(UPDATE – 9-29-12: our documentary segment on Geoff Steiner has just won the 2012 Emmy Award for best single military story)
* * *
The past collided with the present this week and the crash reminds us of the tragedy that was Vietnam.
On the eve of Veterans Day, the Nixon Presidential Library released a recording of the former president dictating his account of talking to Vietnam War protestors at the Lincoln Memorial in the pre-dawn hours of May 9, 1970. The president had a sleepless night after giving a nationally televised news conference a few hours earlier on the progress of the war. By Nixon’s own account he went to the Lincoln sitting room in the White House to listen to some Rachmaninoff when he was approached by his personal attendant Manuel Sanchez. Sanchez was a recently naturalized Cuban refugee and new to Washington and the White House. Feeling melancholy, Nixon asked him if he had ever seen the Lincoln Memorial at night. Sanchez admitted he hadn’t, so Nixon gathered a small group of secret service agents and off they went—into history.
What Nixon didn’t anticipate was running into a group of wide-eyed college students who had driven all night from upstate New York to protest against the war. Just five days earlier National Guard troops opened fire on a similar group of protestors at Kent State University and killed four students. In his Dictabelt recording Nixon admits he awkwardly tried to make small talk, but it quickly turned to the war:
“As I tried to explain in my press conference that my goal in Vietnam was the same as theirs, to stop the killing and the war, to bring peace… I know most of you, that probably most of you think I’m an S.O.B., but I want you to know that I understand just how you feel.” – Richard Nixon, 1970
On the very morning Nixon was trying to justify the war, a 19 year old Marine from Minnesota was performing his duty to carry it out. Geoff Steiner landed in Vietnam prior to the Tet Offensive in 1968. Sixteen thousand U.S. soldiers lost their lives that year. By 1970, he was a battle scarred survivor of a war with seemingly no end. Coming home was hardly any easier. Like many Vietnam veterans Steiner suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. The scars ran too long and the pain too deep. Finally, one day he put a gun to his head, but instead of finding a bullet, he found God.
Today, Steiner is a Chaplain who quietly passes the time on 40 acres of land near Cushing, Minnesota. He is a loner who is hardly alone. Several times a week Steiner walks through the early morning mist with a shovel, a seedling, and a prayer. He plants trees in honor of the men who never came home and those who did come home but never found their inner peace.
“When I bought this land, there wasn’t tree in sight,” said Steiner. “Now, I have thousands of them.”
This is exactly where Nixon and Steiner collide. Nixon wanted to end the Vietnam War through “peace with honor.” Steiner simply wants honor with peace. He lives it every day.
And that’s exactly why we met on Veterans Day among the living memorial now growing on his rolling Minnesota land. I teamed up with producers Mark Anderson and Rod Rassman to profile Steiner for part of an upcoming film on veterans called “11-11-11.” The film will portray a day-in-the-life of veterans on the very day that we honor their service. We think Steiner not only has a great story to tell, but is an American worth knowing.
That’s why it’s so ironic that on Veterans Day this year we heard two voices on Vietnam, one from the present and one from the past. The oxides on Nixon’s tape recording have faded with time, the scratchy audio a reminder of a reel that only plays in the echo chamber of history. Geoff Steiner needs no recording; the legacy of Vietnam is on permanent replay in his mind. He has his trees, but they will never completely hide the horrors of war.
* * *