Under the Radar

Children of War Meet Face to Face in 'The 2 Sides Project'

Dang Thi Le Phi, Vu Ngoc Xiem, Susan Mitchell-Mattera, Nguyen Thi Hong Diem gather at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. May 2017 (2 Sides Project)

How would you feel if you stood on the foreign ground where your father lost his life? If you met the children of the military members who killed him? If you never really got to know him to start with?

Those were some of the realities the now-grown children of several service members killed in Vietnam faced when they set out on a 2015 trip to visit the country where their fathers lost their lives.

Their journeys where chronicled in the documentary The 2 Sides Project, which will air nationwide on the PBS World Channel on May 25.

The film, which runs about an hour long, is full of all the heart wrenching moments you'd expect from six sons and daughters of Vietnam war casualties coming face to face with the children of war in that country. Not only do they meet and connect with the people of Vietnam, but they also visit the places their fathers lost their lives.

Like many grown Gold Star kids, their memories of their fathers are shadows or, in some cases, nonexistent. All they've each has ever really known is their father's death and, more acutely, his absence. This film gives a view into that experience while allowing viewers the chance to get to know these men and who they left behind.

I came upon this documentary in a winding way.

In 2005 I was fresh-faced reporter working at a local paper in the Washington, D.C. area and assigned to cover a Father's Day ceremony at the Wall. I had never covered the military before and I knew almost nothing about Vietnam or the Wall itself. But on that day I happened to strike up a conversation with Susan Mitchell-Mattera. She was visiting the Wall in honor of her father, EM1 James C. Mitchell Jr.

Those of us who participate in road races and fitness events in honor of fallen service members know that doing so is both an emotional and physical investment. The many families of the fallen in my acquaintance worry that their loved one's death will be forgotten.

By running in their honor I do my very small part to make sure that's not true. And when the miles seem long or the running hard, I use that burden as a touchstone to keep me going. What is my silly little run compared to service? Compared to losing someone in war?

Over the years I've kept loosely in touch with Susan. And when this year I decided to select a service member killed in Vietnam to honor during my races throughout the year (by wearing his name, carrying a flag in his honor and having his name and photo places on the Marine Corps Marathon's wear blue mile), I thought of Susan's dad.

Susan, I soon learned, is among the daughters who traveled to Vietnam and is featured in The 2 Sides Project. And viewing the film was a perfect way for me to learn more about EM1 Mitchell --- his life, his death and those he left behind.

I've watched a of war films and documentaries, but this one was unique. If Vietnam is the conflict we still have trouble talking about, then the perspectives of the children of that war's fallen are even harder to find discussed. The 2 Sides Project helps fill that gap.

The gut reaction I felt most accurately while watching this film wasn't sorrow or pity -- although those emotions were there, too.

More than anything I felt a sense of honor.

Honored to witness their journey.

Honored to watch them face and then develop a bond with the sons and daughters of former enemies.

And, more than anything else, honored to have a view into the intimate moments setting foot where their fathers died and grasping the deep reality of that loss.

Memorial Day is a holiday weekend we so often associate with the start of summer and outdoor fun. Stop and use watching this film as a chance to pause and consider the burden of war --- and the experience of healing.

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