SUMMARY: Vietnam Veterans discuss the legacy they desire to leave behind through the work of Vets With A Mission.
TEASER — Mike Bernardo: I’ve never seen a group that’s quite so generous and open hearted. And here they are being generous and open hearted in a country where people were shooting at them, and people were trying to kill them. So that’s to me, that’s something that will stay with me, is just the generosity and the openness and the kindness of these guys – really is remarkable.
INTRO — Kent C. Williamson: The average age of our soldiers during the Vietnam war was 22 (that’s according to the US Wings website). What that means is that today most Vietnam veterans are in their late 60’s and 70’s. The Vets we’ve been following in this podcast know that they can’t continue making trips back to Vietnam forever. As much as they love serving the people there, they understand that their final trip back to Vietnam looms on the horizon. And for the most part, they’re okay with that. They’ve been faithfully doing their work in Vietnam all the while knowing that at some point their mission will be complete. At some point their work their will come to an end. So when I sat down with each of these men I made sure to ask them about the legacy they’ll leave behind.
Welcome to the By War & By God Podcast, I’m your host Kent Williamson. This show is a companion series to the award-winning documentary film By War & By God. In the podcast we’ve been telling the remarkable accounts of people whose lives were forever changed by the Vietnam war. You’ve heard stories of heroism, and stories of tragedy, and stories of reconciliation. You’ve heard about the magnetic force that tugged and pulled and eventually drew these soldiers, medics, machine-gunners and crewman back to Vietnam for the purpose of serving some of the poorest of the poor in that beautiful country. And today we’ll talk about their legacy.
But before we jump into today’s episode, allow me tell you about Big Heaven Cafe. Big Heaven Cafe is the place to go to purchase the documentary film By War & By God, so please click your way to Big Heaven Cafe dot com. That’s Big Heaven Cafe dot com and use the coupon code “podcast” to save five bucks on your copy of By War & By God. And don’t forget that 20% of all sales of By War & By God from Big Heaven Cafe go to the non-profit Vets With A Mission, the group that since 1989 has taken nearly 1400 Vietnam Veterans back to Vietnam for healing and reconciliation.
In today’s episode we’re talking about legacy. Back in the 1700’s, Benjamin Franklin offered some good advice regarding leaving a legacy when he wrote, “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” The veterans we have been following in this series have been doing something worth writing about. Which is precisely why we made the film and created this podcast. So let’s examine the legacy that Vets With A Mission will leave behind. Alright, here we go…
Bob Peragallo: I think that people in our society have a very warped understanding of what war is all about. How it comes into existence, how it’s fought and what the after effects of war are. And how we treat each other, how we treat former enemies.
Kent C. Williamson: This is Bob Peragallo…
Bob Peragallo: There’s two, two aspects of war, it’s the people that you fight against – the actual soldier to soldier. And then there is the society that is affected by war. In America and in Vietnam, both societies were affected by war. Part of the healing process that Vets With A Mission was able to bring was to the social aspect, as well the actual soldiers that we fought against. And I would hope that Vets With a Mission would be a model, a frame work that others could look at and learn and see that, “Yes this is possible, that out of such tragedy and difficulty could come a ray of hope. And that we all don’t just become ravaging, angry bitter people; that we actually can have a transformation in our own selves and good can come out of that experience. So, I would hope we would be a model for other people.
DROP IN — Kent C. Williamson: In a blog on the Huffington Post website back in 2015, Katherine Meadowcroft authored an article titled “What Is Your Legacy?” She wrote, “A legacy should be deeply considered. It takes on immortality, and it is how we live on after death. If we think of our legacy as a gift, it places an emphasis on the thoughtful, meaningful, and intentional aspects of legacy. The consequences of what we do now will outlive us.” I personally love the idea of a legacy as a gift to future generations. What kind of gift do you want to leave?
Kent C. Williamson: What do you want people fifty years from now to remember about Vets With A Mission?
Mike Bernardo: The main thing that people need to remember about Vets With A Mission, now and in the future and for generations is that – this was a bunch of guys who fought a war that was very difficult, very difficult for them. And because of the changes that happened in their lives as Christians, they wanted to go back and do something to help the Vietnamese people, and do something to make it right.
Kent C. Williamson: This is Vets With A Mission Medical Director, Mike Bernardo…
Mike Bernardo: I’ve never seen a group that’s quite so generous and open hearted. And here they are being generous and open hearted in a country where people were shooting at them, and people were trying to kill them. So that’s to me, that’s something that will stay with me, is just the generosity and the openness and the kindness of these guys – really is remarkable.
Kent C. Williamson: What do you think is the best thing that Vets With A Mission has accomplished?
