Under the Radar

How Bank of America Helped Make 'The Vietnam War'

The new PBS documentary The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick was over ten years in the making and reportedly cost $30 million to produce. Your fund drive donations and tax dollars aren't going to cover that kind of budget, so the producers turned to grants and a corporate sponsorship from Bank of America. You might have noticed the bank's splash screen at the beginning and end of each episode.

A documentary about the Vietnam War can't help but be controversial, so we talked to Bank of America about decision to back the film. Jeff Cathey is the bank's head of Military and Veterans Affairs for Bank of America. He manages the military banking contract with the Department of Defense and leads a 700+ global person team, headquartered in San Antonio, TX.

Jeff spoke to us about his own military service and why his company partnered on The Vietnam War.

What is Bank of America’s involvement with the PBS documentary The Vietnam War?

Bank of America partnered with Ken Burns and with Lynn Novick. As you know, they do very thoughtful, high quality work, and we want to be a part of that. We see ourselves as community leaders on a national stage and a local stage.

The documentary highlights different perspectives from the conflict and some major cultural and societal shifts from 50 years ago. We saw as an opportunity to bring those different perspectives into the here and now for Vietnam veterans and for the people who had brothers, uncles, or dads over there in the conflict and who are still around today.

In some ways, it's a bold move for Bank of America to put all their support behind something that’s likely to be so controversial.

You're right about that. Think back to that time 50 years ago and how controversial it was. Not just for the war, but everything else going on, on college campuses and race relations and the politics. We want to say, “Hey, let's take a fresher look at that and see those shifts on the diplomatic side and the political side and in society and culture.

We should be able to have forthright conversations about that and realize how difficult things were back then. We've all heard the stories. Soldiers who served in Vietnam didn’t really come back to a parade or music. It’s time to show respect and honor for those who did serve.

Were you old enough for the Vietnam War?

My draft number was 325, so it was too high in 1972 for me to get on a bus and go to Jacksonville and take a physical and go to Vietnam.

My daddy served, my brother had served in Vietnam in the Army. And something was just within my mother, talks so fondly of my father, who died in the service flying, and so I think it was sort of in my DNA.

We lived close to MacDill Air Force Base during the conflict and we'd just see and hear those F-4's take off and flying all day long and all night.

I wanted to do that, so I volunteered to join the Navy in 1979 and stayed in for 29 great years. I recruited my brother, who stayed in for 20 years, and he's a FedEx pilot in Hong Kong now. Then I recruited my sister. Back then, women and flying didn’t go hand in hand. They wouldn’t let her fly. So she stayed in for five years. So we all served and we're proud of it.

I know what it means to serve and to deploy. I did it ten times and was gone a lot. And these young men and women who take the Oath, we're proud of them, we pursue them, we hire them. We've been banking them, trying to make their financial lives better since 1920.

They’ve been all over the world. They’ve got the global exposure, they’ve experienced a diverse environment, they’ve worked and they do crisis action planning, they work under a strict uniform code of military justice. They’ve got rules of engagement. They got a code of conduct. So their values and ours line up very nicely.

Writing a check is one thing, but our CEO Brian Moynihan is on the board of the Medal of Honor Foundation. He's led our management team in this whole effort.

My boss until two weeks ago is a Vietnamese-American. And to have Thong Nguyen be up there with our senior leadership at the company and talk about the social and economic impacts of coming over here after the fall of Saigon has been invaluable.

We’ve got a big rollout in D.C. on the 12th and then New York on the 14th and maybe even do a wrap-up with the final episode at the end of the month. We want to keep this steady dialogue and to understand, even from our own associates and customers and clients, what it was like back then. If it was a direct impact or an indirect one, it seems like everyone has a story.

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