Green Bay's storied Lambeau Field doesn't typically see much action once
football season winds down, but the place will be packed when Wisconsin Public
Television (WPT) throws a massive welcome-home party for war veterans in May.
Working with the Wisconsin Historical Society and Wisconsin Department of
Veterans Affairs, WPT will salute the state's residents who served in Vietnam,
and will preview its documentary Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories on
Lambeau's Tundra Vision screen.
It may seem odd to throw a welcome-home party decades after the last
soldiers returned, but organizers say it's never too late to acknowledge the
veterans' service to the U.S.-and to address the harsh treatment so many
received after returning home from Vietnam. "It's 40 years late," concedes WPT
Director of Television James Steinbach, who manages the statewide public television
network. "But there's no statute of limitations on doing the right thing."
Various welcome-home events, including the Honor Ride motorcycle parade and
educational exhibits, will be held May 21 to 23, with 100,000 visitors expected
to turn up in Green Bay.
The centerpiece is LZ Lambeau ("LZ" is military shorthand for Landing Zone) in
the Packers' stadium May 22; there will be fly-bys from Vietnam-era aircraft,
an address from Gov. Jim Doyle and a peek at the documentary on the jumbo
screen. The field will feature 1,244 empty, flag-adorned chairs to honor Wisconsin's soldiers who
did not return, and there will be music and poetry from various veterans.
"It's really the Vietnam
experience in the veterans' own words," says LZ Lambeau producer Andy Wagner.
WPT's Biggest Project to Date
The total budget for the initiative is $1.3 million, with about $500,000
going toward the three-hour documentary. Steinbach says WPT has never tackled a
project of this scale. "It's the biggest thing we've ever done, in terms of
scope and budget," he says.
Organizers say there was initial resistance from war veterans about the
project, some feeling it was too little and way too late. But past military
documentaries on WPT focusing on World War II and Korea, combined with Lambeau
Field's mythological powers, ended up getting many on board. "Lambeau is
hallowed ground in Wisconsin,"
says documentary producer Mik Derks. "It's a place where people from all walks
of life in Wisconsin
are comfortable going to."
The Packers gave the green light from the get-go, say organizers. "They've
really been tremendous partners," says event director Don Jones.
Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories is divided into three parts:
Escalation, Turning Point and Pull Back. It does not politicize the controversial
war and does not rely on talking heads for punditry (no "voice of God,"
Steinbach says); it's stark and heart-wrenching testimonials from Wisconsin soldiers who served. "People who've never
talked about their experiences shared their stories with us," Derks says.
"They're powerful, powerful interviews."
After the LZ attendees view pieces of the documentary on the big screen, WPT
viewers across the state can watch it May 24, 25 and 26. Steinbach says a primetime
show might typically do a 2.0 rating; with strong promotion, he says War
Stories could do a 5 or a 6.
WPT will also produce a "strip version," with the Wisconsin
references taken out, for public television outlets in other regions. PBS
stations in Minnesota and Iowa, among others, have expressed interest,
according to Steinbach.
There's also interest on the commercial-television side. WKBT La Crosse is
in talks to air the doc in three weekly specials in June; General Manager Scott
Chorski says it's the first time he can recall the station airing PBS
programming. "It's a great project," he says. "Anything that honors the
veterans is important."
WPT is not charging other stations to air War Stories. "We'll make
it available to anybody who wants it," Steinbach says. "We don't want to do
anything that restricts people from seeing this."
Hoping to make amends
It's noteworthy that the project was hatched in Madison, the site of some of the country's
most vehement war protests decades before. The organizers say the documentary,
stadium event and a book commemorating the local soldiers are efforts to make
amends for the often shoddy and at times cruel reception the war veterans got
They're also hopeful the project can spark similar efforts at stations
around the country. "I hope other states see what we're doing and do their own
events," Derks says. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if every state had a
welcome-home celebration for its veterans?"