Bob Peragallo: The best thing that Vets With A Mission has accomplished is a combination of all our work. If we were to put it all together…
Kent C. Williamson: Again, Bob Peragallo…
Bob Peragallo: …Our main purpose is we wanted to reconcile men like myself and other veterans to their war experience. We wanted to bring healing to them personally, but yet at the same time while doing that we would also bring healing to the Vietnamese people. Our motive as soldiers in returning to Vietnam – where that, we were really trying to help the Vietnamese people. I think that we have effectively done that, we’ve showed them that we are human beings and that we were more than just their enemy. For a period of time we were their enemy, but as we went back we became people that were there to help them through their misery and their suffering. The people that we met after 1975 and the late 80’s when we returned – they were an oppressed people. They were a people that suffered greatly, in just the physical aspects of life – mentally they suffered, psychologically they suffered. It was a tremendous tragedy that was unfolding that it appeared that nobody in the world really cared about. But here was a small group of veterans that would return and bring aid to them, and help them. And it spoke volumes to them, and it spoke volumes to us as well. But the real benefit was sending a message that, “Listen, this just wasn’t about conquering a nation or winning a war, it was much more involved than that.”
Roger Helle: It’s hard to probably define one thing that Vets With A Mission have accomplished in Vietnam, because there’s been so many.
Kent C. Williamson: This is Roger Helle…
Roger Helle: We’ve seen surgical procedures that have been provided by supporters of Vets With A Mission – that have literally saved children’s lives, adult’s lives. Surgical procedures that they could not afford, but if they had not had it they would not have lived. Medical care – in the early days, building a clinic in a rural area would take the infant mortality rate from 40% down to 3 or 4%. And I guess we looked at it as like giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. And other things happening like sitting across the table from men that we fought against years before. Men that – they tried to kill us, and we tried to kill them. And having reconciliation, even to the point of seeing former communists that we fought against coming to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Kent C. Williamson: When you look back at the work that Vets With A Mission has done, what jumps out?
Cal Dunham: What jumps out for me are the people that we have served.
Kent C. Williamson: This is Cal Dunham…
Cal Dunham: The opportunity to interact with the people – either in construction of a clinic, or just working in one of the clinics that we’d already established. These people began to one, see us as Americans in a different light. But we got to see them in a different light of just people helping people. What I hope the Vietnamese began to see was, that my heart was to help them. That there was no more animosity. I just wanted to help them, and when I was helping them, I was helping them in the name of Jesus Christ. I didn’t want them just to see another guy, that was over there just trying to do good for the sake of doing good. I wanted them to really see all of us as people that cared about them. And I think we’ve accomplished that. I think the people that we serve – they know we’re different – not just because we’re helping, but I believe they see Christ in what we are seeking to do for them.
DROP IN — Kent C. Williamson: I’m a filmmaker, an artist, and a writer and as part of my legacy I will leave my films, my paintings, my poems and articles. Even this podcast in a way will become a part of my own legacy. What are you leaving behind? What gift are you giving to future generations? The legacy of Vets With A Mission will be seen in medical clinics and in lives changed and impacted both here in the States and in Vietnam. And it’s my sincere hope that their story (as seen in the film By War & By God and through this podcast) will inspire a soldier from Iraq or Afghanistan to do work similar to what Vets With A Mission has done in the countries impacted by our recent wars. That would be incredible. A link of sorts from one generation of soldiers to another, to continue caring for people impacted by war. That would be an incredible legacy.
Kent C. Williamson: Fifty years from now, what do you hope people know about Vets With A Mission?
Roger Helle: Fifty years from now, what do we want the people of Vietnam to think of Vets With A Mission…
Kent C. Williamson: Again, Roger Helle…
Roger Helle: My hope is — In the scriptures it says that in the early days of the church, they recognized the Christians by the love that they had for one another. It’s my hope that that they, their children, their grandchildren will remember that there were these Americans that came to Vietnam. And they did what they could to help us, and they loved us. I remember one time early on, sitting across the table from a former North Vietnamese colonel. In those early days they always ask us, “When were you here, where were you at?” Well as we were talking, I discovered that he was the commanding officer of a regiment of North Vietnamese regulars that nearly wiped my company out on a search and destroy mission. We walked into their base camp and we were overrun – we fought for five days in this battle in this valley, trying to keep from being overrun. And so, we had this awkward moment that he realized that I had lost friends, and he was responsible – it was his men that nearly wiped us out. And so, through the interpreter, he said, “Why are you doing this, why are you coming back to my country, why are you helping us?’ He said, “You know, this may seem like a small thing,” the project we did at the orphanage. He said, “May seem like a small thing to you, but it’s not to us.” He said, the Carnegie Foundation came to Vietnam and said, “We want to do something, and never came back. The Ford Foundation came and said we want to help you, but never came back. But you, you’ve done something and why are you doing this?” And I looked at that Colonel, and I said, “Sir, Jesus Christ has taken away all the pain and hurt that I experienced during my time in Vietnam. And because of that love that God has for me, I can say, ‘I love you’ and ‘Jesus loves you.’” And our interpreter down at the end of the table started bawling. And so we had the Americans on one side of the table and we had the communists on the other. And everybody’s looking down at the table saying, “What did this Yankee imperialist say to our precious sister that she’s sitting down there bawling?” A couple moments of silence, and our interpreter just finally stopped crying and she told the colonel what I said. And when she translated what I said, he looked across the table and his eyes were big, and he just looked at me then he stood up with his hands on the table and he came around the end of the conference table. And I got up, and he looked up at me – I’m 6’4 and he’s not. And he looked up and he just threw his arms around me and had tears just streaming down his eyes – and I just hugged him. And we got done, he looked at our interpreter and he said to her, he said, “Tell him I’ve never had an enemy tell me before that he loved me.” That’s what I hope, fifty years from now – that they’ll remember those acts of kindness, acts of love. Where we’d get beyond the war, and that Vietnam is a nation and it’s a people that God loves unconditionally.
