Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers

Wisconsin Public Television thinks big: filling 73,000 seats in the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field for belated event honoring Vietnam vets next spring. (Photo: Green Bay Packers.)

Wisconsin plan: ‘I’d be there for that

Huge rally for state’s Vietnam vets starts with producers engaged in their subject

Published in Current, July 6, 2009
By Dru Sefton

While shooting more than 100 interviews for their Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories series, Wisconsin Public Television producers kept hearing the same comment from many of the veterans: They weren’t welcomed home after their grueling tours of duty 40 years ago in Southeast Asia.

So on Saturday, May 22, 2010, they’ll finally get that “welcome home.” WPT has reserved Lambeau Field–home of the beloved Green Bay Packers, sacred ground for many Wisconsinites–for what may be the largest single outreach event in pubcasting history.

Lambeau seats about 73,000, and organizers are pondering contingency plans handling overflow.

It’s part of the state network’s wide-ranging Vietnam project. The series of three one-hour docs, now in postproduction, will begin airing within a few weeks after the event in Green Bay. In addition, WPT is sponsoring a series of local listening sessions, coordinated with county veterans service officers throughout the state to allow vets to share their stories with one another and with their communities. WPT will publish a companion book, assemble a school curriculum and send out a traveling portrait exhibit.

In the days leading up to next year’s celebration at the stadium in Green Bay, there’ll be a parade nearby, a visit by the half-size replica of the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial and a massive motorcycle convoy across the state. The main event is dubbed LZ Lambeau, for “landing zone,” military slang for a helicopter clearing where supplies or troops are landed.

Total cost: around $1.2 million.

Station staffers have been working on the project for more than a year. Partners include the state Department of Veterans Affairs and the Wisconsin Historical Society. About 20 veterans’ organizations are also involved.

“I think this really shows the power of public television,” said project adviser Susan Finco, president of Leonard & Finco Public Relations in Green Bay. “To start with an idea of doing a documentary about Vietnam War vets and have it grow into a public event of this magnitude shows the impact public TV can have.”

This is the scale of outreach public broadcasters should consider, said Maria Alvarez Stroud, executive director of the National Center for Media Engagement (formerly NCO).

“This event is really noteworthy; this is how we all need to be thinking,” Stroud said. “We’re infamous for doing nice little events, and a small percentage of the community knows we’ve done it. But this—this is going to be huge.”

She added that, to her knowledge, this would be public broadcasting’s largest civic engagement event at a single site.

As WPT chief James Steinbach told Current, “This has nothing to do with television but everything to do with public TV.”

“I’d be there for that”

The idea to fill Lambeau Field grew organically out of the veteran interviews. Producer Mik Derks and videographer Everett “Butch” Soetenga — himself a Vietnam vet — previously collaborated on station docs about veterans of World War II and of the Korean War. Jon Miskowski, director of development, traveled with the two for tapings.

“What we found with the Vietnam vets was the level of anxiety, loss and pain was so apparent,” Miskowski said. These were evident much more universally than among veterans of other wars, he noted.

Two summers ago Miskowski and Derks began to envision some type of celebration to honor the state’s vets.

They pondered sites. It had to be a large arena; the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs estimates some 144,000 veterans who served from 1961 to 1975 still live in the state. About half served in Vietnam. The producers knew the vets would want to bring family and friends.

The capital, Madison, wouldn’t make a good site; the University of Wisconsin campus there had been the state’s flash point for antiwar protests. There were few places that could hold tens of thousands of people, such as the Milwaukee Brewers’ Miller Park. And Lambeau Field. “And we thought, wow, Lambeau. Now that would be cool.”

It’s hard to convey to outsiders the importance of the Packers team and Lambeau Field to Wisconsinites. Since 1923, the Packers have been the only fan-owned nonprofit major-league professional team. More than 112,000 stockholders hold 4,750,934 shares. The stadium, owned by the city, is much more than a landmark; it’s a destination for pilgrimage by devout Wisconsinites. Stepping into Lambeau Field is a dream for many. Tickets are difficult to score. The waiting list for season tickets is 81,000, and holders often bequeath their tickets to their children.

Miskowski and Derks began mentioning a few general tribute ideas to veterans. “They were skeptical,” Miskowski recalled. “They’d said, ‘It’s 40 years too late.’ Then we’d say, ‘We’d like to fill Lambeau with vets and their families.’ Immediately their eyes would get big and they’d say, ‘Oh, I’d be there for that.’ Lambeau is the place in Wisconsin.”

