‘They were fighting in something the public didn’t support.’ Filmmakers hope documentary gives them a voice

‘The Lost Homecoming: When Our Vietnam Veterans Came Home’ will air on WYES on Sunday night at 10 p.m.
‘The Lost Homecoming: When Our Vietnam Veterans Came Home’ will air on WYES on Sunday night at 10 p.m. Courtesy WYES/Pan Am Communications

As a Veterans Administration psychologist, Harold Dawley heard many stories of war experiences and the aftermath of service.

But one story haunted him for four decades. He finally has been able to use one young man’s painful struggle to tell the story of a generation that felt torn apart.

“The Lost Homecoming: When Our Vietnam Veterans Came Home,” will be aired on New Orleans PBS station WYES at 10 p.m. Sunday, Sept, 17, about a half hour after the first episode of Ken Burns’s documentary series “The Vietnam War” airs. In “The Lost Homecoming,” about 45 Vietnam War veterans, many of them from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, talk about their experiences both in country and when they returned to the States. Dawley, who lives in Diamondhead, produced and codirected the one-hour program, and Lenny Delbert of New Orleans is co-director and the filmmaker.

Dawley has retired after 20 years on the staff of the New Orleans Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he served as chief of the Psychiatry Service Day Hospital and Day Treatment programs, but he continues to care deeply for the veterans of perhaps the most unpopular conflict in U.S. history. Many of them came back to a society that didn’t know how to respond to them, he said.

“They were fighting in something the public didn’t support, and so they really felt defeated,” Dawley said.

The story that stayed with him was that of a young African American man from a small Mississippi town.

“His best friend in Vietnam was a young white man, and he was killed right beside him,” Dawley said. “The thing that carried him through his time in service was the thought of his homecoming. He made sergeant. When he was headed home, he was looking outside the window of the bus and thinking about what people would say.”

When the bus stopped in his hometown, the white man who owned the service station there looked at him, finally recognized him and said, “Well, boy, I see you made it back OK.”

“He didn’t know that was going to be all the homecoming he was going to get,” Dawley said. The rejection the young man felt affected several aspects of his life. He became a drug addict, and his marriage fell apart.

He was “addicted to heroin and was receiving treatment for it at the VA hospital. He was also suffering from post traumatic stress disorder from his combat in Vietnam, a problem exacerbated by the way he was treated when he returned home from Vietnam,” Dawley states on the webpage for the documentary .

“I never forgot about him,” said Dawley, who is a Marine Corps veteran.

Delbert, who is the president of Pan Am Communications, a film production company in New Orleans, has his own memories of the era.

“In 1969, I was a long-haired student in college at Nichols State,” he said. “They had a lottery for the draft, and I was going to a party with some friends to watch the lottery. They went by your birthday. Well, I was getting ready to go and the phone rang and rang and kept ringing. I found out I was number four; I was drafted immediately.

Well, I was in school and my mother was pretty sick, so I joined the National Guard. Our training for the Guard was at Fort Polk. So I was there with all these guys who were going to go Vietnam. All these young guys, like me. As for the National Guard, all my friends at school didn’t understand. It was a big turning point in how we talked about duty. The guys who went to Vietnam, what hurt them the most is that they were just following orders. They were doing what they were asked to do,” Delbert said.

As he filmed “The Lost Homecoming,” Delbert learned a few things about his own perspective of what he experienced.

“I could relate to them from a certain standpoint,” he said. “They really — as much as I thought my term of duty meant to me, it paled in comparison to what these guys experienced. A couple of times, I really tried putting myself in their places. Could I have done that? Could I have had what it took to do that? A lot of them were really afraid.”

In 2014, Dawley organized a Lost Homecoming at War Memorial Park in Pass Christian for Vietnam veterans to give them recognition for their service. Delbert said many Vietnam veterans go to airports to welcome back current troops as a way of honoring these younger men in a way they didn’t receive.

He and Delbert hope “The Lost Homecoming” will help more veterans as well as educate others on these men’s experiences.

“I’m hoping a large number of Vietnam veterans will see this and get satisfaction, and I hope this educates the public on the reception they received,” Dawley said.

Delbert and his wife are continuing the homecoming spirit, inviting between 50 and 60 Vietnam veterans, including about 10 who are in the documentary, to their home to view the documentary Sunday night.

‘The Lost Homecoming’

‘The Lost Homecoming: When Our Vietnam Veterans Came Home’ will premiere at 10 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17, on WYES. It also will air 11 p.m. Sept. 19, 10 p.m. Sept. 24, 11 p.m. Sept. 27, 11 p.m. Oct. 9 and 10 p.m. Oct. 17. Harold Dawley of Diamondhead produced and codirected the one-hour program, and Lenny Delbert of New Orleans is co-director and the filmmaker.