Dave Carlson: I would like people to think…
Kent C. Williamson: This is Dave Carlson…
Dave Carlson: …that God is so sovereign and powerful that He can take people who spent the best part of their lives, their youth. Who came over here to destroy and to kill, and to take territory, and to win. And then went home after a debacle of all sorts of international pressures and decisions to relative shame in their own country. He took those broken people, and he brought them back to the place where they fought. The most unlikely people in the world to take his message back, and to plant seeds of both reconciliation between our countries, reconciliation between individuals who fought, but also, salvation for those who fought who were tormented in their own minds and hearts. And salvation of the people that they came originally to hurt, and now they came back to save. And if anything, it’s proof that God can use anybody. Doesn’t have to be well trained, doesn’t have to be well spoken, doesn’t have to be evangelical, miracle workers. He can take soldiers, and people who are the least likely to be ambassadors. And can plant seeds that have amazing outcomes. That would be a great legacy for Vets With A Mission.
Phil Carney: What I would want people to remember about Vets With A Mission…
Kent C. Williamson: This is Phil Carney…
Phil Carney: …is that without question, Vets With A Mission was God’s idea. And it was something God raised up, and something God made happen, and something God has used. And I don’t say that to sound over spiritual. If anybody would have been watching the formation of Vets With a Mission, especially in those earlier days. I don’t think anybody would have probably from the sidelines witnessed what we were talking about, and who was doing it, and saying, “that’s a really good idea”. I think God raised up the most unlikely people. It was primarily Vietnam vets in the early days. All of us had issues that we hadn’t even dealt with yet. So the idea was, a bunch of Vietnam veterans that are now Christians – let’s find out if we can get back into Vietnam and see what we can do. I think any good mental health specialist would have said “That’s really a bad idea, you guys shouldn’t do that, something really bad is going to happen.” And yet, it was God. And I don’t remember any of us thinking in those early days, or any of the early board meetings and so on, thinking that it was going to have any longevity. Maybe we’ll do something 3 or 4 years, do a few trips, maybe develop some humanitarian projects. And here we are 25 years later, and to see the impact that Vets With A Mission has had on people that have gone on the trips, vets, wives of vets, such a diverse make up of people, and the impact it’s had on Vietnam. What I would want people to remember about Vets With A Mission, was that it was God’s idea – and he raised it up from the most unlikely sources and diverse make up of people. And has added to it, and grown it, and used it in a very significant way. I would just want people to remember and know that about Vets With A Mission. It really, really, really has been raised up of God and used of God.
Kent C. Williamson: With all the work that’s been done in Vietnam, how do you want Vets With A Mission to be remembered?
BREAK: Kent C. Williamson: But first, I want to give you a heads up about next week’s episode. It will be our final episode of the By War & By God Podcast and it will truly be a Memorial Day Special. If you listen to our show from beginning to end you know that I close each episode with this line “And of course, thank you to our Veterans… those who returned… and especially those who didn’t. Like my wife’s Uncle Floyd. Thank you!” Well, in next week’s episode we will tell the story of my wife’s uncle, Lieutenant Colonel Floyd W. Olsen who was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. In April of 1968 he flew his final mission; a flight from which he would never return. But as you’ll learn, even in death Floyd Olsen left a legacy; a legacy that lives on today in Vietnam. So please make sure you join us next week as we conclude this series. Now back to the show…
Kent C. Williamson: With all the work that’s been done in Vietnam, how do you want Vets With A Mission to be remembered?
