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Md. men relate Vietnam War experiences in documentary to be screened tonight in Harford

The Baltimore Sun

In the 40 years since he fought in the jungles of Vietnam, Charlie Harris has kept his wartime experiences to himself.

There are reminders - the occasional nightmare, the medals stored in a closet and the mark on his right shoulder left by the machine gun he carried for months.

"It wore the skin right off my shoulder," he said.

But recently, the 59-year-old Edgewood resident has begun to talk openly of the danger, fear and wounds that marked his yearlong tour as an Army Ranger. What turned the tide for Harris was appearing in a documentary film featuring Vietnam veterans recounting their tales.

"For a long time, when I came back, I was not ready to be around people," Harris said. "They kept telling me I had to readjust. I really never had."

It's just the kind of reaction Larry Cappetto had in mind. The Colorado-based filmmaker has turned out six films in which veterans from various conflicts tell their stories of life during wartime. Having interviewed hundreds of veterans, Cappetto has compiled a sizable oral history intended to preserve the experiences of American veterans.

"We are losing World War II veterans at about 1,000 a day," Cappetto said. "I have already lost several dozen that I interviewed. There is an urgency here, a race against time."

Vietnam Remembered, Cappetto's latest film, will be shown on the East Coast for the first time during a free public screening today in Bel Air. The 90-minute film comes on the heels of five Cappetto works on the stories of World War II veterans. A film about Korean War veterans is in the works.

Six Marylanders appear in Vietnam Remembered, which includes Harris' first visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

"It took me so long because I was just never ready to see the names of my buddies on The Wall," he said of his visit last year. "I recognized too many names."

After keeping his memories to himself for years, Harris hopes the film will help audiences reach a better understanding of the Vietnam War than was prevalent in the years immediately after the fighting.

"Back then, there was no appreciation and no understanding of how bad it was for us," he said. "Nobody recognized us as war veterans. Little by little, people are recognizing us more, but it has taken years."

The screening today will be the first time Harris has seen the film. The lifelong bachelor and recently retired BGE mechanic, who left the Army after his two-year stint, has invited his siblings and his niece. He hopes the movie spurs conversations that will show them why he still has problems with that one year in Vietnam.

Such conversations compel Cappetto to continue the work.

"My goal is to give these veterans a voice," Cappetto said from his home in Grand Junction. "I never served in the military. This is the closest I can get to doing a service for my country."

The film project got a big boost when Cappetto came to Harford County to speak at the Bel Air American Legion post about a year ago. Known for having one of the largest populations of veterans in Maryland, the county provided Cappetto "fertile ground" for chronicling experiences of Vietnam veterans.

Edward T. Kreiner Sr., a Navy veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam who is chairman of the Harford County Commission for Veterans Affairs, introduced the filmmaker to many area soldiers and sailors.

"People open up to him because they quickly know that he understands," Kreiner said. "Some of these vets, especially the Vietnam vets, are seeing for the first time some real appreciation for their contributions to our nation."

Charles "Chas" Slimowicz, a retired Army officer and helicopter pilot who served two tours in Vietnam, is one of four Harford residents in the film.

"We should preserve the incidents of the great wars and conflicts of our nation," the Bel Air resident said. "These events should be documented and maintained."

The documentary features veterans speaking candidly of their war experiences, as well as homecomings that often went unacknowledged in their communities. They recalled the national unrest and the anti-war sentiment. One soldier recounted how protesters tossed garbage upon his arrival at an airport in San Francisco.

Slimowicz hopes the screening will demonstrate how public perception has continued to swing in favor of Vietnam veterans.

"Even those who were against the war have come to appreciate why we served," Slimowicz said. "Those were different times, but that service should be the fabric of our society."

Before the screening, Cappetto, 49, will speak at a reception, as will Lewis Johnson, an 84-year-old D-Day veteran whom the filmmaker calls "a piece of history." The two men will also visit Aberdeen and Joppatowne high schools this week.

Slimowicz is hoping the film will strike a chord within young people.

"I hope they listen and feel a sense of obligation to their country," he said. "I am proud of my service and those I served with and those who died."

The free public screening of "Vietnam Remembered" begins at 6 p.m. today with a mixer and memorabilia display. The film starts at 7 p.m. in the Amoss Center for Performing Arts, Harford Community College, 401 Thomas Run Road, Bel Air. Information: 410-676-4600.

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