In his words, Sgt. Marc C. Waszkiewicz shouldn't be alive right now.
A month into his third combat tour during the Vietnam War, Waszkiewicz crossed paths with his close friend Sgt. John Hehr. Their companies ended up at the same combat support base, and early one morning, around 2 or 3 a.m., bullets started whizzing through their tent.
As flairs began to soar, artillery guns started firing and the sound of people's yells clung to the air. It was a full-blown battle, and as a sergeant, he had to take action.
"I charged out ahead into the enemy and overran them, which they didn't expect, and I brought in some wounded guys," Waszkiewicz said. "I'm out at the next outpost, and (Hehr's) out there with me, and we organized our men and I said, 'I'm going in to get more ammo and get a few more guys out.'"
Waszkiewicz's biggest problem, however, was the only way to get said ammo was to run in a straight line across a flooded rice paddy dike one foot wide and two or three feet high -- all while dodging bullets.
"I said, 'Cover me, I'm going back in,' and I start running," Waszkiewicz said. "I get about 20 yards, and one of the enemy soldiers pops up on me, and all I could do was run as fast as I could -- long story short, I got mowed down with an AK-47 and flipped through the air."
He was knocked unconscious after falling to the ground, thankfully making him appear dead to the enemy troops surrounding him. A couple hours passed, and at around 5 a.m., Waszkiewicz regained consciousness. He was paralyzed except for his right arm, so he called out to Hehr, who crawled under machine gun fire, picked him up and told him to hold on with his one good arm while they sprinted toward the medical tent.
"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for him," Waszkiewicz said. "When he got discharged from the military, he looked me up, and it was my wedding day, and he attended ... it was so good, and my mom said he looked like Clint Walker from 'Cheyenne,' which is funny because that's where he's from."
Years went by, and the two men fell out of touch. However, they lived parallel lives as veterans who were forever changed by the trauma of war. They both struggled with substance abuse, emotionally abused their children and battled mental health issues that prevented them from fully living their lives.
A new beginning
One day in the '80s, however, Waszkiewicz reached a turning point. He was working in music composition and arranging in Hollywood, and when he and his wife hopped in the car for a road trip one day, they came upon a group of veterans and Boy Scouts in a cemetery.
"They had one of those Vietnam War traveling walls on display," Waszkiewicz said. "My wife said, 'Let's go look,' so I went there and started looking at the names and the memorabilia. I saw a little teddy bear with a message pinned to it saying, 'You never could sleep at night without it, so I'm leaving this here, and now I hope you can sleep.' My heart broke."
That's when Waszkiewicz realized he needed to do something about his trauma. He needed to channel it into a project to share what he'd seen during the war, and his mind went immediately to the more than 4,000 slides, prints and Polaroids he'd taken in Vietnam after winning a camera in a poker game.
He'd documented everything with that camera, from filling sandbags to standing guard duty -- "the mundane to the horrific" -- with the intention of touring with a slideshow someday to share what he'd experienced. When he came home from the war, however, he quickly learned that nobody was interested, so he put the slides away for several decades.
Waszkiewicz was a music production manager for "Full House" at the time, so he knew the ins and outs of audio production and had networked with other sound technicians in Hollywood. He got together with some friends in the industry in 1987, and they made a promotional tape as a springboard for what turned into a 32-year filmmaking project.
"That event shaped our lives and why we act the way we do with PTSD and stress-related issues," Waszkiewicz said of why he made the film. "If we'd open up and share, I'm convinced we'd have less divorces, violence, alcoholism, less alienated veterans. ... If we would let it out, many of us that would otherwise end up a suicide statistic would not have to."
The end product is "Vietnam: An Inner View," an apolitical documentary about life as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam in 1968 that gives a voice to not only Waszkiewicz but several of the Marines he served with and interviewed for the film.
A lifelong friendship
Several years after his return from the war, Waszkiewicz looked up Hehr, his best friend and hero, in the phone book under Cheyenne. Instead, he found Hehr's uncle, who told Waszkiewicz it was hard to keep track of his nephew. Hehr wasn't in a good place, and he rarely kept in touch with the family.
Waszkiewicz developed a phone relationship with the uncle and Hehr's parents, and would call on holidays such as Christmas in hopes that Hehr would be there. He never was.
One day in the '90s, however, Hehr resurfaced. He'd gotten cleaned up, started finding coping mechanisms to deal with the PTSD, and he was ready to move forward.
"We reconnected and talked all night on the phone," Waszkiewicz said. "We cried, we laughed, we remembered ... we were going to get together, he was going to come out to western Washington, where I was living, to come see me."
But that never happened. As Waszkiewicz learned from a phone call from his widow, Hehr went mountain climbing in the Teton Range, fell and died. The news was tragic, but the call had a silver lining: Waszkiewicz learned that Hehr had a son who was a third-generation Hehr in Cheyenne.
Three or four years ago, Waszkiewicz finally found Rubben Hehr on Facebook. They got to know each other via messages and phone calls, and eventually the younger Hehr invited Waszkiewicz to stay with him if he ever made his way to Cheyenne.
A screening was the perfect opportunity.
"With all this COVID stuff, I said it's now or never. I may never get to," Waszkiewicz said. "So here I am, and I'm introducing Rubben Hehr and his wife to the man they never knew ... he never knew the calm, cool, collected and clear-thinking father that he had."
Their connection was instant. Hehr lives on through his son's grin and voice, Waszkiewicz said, and now he's made a bond that will never be broken.
"It's affirmed my cosmological belief system, my faith in my higher power," Waszkiewicz said. "Everything I've experienced is total affirmation that I was meant to come here, I was meant to meet this man ... I've done it (initially) with trepidation, but upon arrival, it immediately became confirmation. This man will be a friend of mine for life, and he feels the same about me."
This article is written by Niki Kottmann from Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Cheyenne and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.