A first-of-its-kind documentary film, “Soldiers’ Sanctuary” focuses on veterans of all wars and their struggle and varying degrees of desire to reconcile with former enemies. In 46 minutes, the film provides a touching tale of how both sides of war benefit from making interpersonal connections by reaching across former enemy lines to find healing, understanding, and common ground.
On January 21, 1968, nearly 40,000 soldiers of the People’s Army of Vietnam carried out a massive artillery bombardment near the border of Laos on the U.S. Marine airbase at Khe Sanh, Vietnam.
There, in the tropical, humid region of Southeast Asia, battle ensued for 77 days as a distressed and outnumbered U.S. Marine garrison pressed to fight off an overwhelming siege. Ground forces sparred against ground forces, and military helicopters and B-52 bombers became critically engaged. It is estimated, from January 21 to July 5, 1968, fighter planes dropped close to 100,000 explosives on the hills surrounding Khe Sanh. Images and footage from this battle, one of the bloodiest of the Vietnam War, were broadcast on television worldwide.
After the 1968 siege, the base was abandoned, but later reoccupied by the US Army in February of 1971 as the staging area for a major incursion into nearby Laos in an effort to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply line. This again was a fierce and bloody battle with great losses on both sides. And when the U.S. again relented control at Khe Sanh, troops were evacuated with the exception of one top-secret operation on Hill 950 just north of the combat base.
In 2002, Dave Hansen is driving from his home in southern Utah through the Nevada desert. Nearing completion of a successful career as a solid waste civil engineer in New York, Hansen and his wife Carol have relocated to Ivins, Utah, to enjoy ushering children into adulthood and marriage. They are happy to be at the onset of becoming grandparents. Life is pleasant. Life is good.
For years, Hansen has been ignoring invitations to veteran’s reunions. In fact, when they started arriving, he started throwing them out; returning to the personal decision he made long ago on the very night his feet landed on U.S. soil from Saigon. Arriving at Ft. Lewis, Hansen was discharged from the Army and in that moment determined to would never look back.
Thirty-one years later, in 2002, and having remained true to his personal commitment, Hansen receives yet another veteran’s reunion invitation in the mail.
This one is different, and he pauses to take it in.
A niche reunion — helicopter pilots of the Vietnam War are invited to a gathering in Las Vegas — a mere 90 minutes from his southwest Utah home. With himself, he argues that it is close enough to leave and return home if he doesn’t like it, and he most certainly won’t, but it might be worth seeing some of his old friends of war. He determines it is good to have an exit strategy, and with one in place, he makes plans to attend.
Driving through the desert, Hansen whistles to the tune of Credence Clearwater Revival taking him back to the 70’s and the time of war. Reflecting on friendships and anticipating whom he might run into at the reunion, his mind travels through the dusty doors of memory. The afternoon sun beats down on the blonde sand around him, and in the mirage, he experiences something unexpected. To this day he, Hansen has difficulty describing the experience in words.
In the matter of a few relatively short miles of Interstate 15, driving from Utah to Las Vegas, Hansen struggles to explain how he experienced all the sadness and emotion that one can experience of war.
“The horrible sadness and loss of the war came flooding through me,” he says. “And not just for my friends, but for all of us on all sides of the war.”
Hansen says that in that moment he made an emotional connection and commitment.
“I arrived at my first reunion emotionally determined and ended up staying all three days,” he says. “It was as if all the terrible pathos of the whole experience gave way and my heart was opened.”
Since that July 4, 2002 reunion, Hansen has dedicated himself wholeheartedly to helping veterans heal from what he calls “the wounds of war.”
He and his wife, Carol, traveled to Vietnam in 2010 after helping raise funds for a kindergarten school near the location of the final battle he fought in at Hill 950 when he airlifted the last remaining injured soldier, Roger Hill, from the ground.