Pat Cameron: We built 21 medical clinics there. We built a church while we were there. And we built some great relationships with a lot of great Vietnamese people and that it’s gonna grow and make a huge impact that maybe I’ll never see.
Kent C. Williamson: This is Pat Cameron…
Pat Cameron: Twenty-five years from now, I don’t know if I’ll be here or not but it’d be nice to think that – they look back someday and say, “Those crazy vets made a huge difference to us that had nothing to do with the war.” I think that’s the key to Vets With A Mission. We’re not doing it because of the war. We’re doing it because – for the love of God and the – come back over there and reconcile with them that we love them. And that we want to help them. And that we know they need us and we need them. I think the impact – we’ll never know, maybe for 50 years or a hundred years what we will – what impact we made there. But I do know they know who we are. And I do know that there’s a lot of villages and a lot of Vietnamese over there that without us they wouldn’t – a lot of them wouldn’t still be living. A lot of children that’s gonna grow up and a lot of them going to remember what we did and tell their children. My big hope is that they know – one, the most important reason we’re there is that we’re serving the Lord.
Chuck Ward: Most of my life, I’ve struggled with self-esteem issues – rejection, that sort of thing.
Kent C. Williamson: This is Chuck Ward…
Chuck Ward: I don’t know if it was because I was always the smallest kid, the shortest guy in grade school and high school and college, sports – always the last one picked. Didn’t grow up in a very close family, or a lot of physical contact in my family, so I’ve always struggled with that. And it’s hard for me to separate what I want people to think about me, and think about Vets With A Mission. So, Vets With A Mission has been a savior for me, and the Lord allowing me to work in this ministry, to serve in this ministry as a volunteer and now being so involved as the leaders – one of the leaders of the organization. What I would want people to know or remember, my legacy. Is that I finally accounted for something. I amounted to something. I was valuable in my life. My life meant something. And the work that I’ve done will leave a legacy, regardless of my shortcomings and failures in my life. I’ve struggled being a father, I’ve struggled being a good husband. I’ve struggled in my career at times. But through this, I think I made a genuine difference, and that’s what I hope people would remember about me, and Vets With A Mission — that we made a difference — not only on this earth, but eternally.
CLOSE & CREDITS — Kent C. Williamson: Thank you for listening to this episode of the By War & By God Podcast from Paladin Pictures. Don’t forget to tune in next week for our final episode of the series, our Memorial Day Special, as we tell the story of Lieutenant Colonel Floyd W. Olsen.
You can learn more about By War & By God at By War And By God dot com. Don’t forget to use the coupon code “podcast” at Big Heaven Cafe dot com to save five bucks on your copy of the film. You can also watch By War & By God for free if you have an Amazon Prime account.
You can find me on Facebook or Twitter. Just search for Kent C. Williamson and while you’re there search for By War & By God and like or follow us. Please email your thoughts about the show to Kent at By War And By God dot com.
The By War & By God Podcast is written and produced by me Kent C. Williamson with Sound Design and Finishing by Ashby Wratchford. Our Audio Engineer in the studio is Steve Carpenter. Thanks also to my brother Brad Williamson who helped record the interviews in today’s episode.
Special thanks to Ashby Wratchford who portrayed the voice of Benjamin Franklin in today’s episode. Thanks Ashby!
The By War & By God soundtrack was composed by Will Musser and for a limited time you can download the soundtrack for free at By War And By God dot com. Thank you to the entire Paladin Team which includes Leslie Wood, Steve Carpenter, Dan Fellows, and Ashby Wratchford.
This podcast is a production of Paladin Pictures. Yep, Paladin is a film production company that sees the value in audio podcasts. Why? Because like is the case with By War & By God… the podcast can go deeper into the story than the film ever can. Paladin Pictures is committed to the creation of redemptive entertainment and thought-provoking cultural critique. Learn more about us and our films at Paladin Pictures dot com. That’s Paladin P-A-L-A-D-I-N Pictures dot com.
By War & By God is produced at the Paladin studio in the amazingly wonderful, beautiful little town of Charlottesville, Virginia.
And of course, thank you to our Veterans… those who returned… and especially those who didn’t. Like my wife’s Uncle Floyd. Thank you!
EPISODE 11 – The Legacy of Vets With A Mission
PLAYERS: Mike Bernardo, Pat Cameron, Phil Carney, Dave Carlson, Cal Dunham, Roger Helle, Bob Peragallo, Chuck Ward, and host Kent C. Williamson
SUMMARY: The remarkable legacy of Vets With A Mission.
US Wings Website – Average age of US soldier during Vietnam War was 22
Big Heaven Cafe – Save $5 on the DVD of By War & By God with the coupon code “Podcast”
By War & By God Soundtrack – Download the original soundtrack to the film for free!