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A 'cathartic' experience for vet advisers in film

By David Bauder
AP Television Writer / November 8, 2011

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NEW YORK—If this week's History network's special on Vietnam feels like an accurate representation of what the war was like for Americans who fought it, two wives who wanted to get their husbands out of the house are partly responsible.

They showed their husbands, Ken Carlstrom and Sonny Silva, a newspaper ad placed by a production company seeking the help of veterans. The men responded and helped the company put together "Vietnam in HD," which airs for six hours over three nights on History starting Tuesday.

It was such a positive experience for the two Purple Heart recipients that Silva compared working as an unpaid adviser for 10 months to winning the lottery.

The men helped producers comb through thousands of hours of film from the Vietnam era to put together "Vietnam in HD." Narrated by Michael C. Hall, the film shows the war through the eyes of 13 people -- 12 veterans and a reporter -- and is a sequel to a similar project done about World War II on History in 2009.

History is rolling the dice on the documentary series, to a certain extent. Vietnam projects rarely do well in television ratings, said Susan Werbe, an executive producer at the network. The reasons are pretty simple: World War II was a triumphant experience that drew the nation together, while Vietnam was anything but, and can be uncomfortable to relive.

But History felt there was room for a project that conveys what the war felt like to the people involved. On the week of Veterans Day, Werbe also said History was mindful of how poorly many Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned home.

"A lot of the intention was to separate the war from the warriors," she said.

Carlstrom and Silva both live near the Easton, Pa., offices of Lou Reda Productions, which made the film. Eight veterans initially responded to the ad, but Carlstrom and Silva were the ones who stuck it out. Carlstrom, out on disability related to his war experience, worked as a mine sweeper on the Long Tau River near Saigon in 1966 and 1967. Silva, a retired crane operator, was a radio telephone operator for a land-based cavalry unit in 1969 and 1970. Both saw frequent action.

Carlstrom was initially put to work listening to taped phone conversations between members of Congress and President Lyndon Johnson, trying to cajole support for the war. Both veterans sorted and filed film acquired by the producers.

They were working with people who, for the most part, were too young to remember the war. The men would often be able to place the time and locations of scenes; Silva, 62, was able to show that one film wasn't taken the year it was labeled because the weapons soldiers were seen using weren't commonly available at the time.

Silva can close his eyes and listen to audiotape, and instantly be able to tell from the sound of helicopters what type of aircraft they were.

"It was like having two experts side by side with us at all times," said the production company's Scott Reda.

Both Carlstrom and Silva have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and were seeing psychiatrists who wondered whether this project was a good idea for them emotionally.

"It was emotional," said Carlstrom, 64. "I would walk out of the production room many times and I would have tears in my eyes. I don't want to be melancholic about it, but I would see things that would bring up memories for me."

Carlstom, whose best friend was killed and he was wounded in an attack that sank their mine sweeper, described working on the film as cathartic.

"This is going to ring true for a lot of Vietnam veterans -- OK, it happened, it was 40 years ago, (time to) turn the page," he said. "I think I reached that point in my life where I turned the page because of this experience."

One of the archival films that producers acquired was from the Navy, and it showed the crew of a mine sweeper on deck. Carlstrom was able to spot himself. Silva's father took a lot of home movies, and film of Silva returning home from the war is included in the project.

For the first time, Silva opened several letters that he had sent home from the war that his mother had dutifully kept. Though the written accounts of what he had seen were somewhat sanitized, Silva was able to recall many of his experiences simply by seeing his 40-year-old prose again.

Last month Silva attended a reunion in Kentucky of some of the men with whom he served in Vietnam, and brought along a rough cut of the documentary to show them. When it was over, there was silence, then a round of applause.

"They said, `Wow. Something from our side of the story, something that showed what we went through on a daily basis,'" he recalled. "It was a humbling experience to know that I had been allowed to take part in this."