“Roger was defending a top-secret installation to intercept radio traffic along the Ho Chi Min Trail at Hill 950,” he says. “And when the outpost was overrun by the communists, we did what had to be done and medevac’d Roger out.”
In 2010, young filmmaker Luke Hansen traveled with his father to Vietnam with the intention of creating a video memento. Luke’s project took an interesting turn when he recognized he had the opportunity to capture history in the making. Hansen returned home and enrolled in film school with the intention of documenting a reconciliation project between Vietnam War Veterans at one of the war’s most intense battle sites.
In March 2012, Luke was selected to Direct “Soldiers’ Sanctuary” a documentary film describing the story of two generations of American veterans banding together to return to former battlefields, meeting former enemies face-to-face. Filmed on location in Vietnam, Luke says his abilities were put to the test, and describes having many opportunities on the trip to grow as a director. It was on this journey that Luke says he fully realized that documentary filmmaking had captured his heart and would play a long-term role in his life.
Joining together under the auspices of PeaceTrees VietNam, the film follows as U.S. veterans of the Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam Wars arrive together at the battlefield at Khe Sanh, Vietnam. Luke Hansen captures the emotional essence and significance of the historic meeting with veterans of the People’s Army of Viet Nam. Together, the former enemies of war participate in an incense ceremony to honor fallen comrades and plant trees near the old Khe Sanh runway.
This historic event is the foundation of the Khe Sanh Peace Garden, a world sanctuary being dedicated to the memory of fallen soldiers from all sides of armed conflict and providing opportunity for peaceful face-to-face reconciliation with former enemies. In the film, the group goes before provincial government officials with a request for land to build the Garden. The climax of the film is the reaction of government leaders to their request and the subsequent outcome.
“My hope is that this film will help many who are interested in moving through personal struggle by way of reconciliation within themselves and forgiveness towards their enemies,” filmmaker Luke Hansen said. “While the Khe Sanh Peace Garden project is helping veterans of war in a very moving way, this film really applies to all who are looking to find personal peace and reconciliation.”
In March 2014, Hansen returned to Vietnam with subjects from his film for its first official screening and world premiere. On March 24, at Hanoi, Hansen shared “Soldiers’ Sanctuary” with an audience including members of the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations, the Vietnam USA Society, and the Veterans Association of Vietnam. On March 27, the film celebrated its world premiere at Khe Sanh, Vietnam, a former battlefield. Also in attendance were civic leaders, veterans and their families, along with Vietnamese-American musician, Tinh Mahoney, whose song “Goodbye to My Homeland,” is featured in the film.
Returning to the U.S., on April 17, Luke Hansen and his father Dave will travel to Seattle, Wash., for the film’s U.S. premiere at the Seattle Public Library Microsoft Auditorium. There, they will reunite with several subjects of the film including Michael Fragale (Gulf War veteran), Adam Tousley (Iraq War veteran), and Jerilyn Brusseau (PeaceTrees VietNam co-founder), and Kevin Espirito (Sr. Manager of Community Engagement at Microsoft Citizenship and Public Affairs).
Seattle was selected for the film’s U.S. premiere as it is hometown to many participants of the 2012 trip to Vietnam. Additionally, PeaceTrees VietNam is headquartered in Seattle — an organization providing significant support to the film and the Khe Sanh Peace Garden project.
“I wanted to make ‘Soldiers’ Sanctuary’ because of the beauty and integrity of the story I saw beginning to unfold right before my eyes in Vietnam,” Luke Hansen says. “It is obvious that great things are in store for this film and its important role in helping veterans of all wars find peace and reconciliation with their past.”
More importantly, Luke says, “This is part of my dad’s life that I never knew. Having the privilege of being part of my own father’s reconciliation and peace has brought us closer than we have ever been. I’m not sure we realized there was a division until we experienced the reconciliation.”
For more information about the film and the Khe Sanh Garden project, visit soldierssanctuaryfilm.com and khesanhgarden.org.
This article was originally written for Elan Woman Magazine — elanwoman.com.