Student film gives Vietnam vets a much-belated welcome home PDF Print E-mail
Written by Paul Rossman, Gazette Staff Writer
Monday, 16 June 2008
NORTHERN CAMBRIA — The auditorium was pitch-black at Northern Cambria Middle School when a film lit up the movie-sized screen. Moments in, the first voice heard was that of Herman L. Fisher, who had a simple message for the nearly 140 people in attendance: “We never got a welcome home.”

More than 30 years after the Vietnam War ended, veterans received a welcome home of sorts Sunday night when a documentary titled “We Never Got the Welcome Home” premiered.

The project was written, produced and edited by 14 Northern Cambria students and was funded by a $10,000 grant from The History Channel. The students worked on the project since September and finished the documentary for the premiere minutes before the showing.

The documentary, which ran a little over one hour, featured interviews with more than 25 Vietnam veterans from western Pennsylvania, stories which were intertwined throughout the film with footage of the war from the Department of Defense.

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The project focused on the veterans’ backgrounds, their experiences in Vietnam and post-war re-adjustment period.

After placing advertisements in the local papers, the students traveled to Clymer, Ebensburg, Johnstown and Northern Cambria to conduct interviews with veterans who wished to tell their stories. The students also made two separate trips to Washington, once interviewing U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, and the other to get footage of Rolling Thunder, a nonprofit organization whose main purpose is to publicize missing-in-action and prisoner-of-war issues.

“The knowledge I gained from this — you can’t get it in the classroom,” said Casey Contres, who served as one of the producers of the documentary.

Dr. Paul Douglas Newman, a professor of early American history at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown who served as a project adviser, said the students put in “thousands of hours” in producing the film.

The project essentially began after some of these same students were finishing a book last summer titled “As the Dust Settles: Revealing Those Seldom Seen,” which documented seven main issues of coal mining.

“It worked out great,” said Newman, who also served as adviser on the book. “We did it in six months.”

It was then that Deacon Ann Staples, the executive director of the Northern Cambria Coal Country Hangout, found a “Save Our History” grant from The History Channel.

“I thought, ‘This is for us,’” Staples said.

Staples approached Newman about the grant. Coincidentally, Newman had just learned of the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. combat death in Vietnam, Harry Cramer, who was from Johnstown.

“I thought, ‘Well, where’s their welcome home? Where’s their gratitude and all that kind of stuff?’” Newman said. “And there isn’t. These guys were ignored when they came home, and here we’re coming up on this anniversary and still nothing.”

With this in mind, they applied for the grant and received $10,000, the highest award. Newman said the money was used to buy computer and video editing equipment, and was used to fund the various expenses of the project.

Karen Bowman, a history teacher at Northern Cambria who also served as an adviser, said she didn’t handpick these students; rather, they volunteered to be on the project.

“This is a true team-building collaboration,” Bowman said. “They have figured out what their strengths are, they learned to rely on each other for their strengths, and it is a true professional-grade collaboration.”

After Newman initially meet with the students in September, and after watching several documentaries, the students decided on the format for the film.

“What they came up with was to come up with a series of questions we would ask every vet and allow them to tell their story,” Newman said. “The movie would have no narration, no text, no editing on our part other than fitting the interviews together and making a coherent story out of it — letting them tell their story.”

The next showing will be 7 p.m. July 16 at the Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center at Pitt-Johnstown. Admission is free.

But the students aren’t limiting themselves to only local showings. Contres said they plan to enter the documentary into several national film festivals, ranging from Los Angeles to New York City.

“We’re not done,” Newman said. “This is just the beginning of this story.”