patrick Fries' rule: Don't land on concrete unless absolutely necessary.

So they put down in front yards and back yards and farm yards and pastures and open fields. Their Web page provides an LZ road map: 3 farmyards, 4 backyards, 1 elementary school, 1 church, 1 town square, 1 hospital, 1 VFW hall, 2 high schools, 4 museums, 3 military bases, 5 parks, 5 universities, and the Ft. Gordon POW/MIA Memorial.

They found a daughter who lost her father and a Vietnamese baby saved by Americans. They visited pilots and crew members, triage nurses, Red Cross "Donut Dollies," and USO entertainers. They met family members who told heartbreaking stories of loss. In some cases, people had carried the terrible burden of imagining loved ones dying alone until they met the men who had held their loved ones when they died.

"I had no idea that a mother or sister's darkest fear was that their son or brother had died alone," Patrick Fries said. "You think that when someone is killed, the biggest loss is the loss of life. You can't celebrate birthdays and Christmases together. But to hear them say the worst part of the whole thing is they were told their loved one died alone somewhere in a jungle thousands of miles from home was very difficult. I had no idea what they grieved for. People die and many, many years later, the war is as present in their children's hearts as the day they died. From the family members to the hardcore veteran who hadn't shed a tear in 34 years, it was way more than we ever bargained for."

Cheryl Fries remembers a Gold Star Mother who came to a Huey LZ.

"She talked about her son," she said. "This was a woman who heard the Huey was coming to her town and came out to see it. We'd never met her before. She was clutching a photograph of him. She pointed to her Gold Star and said, ' This is all I have left. ' That family lives with that loss every day."

Fries spoke of a Georgia veteran who held a dying comrade in his arms as the man asked the veteran to tell his wife that he loved her. Thirty-four years later, through the hard detective work of Gary Roush and what Cheryl Fries called a "series of miracles," the filmmakers were able to locate the man's widow and put her in touch with the soldier who held her dying husband in his arms. Each said the experience helped to heal wounds that had been painful through all the years.

The film ends in Angel Fire, N.M., with the Huey settling in for a landing in a cloud of swirling snow behind the chapel at the Angel Fire Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial was built by the late Victor Westphall to honor his son, David, a Marine officer killed in Vietnam, and all other Vietnam veterans. Westphall peeked out from over the top of the instrument panel as the helicopter landed. The hands of veterans he loved reached into the helicopter to pull him out gently and get him into his wheelchair.

"Angel Fire became the perfect ending spot," Cheryl said. "Here you had so many incredible elementsthe father on the mountaintop, the first memorial to honor fallen Vietnam veterans, the kinds of things people do in the face of unimaginable grief, and then this full-circle return to Native America, with a Native American veteran blessing the helicopter. It was all there in one place. In a way, Shadow became a story in itself. It became a story of reconciliation, of coming to terms.''

The Fries are entering the film in film festivals, a course of action taken by all independent film producers. They've been notified that Shadow will receive an award at a Houston Film Festival. They are considering an offer from a cable TV company to air the film on Veterans Day. In Albuquerque last February, it had its first theater showing at the Madstone Theaters, a fundraising event for the Angel Fire Memorial. The production company offers the film to Vietnam veteran groups for reunions and meetings.

Major funding for the film came from Arrowhead Film & Video, DynCorp, and US Helicopter. Major in-kind support was provided by Southwest Airlines and Bell Helicopter. A complete list of contributors may be found at the Shadow Web page.

"It was very surprising to see how healing it was for the veterans to tell their stories," Cheryl Fries said. "I hope one of the lessons of In the Shadow of the Blade is that when you open up and reach out, you might find the peaceful link you need. We were just the conduit. It was a life-changing experience for us to be able to do this for people."

   

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