Wisconsin Public Television's Lambeau Leap

Local TV outlet salutes Vietnam vets with full-scale documentary, stadium show
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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 WarStories on Lambeau’s Tundra Vision screen.

It may seem odd to throw a welcomehome 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 heartwrenching 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 commercialtelevision 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 years ago.

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?”

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