Life on the frontlines

Marine and hippie showcase the human side of the Vietnam War in film screening Sunday

Vietnam: The Inner View shows the breaks between the battles.

Vietnam: The Inner View shows the breaks between the battles.

Photo courtesy of Marc Waszkiewicz

Marc Waszkiewicz will be at Avid Reader Sacramento, 1945 Broadway, on Saturday, March 10, from 1pm to 3pm, signing copies of 1000 Yard Stare, the hardback collection of his photographs. Vietnam: An Inner View, will be presented Sunday, March 11, at 1pm at the Sacramento Public Library; 828 I Street, West Meeting Room.

On his way to Vietnam, Marine Sgt. Marc Waszkiewicz won a camera in a poker game. Buying film every chance he could, he took photos between battles, capturing more than 4,000 images of daily life over three tours on the frontlines of a war that’s settled into a controversial place in American history. Now, Waszkiewicz showcases his work with an unlikely collaborator, a teacher and singer-songwriter named Lea Jones, whom he met in the early ’90s.

“I was a hippie kid,” Jones said. “And from 1968 on, I didn’t have any interest in interacting with Vietnam veterans. I did not hold them in high regard. And that was not atypical. That was normal. That’s why a lot of those guys went underground, because they got so much shit when they came home.”

After some convincing by Waszkiewicz, Jones agreed to help him make a soundtrack to capture the feeling of life during the war. After listening to Waszkiewicz’s stories for months, Jones started writing songs. He would sing and play rhythm guitar while Waszkiewicz composed, played bass and rounded up accompanying musicians.

The songs span the spectrum of ’60s sounds. “When I Had You” is a floating, melancholy soul track based on Waszkiewicz receiving a break-up letter from his girlfriend during the last month of his first tour. “Di Di Mau” is a surf rock jam about getting a debaucherous break from duty. And “Another Long Night” is a bluesy campfire song that features the clever, yet scary line, “The VC’s bite is worse than their bark,” referring to the North Vietnamese forces’ tendency to strike without warning at night.

The album struggled to gain traction and Jones and Waszkiewicz grew distant, partly due to their differing opinions on the Iraq War. They reconnected in 2007 when Jones asked Waszkiewicz about doing a re-release of their CD to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

During their time apart, Waszkiewicz had conducted interviews with five men who served alongside him, and a sixth that served in the Navy. After he lost two friends around 2008, Waszkiewicz asked Jones for help making a documentary that would show the daily life of soldiers, to hopefully help veterans process their service and deal with post-traumatic stress disorder that also affected Waszkiewicz.

The photos, soundtrack and interviews ultimately became Vietnam: An Inner View, which Waszkiewicz and Jones bring to Sacramento this week for an event sponsored by Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 500.

Waszkiewicz’s photos depict striking scenes: an aerial view of rice paddies, a Marine grimly posing next to a half-decomposed corpse of a child, and soldiers, barely out of high school, watching as a fighter jet delivers a flaming airstrike. Notably lacking are shots of firefights. The reason is simple.

“Mark was busy during combat,” Jones said of his coproducer, who served among infantry and heavy-fire support squads. “So he took pictures of everything else.”

The duo hope to raise funds to make it onto major streaming services and reach more viewers. Jones said the documentary has inspired countless veterans to speak up about their experiences, often for the first time, as Doug Mitten did after watching the documentary a few years ago.

Mitten, a Vietnam vet who lives in Sacramento, will host a discussion during the March 11 event, after his wife, Deborah Franklin, wrote Jones and Waszkiewicz a letter thanking them for their work.

“I cannot express how profoundly that presentation affected my husband,” she wrote. “He cried. And, then he started to talk. Like many Vietnam veterans, Doug had never spoken so truthfully about his experiences. Talking with Marc after the presentation opened the door and made possible Doug’s new journey toward healing so many years after he left the military.”