Station personnel began to reach out to the Packer organization. Finco, the project’s publicity advisor, is on the Packers board of directors and knew the WPT producers from their previous work on a series of hometown-history films. She helped arrange the first meeting between WPT and the team several months ago.

The two organizations realized that their missions meshed, said Packers spokesman Aaron Popkey. “We kind of parallel public TV stations as a bedrock of the community, an asset,” he said. “We hold a special place in a number of ways, through public ownership and the outreach we do.”

Reps from both the Packers and the station are hesitant to discuss specifics at this early stage of planning. They expect to announce the event in August and hope to have a website up by then.

“Yes, we have Lambeau Field and the surrounding grounds reserved,” said Kathy Bissen, WPT’s director of production. “The Packers are incredible partners on this. There are costs that need to get covered, but they are being very generous. Not all the details have been worked out yet.”

Neither the team nor WPT would discuss rental costs of the field and stands at Lambeau, known as “the bowl.” In a year, the stadium and its many small and large community rooms host between 500 and 800 weddings, business meetings and other events, said Beth Magnin, Lambeau’s special events and corporate sales manager.

The bowl is not booked very often, Magnin said. Two occasions when the bowl was rented out: a 2004 Snocross event (motocross on snowmobiles) and a 2006 hockey game (“The Frozen Tundra Classic”) between Wisconsin and Ohio State.

A humbling experience

The Lambeau crowd will get to see the premiere of a shortened version of the Vietnam doc series on Lambeau’s “Tundra Vision” big screen. Derks and Soetenga are editing now, as well as finishing up interviews.

For Soetenga, the production has been “a real awakening and healing process.” From 1967–68, he served with the Army’s 123rd Transportation Company near Cam Ranh Bay.

“To joke around with and talk to and, most importantly, hear these interviews in their entirety has been an honor and a privilege,” he said. After the tapings, “veterans would thank us for allowing them to tell their stories. It was very humbling for us. We’d thank them for their service and their courage to talk to us.”

Derks said the two sometimes cried during the interviews. “You can’t help it, you’re there with them,” fighting and watching friends die in the jungle.

Each veteran received a DVD with the raw footage of his appearance—a gift of special value in this case. “What we heard from the vets is they could never talk to their families about their experiences, but they could show them the interview,” Derks said. “One guy sat his sons down, put his interview on TV and went into the kitchen to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. When his sons came into the kitchen, he said, ‘That’s what your Dad did.’”

Soetenga had his own gift for the interview subjects. Members of the military could never get decent beer in ’Nam, so they had to drink the red-labeled Vietnamese brand “33.” They nicknamed it ba-ma-ba, a take on the Vietnamese word for the number, ba-moi-ba. Its other nickname: Tiger Piss.

Soetenga noticed that 33 was now was available in America, so he bought a few cases. Toward the end of each interview they’d get the vet reminiscing about local libations, and invariably that horrible ba-ma-ba came up.

“I’d pull one out and give it to him,” Soetenga said. “It was great fun. They hadn’t seen it in 40-plus years. Everybody had some kind of memory about it. I told them they had to drink it warm, which is the only way we could in Vietnam.”

Soetenga himself was “very reluctant” to be interviewed, Derks said. “He thought about it a long time. Because he had shot all the interviews, he knew that if they could get through it, he could.” Once Soetenga started reminiscing, “pretty soon he was going into the fourth tape.”

Fundraising: thumbs up

To pull off such massive outreach requires plenty of financial support. Miskowski said that fundraising is going well and donors are enthusiastic. “I’d say if it weren’t for the economy, funding would be done.”

He said several major corporations have agreed to contribute, including three funders “in the six figures,” and an individual will give $250,000.

“A lot of the vets mentioned getting involved, so I think we’ll find a way for them to contribute,” Miskowski added. “After they were interviewed, several of them wrote checks—gave maybe a $100 gift. So there’s potential there also.”

The donors have been “amazing,” Bissen said. “Some corporate, some private, some foundations—it’s a real mixture of people who just hear this concept and say, ‘Oh my goodness, yes, I want to be a part of that.’”

Finco gets the same reaction. “You tell people about it, and they pause and say something like, ‘That’s an incredibly great idea!’ They can’t wait for it to happen. It just keeps growing, that’s what’s making it fun to work on.”

“It’s one of those projects that every time you do something with it, you’re excited.”   

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Web page posted July 7, 2009
Copyright 2009 by Current LLC

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