As 2017 winds to a close, we’re looking back on some of our favorite memories of the year. From favorite programs to community events, this was a big year, with fun run-ins and meaningful moments.
Today’s memories come from Erik Ernst, the promotion manager at Wisconsin Public Television. Read on to find out what he’ll remember the most from 2017!
Public Television’s Role in Inspiring Conversation
It all started at our very first screening in Madison. After introducing the veterans who had agreed to volunteer their time to share the stories of their experiences in the Vietnam War, a gentleman raised his hand in the back of the Monona Terrace Lecture Hall. After identifying himself as a war protestor, he firmly expressed his concern that the panel onstage was made exclusively of veterans. “I wish to file a protest!” he exclaimed. It was the kind of moment that could have grown into a ball of tensions and prematurely ended what was designed to be an event of shared memories of experiences after watching a one-hour preview of The Vietnam War, a powerful new film from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Instead, something else happened that represents the power of thoughtful discourse that public television fosters in our communities.
After a few moments of uneasy silence, one of the veterans onstage raised his hand toward the protestor and said, “I want to thank you, sir.” As the audience listened, the veteran – a medic in Vietnam – said that until that evening, he hadn’t realized what role the protestors had played in ending the Vietnam War. When he returned to the United States from Vietnam, the last thing he wanted to do was hear about the war. He wanted to leave the experience behind and focus on his life back here, so he had shut off any and all news, discussion or action about the war. With as large as the anti-war movement was at the time, it is hard for someone who had not experienced the Vietnam war to imagine someone not being fully aware of its significance. But after being in battle for so long, this full removal from any and all media about the Vietnam War was one way that veterans like himself coped with their experience as they rebuilt their lives in America.
Now, some four decades later, he had arrived at Monona Terrace to start learning about the war from outside of his own story. For this veteran, he said he knew his war – the intimate experience that he shared with the fellow service members who were part of his platoon. But he had never before learned the scope of the full war. On this night, in this preview he started to do just that. And, as the protestor spoke out from the audience, the veteran said he needed to thank him for all of the important work that he and his fellow protestors had done to end the war and save the lives of so many of his fellow veterans in country – a role he didn’t truly understand, nor appreciate until he started seeing the impact of those protests on the screen in The Vietnam War preview.
As he said thank you to the protestor, the man in the audience thanked him in turn for his service – and for his words. And a thoughtful conversation about the shared and differing experiences in and around the war continued, among veterans, protestors and other civilians in the audience and on stage. It was just one remarkable moment that represents the power of public television to bring communities together to share stories, inspired by the work we see on our local PBS stations each day.
And, it is one that I have experienced myself firsthand a few years back when Wisconsin Public Television’s Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories project inspired a major community engagement event, LZ Lambeau: Welcoming Home Wisconsin’s Vietnam Veterans, in 2010.
I was proud to invite my dad for the weekend in Green Bay, knowing that he had served in Vietnam. Until then, that was really the extent of my knowledge of his service. Like so many other veterans, Vietnam was somewhere he went and then seemingly put away when he returned home. As a child, I knew that he had served, but aside from taking me to our city’s annual Memorial Day parade, the only other connection that we had to service was in hindsight prescient. While he never really spoke about his own service, when the United States returned to war in Desert Storm, there was one thing my dad made sure he did – he took me to each of the “Welcome Home” celebrations that Racine held for the veterans returning from the Middle East. It was, he explained, just the right thing to do for these men and women.
Fifteen years later, it was well past time for us to say “Thank you and welcome home” to our Vietnam veterans. We made our way through the grounds at Lambeau Field, admiring the static aircraft displays and museum cases filled with artifacts from the war with little conversation. But, as we arrived at the large map of Vietnam that covered a large portion of the parking lot, my dad was drawn to it. And, again nearly 40 years after leaving the service, this map inspired him to start to talk and share his story. He led me and my mother across the map, explaining the work that he did carrying new codes to various outposts in Vietnam via helicopter each day. As he walked the route that he would fly and explained the important work that he did, he met other veterans who did similar work or stayed in similar places and shared more stories. They’d embrace. They’d laugh. They’d reflect on the guys left behind. And they’d grab each other’s hand and say “Welcome home.” It was such a powerful moment. One that on this day was inspired by a large map on a football stadium parking lot.
Years later in 2017, as my colleagues at WPT and I brought the preview of The Vietnam War to five communities in Wisconsin, we saw many of the friends we made at LZ Lambeau, who were similarly inspired to begin sharing their stories with fellow veterans, family and friends. And we were honored to meet so many new friends – hundreds of veterans and their own families, who joined us to watch the powerful story of a war that impacted so many lives, and were inspired to share their stories either from a stage on the panels of veterans who we asked to share their experiences, from the audiences where they were moved to speak in often emotional terms about their time during and after the war, or likely, in their homes as they recognized the healing power of sharing their own experiences with their families and friends.