As I entered the busy hotel lobby in Ho Chi Minh City, I had a strange feeling that I was looking for a group of people I had never met, but somehow, would go through a life-changing experience with. There, sitting a large table in the hotel restaurant, psychotherapist and author, Dr. Ed Tick stands up to greet me: “Stephen Olsson, welcome to Vietnam. Great to finally meet you. Here’s our group.”
My eyes were glazed over. I was just off the plane from a film festival screening in Tehran, followed by a nine-hour stopover in Bangkok, in a state beyond jet lagged. Ed and I had spoken once on the phone a month before.
I had since read his book "War and the Soul," on healing the wounds of PTSD, and he watched a few of the films and programs I have made -- on war, on racism, on the Dalai Lama, on compassion.
Through a flurry of emails while I was in Tehran, Ed and I decided that we could perhaps do something wonderful together, if I could extend my trip to Vietnam. He gave me an open-ended invitation to “ride along,” subject to approval by the group. There were no guarantees, and only enough budget to support one filmmaker for two weeks of filming. As a filmmaker, the gamble was that if the vets and their wives were to accept me and my camera to witness, record and occasionally even catalyze their psycho-spiritual journey through the emotional minefields of Vietnam, then we might achieve something uniquely powerful together, perhaps something bigger than all of us.
Each of the vets and their spouses rose from the dinner table to greet me, each peering into my glazed eyes: Michael Broas and wife Valerie from Gainesville, Fla.; Terry Bell and wife Anita from St. Petersburg; Jim Helt from El Cerrito California; Bob and Deborah Reiter from Troy; and Larry Taylor from Albany, each struggling, directly or indirectly, for the past 40 years, with the disease now known as PTSD. I recognized them as all only a few years older than me, yet through political and economic forces as seemingly trite as different zip codes or lottery numbers, they were pulled into the jaws of America’s perhaps most controversial war of the 20th century, while I was in the university, studying film and anthropology. So as fate would have it, here tonight in old Saigon, these paths were strangely crossing.
Ed Tick speaks about the “soul loss” that accompanies war and the killing process. The trips that Ed and his wife Kate Dahlstedt lead every year to Vietnam are in some ways an attempt to change the association of the word “Vietnam” from that of a war, to that of a culture, a people and a centuries-old Buddhist tradition of forgiveness and compassion.
Over dinner, the vets and I start to share our war stories, theirs from Vietnam and mine from two years covering the Afghan-Soviet war for NBC and making two documentaries for the BBC and PBS there. Over fantastic food and a few local “333” beers, one by one they all decide to let me into the group. Then I showed them with my camera how I would need to work with them, very close up. The modest budget, along with the film’s need for extreme intimacy, dictated that this would be a “one-man-band” style of documentary filmmaking, with 12 characters, no sound person, one translator and a minibus that would carry us from the Mekong Delta in the south, to Hanoi in the north.
The following morning, we are all on the bus together. From this first day, through my still-bleary eyes, I can see that there are numerous trip-mines along the way, which can re-ignite the PTSD trauma. Fortunately, Ed and Kate are experts in using such moments to jump-start the healing process.
By the second day, the group becomes quite used to my wide, close-up camera lens, and I became known (and tolerated) simply as “Cyclops.”
From the Mekong Delta in the south to Hanoi in the north, Dr. Tick led the vets back to the exact places where they suffered their most painful war experiences -- where they fought, where they killed or where they witnessed their closest friends killed. The goal of these trips, what Ed calls “their second descent into hell,” is to re-connect the fractured soul of the PTSD-wounded warrior and achieve some sense of healing, not only for the vet, but for the spouse and the entire family.
Besides Dr. Tick’s deep understanding of the disease we today call “PTSD,” I was extremely impressed by his deep knowledge of Vietnamese culture and the Buddhist faith. The attached video sequence, filmed in a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, is one of the short film segments within the GLOBAL SPIRIT program, "Forgiveness and Healing," now showing on many PBS stations (check local broadcast schedules at www.GlobalSpirit.tv) and also part of an upcoming feature-length documentary: "A Soldier's Heart: Healing the Wound of PTSD" (see www.CEMproductions.org).
Stephen Olsson is a HuffPost blogger.