At the ripe age of twenty, Tim ‘Naneek’ Keenan had a world of a very real Vietnam war on his shoulders. And through the prism of this amazing documentary film Naneek, which will be screening at the Riverside Saginaw Film Festival on Sunday, November 12th, director Neal Steeno delivers a riveting and epic journey taken by this amazing Vietnam veteran, that documents his return to Vietnam to see the places and people where he had fought after living with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome for more than four decades.
The day is November 17th. Locked inside Naneek's head that date pops up every year. It has shown up like clock-work for just over four decades. Keenan served in the Vietnam war as an infantryman. With just over 5 months of heavy battle, his platoon took over a location known as Hill 1338. That date was a personal demon Keenan wanted to confront, so he decided to confront his demon and revisit and climb the hill that gave him PTSD. Now in his sixties, Tim spends half the year in Mexico where he surfs and thrills off adventure. He has hiked the entire 2,178- mile Appalachian Trail, which he did to prepare for his return journey to Vietnam; and he lives every day as if it were a Friday.
This amazing documentary, along with a memoir Keenan wrote called The Good Hike, weaves in the beautiful towns and mountains of the great Appalachian trail with the jungle and battle zones around Dak To, including the infamous Hill 1338. Over the course of two weeks, Steeno and filmmaker Robert Woodward headed out to film Tim's experience of going back to the country he equates with war. From dense jungle to Communist villages, you get a front row seat of Tim's epic journey, watching him sit down with his former enemy, reconnecting with Vietnamese culture, and slowly capturing the weight of Vietnam's history being lifted off of Tim's shoulders.
Naneek won an Audience Award at The Traverse City Film Festival and Keenan, who lives in Traverse City, will attend the 2 PM Sunday, November 12th showing at Pit & Balcony to talk about his journey; while Bill O’Brien, a librarian at Hoyt Library, will lead a discussion of Keenan’s related book, The Good Hike at 2 PM on Thursday, November 2nd at Hoyt Library.
Tim ‘Naneek’ Keenan was a 20-year old infantryman in the fall of 1967 when he was dropped into the frontline fighting in Vietnam at Dak To. “I was drafted,” he states. “I rented a house with two other friends to have some fun for 3 months or so. We dropped out of school for 1 semester and were going to re-enroll, but didn’t know the college we attended had an obligation to let the draft board know we were not in school.”
“We all got on the same bus in Grand Rapids. Uncle Sam drafted our entire house. I was not a political person at all, but when I was in basic training and advanced individual training, I thought about Vietnam constantly. I wondered why we were there. What was our objective? I was told about the Domino Theory and that we needed to stop Communism. I was told by my Dad, a World War II veteran, that our country can’t tell us everything and that I needed to “trust our government”, were my Dad’s words, so I went with it.”
Given that the Vietnam War tore both the nation and the men that served in it apart at the seams; and while Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, David Halberstam’s The Best & the Brightest, and Fire in the Lake by Francis Fitzgerald were all early histories that articulated the nature of the conflict, while such films as The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now! and Platoon have informed much of the public mindset about the Vietnam conflict, what truths, realities and realizations about Vietnam did Keenan gain from his own first-hand experiences that impacted him the most?
“I suffered and suffer from PTSD from my combat experience,” he states. “Our battalion suffered 660 casualties in an 8-month span in 1967-68. I learned not to trust our government like my Dad had urged. I knew politicians were not being truthful to the very people that elected them and trusted them. I became very skeptical. The war changed me from the boy that was voted Happy Go Lucky Boy of his senior class, to an intense, impatient, self-medicating young man with a torn heart and an angry mind. I believed in all the people that were protesting the war, but didn’t actively join the movement because I felt it would be betraying my fellow soldiers that I fought with, and the others that were fighting at the time. That war never left me.”
What exactly happened on Hill 1338 that created such adverse trauma; and how did Keenan’s return to it years later alter the architecture within his mind that was haunted and debilitated by his earlier memories of that experience? “Hill 1338 was monumental. In fact, twelve of us from our company are meeting this November 17th, the 50th anniversary of us taking that hill,” he reflects. “So many casualties. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I watched the Ken Burns documentary recently, I saw that the 173rd Airborne Division also took that hill with massive casualties only 17 months earlier.”
“We took The Hill after a battle, stayed there two days to secure it, left to take another hill, and were told the North Vietnamese Army was back on 1338 and we had to take it yet again,” he continues. “Seeing friends and people I loved lose their lives in a violent way was pure trauma. And I had just turned 21, still with a teenage mind. The fright I could not describe. I tried the best I could in my book, “The Good Hike”, but the only way to feel that extreme intensity is to be there.”
“And I would not wish combat experience on anyone save politicians.”
“I remember sitting on a bunker talking to friends and we all agreed that if we brought our President over here, and some other politicians, and let them be with us for a couple days and see and experience the horror…then send them back to Washington. If they didn’t end this madness within the month, they had to return and do an entire tour. No doubt the war would end. The same holds true today.”
Keenan says that he hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 2009 after his 63rd birthday. “I did this epic journey because of my fear of the woods for 47 years, and to combat my PTSD related to such,” he confesses. “Each day became easier for me. The journey took 172 days. 2,178.3 miles of beauty. The people of the trail and off the trail helped me immensely, although they had no idea.”
“The last time I had hiked and camped overnight was in the jungle around Dak To. I needed new memories, and I got them. Although the horrors of war will never leave my mind, I have these beautiful memories of the trail that now occupy a good portion of my brain. I am grateful I was able to complete the hike. Not a day passed that I did not remember the many lives lost in Vietnam. And the wounded, both physically and emotionally. And all the families and friends of those brave, unknowing soldiers.”
