Vietnam War's pain undimmed in widows

Preview: In `Regret to Inform,' American and Vietnamese women speak of their still-painful losses of two decades ago.

January 24, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"Regret to Inform," centering on filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn's visit to the area where her husband was killed in Vietnam, stands as a moving tribute to all the women made widows by that war.

The film, airing on PBS tonight as part of the "P.O.V." documentary series, offers women on both sides of the Pacific a chance to remember their husbands and sons, to speak haltingly of their lives together and to convey the horrific emotions they have been wrestling with for more than two decades.

"That night," recalls Grace Castillo, "there's a telegram and the telegram tells me that they had amputated the left leg above the knee, removed the right eye, he's still in a coma, and he has shrap-metal in the brain. And I contacted my physician, and he told me, `Grace pray pray he dies.' "

Sonneborn, who both narrates and frequently is seen on-camera, uses her own story as the frame- work for the film. Her first husband, Jeff Gurvitz, was killed in 1968 while trying to rescue his unit's wounded radio operator. She shows us his dog tags and lets us hear a tape he sent her that arrived after he was killed -- a tape she herself didn't listen to for 24 years. We see medical reports that carefully describe each of his many wounds.

And we watch as she rides a train in Vietnam, heading for the spot where Jeff spent his last hours. She is accompanied by Xuan Ngoc Nguyen, a South Vietnamese woman whose first husband was killed in the war and who later married an American soldier.

Sonneborn's candor adds to the poignancy of "Regret to Inform." So do the stories of the other women: young American wives who barely had a chance to know their husbands, young Vietnamese girls who sold their bodies to stay alive, old women still angry at the memory of seeing their families killed.

Nominated for an Oscar when it was released in 1998, "Regret to Inform" benefits greatly from the decision to highlight women on both sides of the conflict. The result is a film as much about reconciliation as recollection. One of the film's most lasting impressions is made when Sonneborn visits the site where her husband was killed, guided by a woman who may very well have been involved in the fighting that day.

While "Regret to Inform" stresses the grief these women share, it also points up some differences. For American women, a husband's death in Vietnam meant the end of their life together -- an end that came when many of them were still in their 20s. Their greatest regret seems to come from never having really talked about war and death with their husbands, from having no idea what the men were feeling as they fought through the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam.

"I only received three letters," recalls Lula Bia, "and he said that he really didn't want to say anything about what was going on, he didn't want to depress me or worry me I often wondered about that, I often wondered about what did he have to do."

The Vietnamese women speak about their losses differently; after all, their husbands, sons and fathers were being killed right there, in their hometowns, sometimes in full view of their families.

"The bomb dropped on top of the house, trapping my husband in the shelter," says Nguyen Thi My Hien. "After the bombing, the people on the ground heard cries for help. But the debris was so heavy it took hours to reach him, and he was already dead. And to think, as a doctor I had saved so many lives, but I couldn't save his."

While there remains plenty of ill feelings on both sides, Sonneborn's film chooses to look beyond such lingering bitterness (save for one Vietnamese woman who admits, "I feel anger when I am talking to you now"). Instead, "Regret to Inform" focuses on the victims the war left behind, women whose overriding concern is ensuring their sons and daughters never have to endure that sort of everlasting pain.

Documentary

What: "Regret to Inform"

When: 10-11: 30 tonight

Where: MPT, Channels 22 and 67

In brief: The women left behind speak out

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