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Thursday December 14th 2017

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The 2 Sides Project

By Jennie McKeon

Margot Carlson-Delogne was just 2 years old when her father, Air Force Capt. John W. Carlson was killed in action near Bien Hoa in 1966 during the Vietnam War.

“I have no memory of my dad,” she said. “I have pictures and videos… audio letters that were recorded six months before he was killed. I can’t tell you that I listened to them. It’s just too much.”

When Carlson-Delogne was about 7, her mother explained that her father would not be coming back home. Her mother didn’t like to talk about it. No one did.

After years of resentment and unanswered questions, Carlson-Delogne started to think about the “the other side.” They likely had more similarities than differences. In 2015, 40 years after the Vietnam War ended, Carlson-Delogne founded The 2 Sides Project, a nonprofit that connects sons and daughters who have lost fathers on opposite sides of the Vietnam War.

There are 20,000 people in the U.S. who have lost a father to the war and anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 in Vietnam. Carlson-Delogne said she wondered how those children from the other side grew up and how they learned to cope with the loss of a parent from war.

With the help of the Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C., The 2 Sides Project took its inaugural trip to Vietnam in December 2015. Four daughters and two sons from all over the United States participated in the trip, including Margot. A film crew followed the group documenting every tearful embrace.

The group met with more than 20 Vietnamese sons and daughters who have lost fathers from the war. Carlson-Delogne said she wasn’t sure what to expect from the initial meetings. Some were reluctant to talk. Some were still angry.

After the group met with more than a dozen sons and daughters of Vietnam soldiers, they were more or less welcomed. But one of the last descendants they met was Mr. Vu Ngoc Xiem. Carlson-Delogne remembered he looked “agitated.” He told the room how American bombs killed his father on April 4, 1965. Six months later, his school was bombed by American aircraft killing 33 students and one teacher.

“He said, ‘Had you been here a couple of years ago you wouldn’t have been able to leave alive,’” Carlson-Delogne recalled.

He had anger. But Mr. Xiem said he wanted to let the anger go. To Margot, that is the whole purpose behind The 2 Sides Project.

“This was an amazing experience,” she said. “We didn’t find hatred, we found common points to meet on.”

‘The human experience’
Ron Reyes joined The 2 Sides Project with just one small hope: to stand where his father once stood. He was just four weeks old when his 19-year-old Marine father, Ronald R. Reyes, was killed in 1968 during the Tet Offensive.

“At my father’s funeral, my mother held me up to his casket,” Reyes said.

Like Carlson-Delogne, Reyes’ family chose not to talk about the war. They didn’t celebrate Father’s Day. He wouldn’t start to learn more about his father until he was older with kids of his own. In the late 1990s, he met some of his dad’s friends from his Marine unit, which was called The Walking Dead because of the 93 percent casualty rate during the Vietnam War.

For the 2 Sides Project, all of the Gold Star kids were given the coordinates where their fathers died. Reyes volunteered to be the point person in finding the spots. At his father’s site, he poured a beer for himself and his dad and played James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet”—one of his parents’ favorite songs.

Reyes also participated in the WSRE documentary, “They Were Our Fathers” which was filmed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He chose to be a part of The 2 Sides Project because he liked the idea of bringing both perspectives to the table, literally. In Hanoi, he met a woman named Luu Thi Kim Hien, who lost her father in the war. They bonded over their children, who are the same age.

“Healing begins one person at a time,” he said. “If you sit two people at a table, it’s not so divisive. I got to see Vietnam in a way my father didn’t get to see it. It’s not a political thing. This is about the human experience.”

Reyes said he wants to continue to talk about his father—about all of the fathers lost.

“I don’t think my mission is done,” he said. “I want to give back.”

The sons and daughters not only found a kinship with Vietnamese people but a love for the country’s beauty. Carlson-Delogne said she wants to continue the project and bring more Gold Star children to Vietnam.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “I want to get together and have virtual conversations online, maybe a web series. I want to keep the conversation going.”

‘Keep connecting’
Before the trip to Vietnam, Carlson-Delogne knew she would want it to be documented. She reached out to a videographer, Anthony Istrico, and raised money for production costs on Indiegogo.

Istrico said he didn’t give it a second thought when he was approached about the project. His small crew traveled with the group and came back home with 150 hours of footage, which eventually became the first feature-length documentary for Istrico.

“This is a story that had to be told,” he said. “It’s such an amazing adventure. Every time I see it, I cry. And I cry at different parts.”

Most of Istrico’s work has been corporate videos. When it came to filming the project, he said he didn’t want it to be a “travel log.” He followed subjects as they visited the sites where their dads were killed, let the cameras sit on their faces while they reflected. There was a lot of trust between filmmakers and the Gold Star children. In the end, Istrico said the experience gave him a “sense of pause.”

“I never thought it would get this kind of reaction,” he said. “In the end, I think we had more questions than answers, which I think is a success for a documentary film.”

In May of this year, The 2 Sides Project invited Mr. Xiem to the United States for the film’s premiere. This time, he met his new friends with a smile.

“You could tell he was so happy to be here,” Carlson-Delogne said. “We’ve all been transformed by this experience.”

Since the film’s premiere, it has been shown at select venues and festivals and soon, it will air on PBS member stations. Carlson-Delogne, Reyes and Istrico will talk about The 2 Sides Project at the upcoming WSRE Public Square Speakers Series.

Carlson-Delogne said the mission of the 2 Sides Project is currently focused on the sons and daughters who lost their father in the Vietnam War. In the future, she would like to open the conversation to more modern wars. The goal of The 2 Sides Project will always be “connecting people.”

“I really hope that children who are losing their parents—now fathers and mothers—I hope that meet the other sides (of the conflict),” she said. “We’re living in a really divisive moment in the United States. I hope the younger generation hasn’t gotten so set in their ways that they have to wait 40 years.”

“When you establish the connection, you really begin to heal from the wounds of war.”

WSRE PUBLIC SQUARE SPEAKER SERIES: THE TWO SIDES PROJECT
WHEN: 7-9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 29
WHERE: Jean & Paul Amos Performance Studio, 1000 College Blvd.
COST: Free
DETAILS: wsre.org