Much of Eastern philosophy is centered around the notion of the yin and yang – the anima & animus – the alpha & the omega and the realization that conflicting forces of good and bad are always co-existent and therefore need to be understood in order to keep one’s life in balance. What are the key realizations that he gained from both his wartime and peacetime Vietnam experiences that he wanted to impart to people through both his memoir and film documentary?
“I remember talking with my comrades in arms about our reason for fighting in this war so far from home,” reflects Keenan. “By that time, we did not trust our government any longer. We were dying and nobody seemed to care except our families and friends. We came to the conclusion that the reason we are here is to set an example. Eventually our country will come to the realization this is wrong. And history will not repeat itself. We will learn from this mistake. So…we fought to survive. And yes, history did repeat itself.”
“The book, “The Good Hike” is my story weaving in the beautiful town and mountains of the AT with the jungle and battle zones around Dak To. It is my story of coming to peace with myself buoyed by the healing powers of nature and my fellow hikers and people off trail who always gave me a helping hand. The hike of the AT allowed me the courage to return to Vietnam in 2014 with my son. Hence the film, Naneek, which was my trail name on the AT. I wanted to meet my “enemy”. I wanted to go back to Hill 1338 and remember friends lost. I wanted to make some type of peace with myself through meeting and befriending Vietnamese people.”
“When I returned from Vietnam in 1968 I was a young man that was incredibly racist to all people with “slant eyes”, Tim concludes. “Through counseling I thought I had cured this sickness, but I wanted to put racism to rest permanently. And I did. The people of Vietnam were wonderful. They are always smiling and full of love. They made me feel welcome, which I often wondered why, since we decimated their country, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and using chemical warfare that affects 3 million people to this day. I was blessed to get to know them, but I could never have made the journey back without the support of my youngest son, Jake. He was my rock.”
For filmmaker Neal Steeno, this incredible documentary came to life because of a literal dream that he experienced. “I've lived a bit of a nomadic life throughout my twenties. Poor as ever, so doing a film has really never crossed my mind. In 2008, I was doing trail work out West when I met two interesting bearded men in the small mountain town of Happy Camp, CA. They were trapped by life, poverty, and the elusive chase to strike it rich with gold. I was trapped by circumstance of being a smelly trail guy who was trying to hitch-hike back home to Oregon. I walked up to these gentlemen and simply asked them, "So, why'd you grow the beard?" — that question opened up hours of rich personal stories of misfortune. Genuine in a self-deprecating way. That concept of beards and stories later came to life.”
“Fast forward a few years, and I was living in Northern Michigan. My then girlfriend had a client who was a Vietnam veteran. She suggested, "Neal, you just have to meet this guy, you'd hit it off!" We did meet. We did hit it off and had many beers and conversations. Coincidentally, I had been co-hosting a live storytelling event in Traverse City, MI called Weathered Beard. We invited Tim to come and tell his side of the story in Vietnam. Normally, a storyteller had 5-7 minutes to share about a certain formative time in their life. Tim spoke for almost 40 minutes giving us what felt like a Hollywood thriller. Not a dry set of eyes in the house when he finished, so I thought there had to be more to Tim’s story outside of all this.”
“Tim would gradually open up to me more over the years, but he would always say he never wanted to go back to Vietnam,” continues Neal . “Consequently, a film, of all things, never crossed my mind. The real reason Naneek came to life was this, and I don’t know if this is like a weird Godsend thing, but I had a dream that I was filming Tim in Vietnam. Trust me, I never remember my dreams! It freaked me out. I woke up in sweats feeling as though I had just been there with Tim. The following morning, I knew I had to give him a call and talk to him about it, and when he picked up, before I said anything, he said, “I’m ready to go back. The rest is history.”
What was the most challenging component involved with bringing this film to fruition?
“I'll be the first to admit this since it's my first film, but we run and gunned it. Film everything, and take no prisoners. My greatest challenge to begin was trying to pre-produce a film in Vietnam on my own. Absolute madness - endless hours of Google left me empty handed. Travel books had many of the local hotspots and cultural destinations, but nothing related to Tim's journey in 1968... and then it finally hit me. I don't speak Vietnamese, no clue how to make a film - okay, I'm lost. How stupid would I look if I even skipped on getting a local guide?”
“Eventually we connected with 2 guides through our friend Doug Stanton. He introduced us to Ahn and her American husband / former soldier Bill Ervin. They were the difference makers connecting us with former North Vietnamese Army Soldiers (NVA), accommodations, travel. God bless them. If that connection didn't happen, dare I say we'd likely still be there lost in the jungle wandering aimlessly.”
During this epic journey, and after dealing with so many challenges, what was the most poignant moment that Neal experienced during the filming of Naneek? “I remember at one point we were miles and miles into the deep jungles of Dak To. Finally making the climb on Hill 1338. I had stopped for a moment just to take it all in. It was eerie. Sounds poured through the trees, claymore mines were still active on the hill (no joke). It was at the moment of pause that I put myself into the shoes of a 17-18-year-old child facing gun fire back in the 1960's. Looking up at thick brush, dense hot air, and just imagining if someone gave orders "Move up that hill, don't come down until we take it." And, that right there wrecked me. My emotions ran high. In one way, I felt a great sense of gratitude and on the other, I felt complete horror.”
“I walked away thinking, why did this happen? — and, why are we doing this over and over continuously around the World? More than ever we need to be a listening ear to those who serve our country. You never know what a combat veteran's going through.”
“The lesson is as simple as this: We're all humans,” concludes Neal. “When we hear about civilian casualties overseas, we tend to dismiss that those killed or left with nothing are brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, daughters. Sadly, we've become numbed to any conflict. We read about it, but never really feel it, being here in the States.”