DECATUR – Nick Walsh has a knack for interviewing veterans, to bring history to life.
During a recent interview with Mike Wayne, who served in the Army in Vietnam, Walsh discovered that he was assigned to carry a grenade launcher and later a radio, while on numerous patrols.
“I jumped at the chance, because RTOs (radiotelephone operators) are the guys in the know,” Wayne told Walsh, while his video camera captured the interview. “He's the lifeline. He's very close to the company commander. He's got the map, compass, the knowledge.”
Walsh, 35, who is filming his first documentary, has a passion for history, especially the Vietnam War, which ended a few years before he was born.
Walsh, whose day job is instructional coach at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, said he first became interested in Vietnam when Ron Nolte, his eighth-grade teacher at Washington Middle School in Monticello, taught a class on the subject.
“He presented it in a way that was very realistic, with a very substantial reading list,” Walsh said.
He followed up by watching the fictional movies, such as “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Apocalypse Now.”
But Walsh later realized that some of those stories and images created false perceptions about the war and those who fought in it. Walsh said his research, focusing on veterans from Decatur, clashes with the notion that there was a widespread lack of morale and drug use.
“I want to knock away some of those perceptions with this project,” he said.
Walsh, who earned master's degrees in history and educational administration from Eastern Illinois University, has interviewed more than 35 veterans.
“Most everyone had positive comments on their unit's effectiveness, in combat and in the rear,” Walsh said.
The working title, “Fire for Effect,” derives from the combat command given to the artillery once it has been ascertained that the rounds will be on target. Walsh's intention is to zero in on the audience with a bombardment of fascinating veteran accounts.
Walsh, a graduate of Millikin University, served as a history teacher at Mount Zion High School for nine years, while working on his advanced degrees. Research for his history degree included study of local people who served in Vietnam, as well as a controversial art exhibit in which an American flag was symbolically wrapped in chains.
He was especially influenced by reading a book, “Working Class War,” by Christian Appy, which showed that the war was mainly fought by young men from working class and lower-class backgrounds.
“I started to think it would be interesting to see a project like 'Working Class War' in film,” he said, adding that Decatur is a blue-collar town.
According to Walsh's research, Decatur suffered 46 fatalities during the war, including 12 or so during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Of the first 37 people he interviewed, 33 were veterans and four were family members of troops killed in action.
Although the project is very time-consuming, and he has yet to find all the funding necessary to complete it, Walsh said he has been motivated by family members such as one man, older than 90, whose son was killed in Vietnam.
“He asked me, 'Are you going to get this done before I die?' "
When he was growing up in Bement and Monticello, Walsh heard stories from World War II veterans, most of whom are gone now. He noticed that some Vietnam veterans are also passing away.
“I want to capture, document those experiences veterans have, because they're not going to be around forever,” Walsh said.
He is entering a production phase, in which he needs outside financing, especially to secure rights to music and licensed video footage. He hopes his documentary will gain a national audience through a television network such as PBS. Walsh may be contacted at email@example.com.
Wayne, 68, a 1964 graduate of MacArthur High School, met Walsh through his friend, Pat Ryan, who also served in Vietnam. Ryan is Walsh's father-in-law.
At their first meeting, Walsh impressed him with his thought-provoking questions and nonthreatening interviewing style.
“Nick and I built a bond of trust, which is very important,” Wayne said.
Wayne, a retiree from Caterpillar Inc., said he believes Walsh's documentary will fill in blanks to the historical record on the controversial war.
“What Nick is doing is capturing first-person stories of those who were in the field and lives that were touched by their experiences,” Wayne said. “The stories, if not captured in some way, will be lost to the ages. Those who do the fighting have a perspective that deserve to be heard and be recorded.”