By Richard Rhinehart
Holbrook, New York, February 5, 2015 – The story of World T.E.A.M. Sports’ January 1-16, 1998 Vietnam Challenge is not so much the exceptional physical accomplishment of the participating veterans with disabilities, but the emotional connection and cooperation between former combatants who joined together to successfully achieve a common goal.
Chronicled in the award-winning 1998 documentary “Vietnam, Long Time Coming” by Chicago’s Kartemquin Films, the Vietnam Challenge brought together 39 veterans from the United States and 14 veterans from Vietnam for a 1,250 mile bicycle and hand cycle ride from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Like all World T.E.A.M. Sports events, the Vietnam Challenge teamed persons with disabilities with able-bodied participants. Together, the riders journeyed across a nation that had experienced decades of war and conflict until 1975. Nearly a quarter century later, World T.E.A.M. Sports’ Challenge was the first joint sporting activity between the former warring nations.
“What makes ‘Vietnam, Long Time Coming’ a strong film is that the distinction between disabled and non-disabled becomes eclipsed by the real story,” said David E. Simpson, Kartemquin’s accomplished film editor who reviewed nearly 250 hours of footage captured by cinematographers during the 16 day event. “The emotional journey that the participants go through, which unites them as human beings” is the ultimate success of the Challenge.
Created by World T.E.A.M. Sports co-founder Stephen Whisnant, the Vietnam Challenge was inspired by improving diplomatic and business relations between the two nations in the early 1990s. Following the successful completion of the non-profit organization’s 1995 AXA World Ride, Whisnant and his colleagues decided the time was right for the Challenge.
Bringing on Kartemquin Films through assistance by Ted Shaker, the founder and producer for Sports Illustrated Television, World T.E.A.M. Sports determined the documentary would be an integral part of the journey. The Asia Society, a valued event partner, hosted an interactive web site for the public and school children across America to learn more about the veterans and their challenges.
With strong corporate support and federal government assistance, World T.E.A.M. Sports coordinated not only the logistics of a long ride in an overseas country, but also worked to create long-lasting benefits. Working with the non-profit Veterans for America, World T.E.A.M. Sports provided significant funding to the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi for an orthotic brace and rehabilitation clinic to serve regional residents. Prior to the arrival of the American veterans in Hanoi for the ride, a team of doctors offered diagnostic and consulting services for Hanoi residents with disabilities. It was a “huge success” as a humanitarian event, said Whisnant.
When the American veterans arrived at Hanoi International Airport in late January 1998, the team from Kartemquin was already in the capital.
“I think for most of us on the crew, this was the first time we had real conversations and interactions with able-bodied and disabled Vietnam veterans,” recalled Adam Singer, a film co-producer who handled sound during the journey. “For me personally, the experience gave me a new-found respect for the military and the sacrifices these individuals make and the often conflicted moral, intellectual, patriotic – very human values that allow them to make these sacrifices. The ride also educated me and normalized for me a bit my interactions with people with physical challenges.”
“We actually shot for about 20 days in Vietnam,” said Gordon Quinn, one of the cinematographers who co-directed the film with Peter Gilbert and Jerry Blumenthal. “Some of us arrived early and left late so we were actually there longer than the 16 days of the ride. I also did a week scout with a camera where I did a little shooting.”
Editing the documentary in the months following the return of the American participants from Vietnam, Simpson recalled the complications in telling the story of the ride south from Hanoi. “We were very keen to flesh out some of the more difficult, complex, emotional aspects of the ride: the conflicted feelings, the struggles to reconcile past pain and fear with the current potential for brotherhood between the vets and the Vietnamese civilians. While the healing and dealing with the trauma was clearly part of the intent of World T.E.A.M. Sports in organizing the ride and commissioning the film, these aspects of the project were the most important to us, the filmmakers. We wanted to push the usual boundaries of broadcast television by mixing the celebratory and symbolic aspects of the ride with a high quotient of the messier, harder to live-through and harder-to-watch moments.”
Throughout the ride, American and Vietnam veterans met with local residents and groups. For some rural residents, this was an initial opportunity to meet veterans who had clashed so bitterly during the war. At times, emotions were high for veterans from either side. Kartemquin’s cameras captured many of these passionate moments, as memories of past colleagues and tragic events overcame veterans.
“The struggle to get around the Vietnamese bureaucracy” was an ongoing challenge for the riders, filmmakers and World T.E.A.M. Sports, remembered Quinn. “Generally we got on well, but there were conflicts about where it would be safe to ride. At times, some of the riders slipped away from the main group to visit where they had been wounded or other meaningful spots.”
“There were a number of hurdles to maneuver around. The scale of the project was daunting,” said Singer. “Just the logistics of getting from point A to point B was a challenge. The number of people involved in the ride, both the veterans and the support crew, in addition to our film crew.”
At scenic Hai Van Pass, a rugged mountain pass on National Route 1A, Vietnam officials first declared the veterans would be not permitted to ride the challenging, switchbacking highway. After prolonged negotiations, they allowed the riders to climb the steep pass in high temperatures and humidity that greatly slowed the hand cyclists.
Crossing the Ben Hai River and passing south of the 17th Parallel, the former Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone, American veterans became more emotional as they recalled personal experiences during their service. At My Khe Beach at Da Nang, popularly known as China Beach, riders scooped up bottles of sand. Further south, officials redirected the ride to the national Son My Memorial, a six acre park that is dedicated to the victims of the 1968 My Lai Massacre. Many American veterans chose not to attend a ceremony at the memorial, stating they are living for the future, not the past.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, the riders were joined by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, honorary chair of the Vietnam Challenge, and American Ambassador Pete Peterson. Warmly embracing their colleagues of the past 16 days, the riders celebrated their accomplishment.
For the Kartemquin Films team, however, their project was only beginning. “The challenge we had as filmmakers was trying to make a film that was more than a simple sponsored profile of the World T.E.A.M. Sports organization and a particular ride,” said Singer. “We wanted the film to touch on some of the core complex emotional and political issues and wounds that sat below the surface of the ‘ride’.”
Working with Sharon Karp and Jan Suttcliffe, along with assistant editor Leslie Simmer, Simpson coordinated his editing of the documentary with World T.E.A.M. Sports’ Whisnant and co-founder James Benson, who served as executive producers. Whisnant recalls “endless hours in Chicago” during the editing of the film, but notes they respected the artistic direction of the film team.
Picked up by Seventh Art Releasing, “Vietnam, Long Time Coming” debuted in multiple film festivals in late 2008 and was well-received by veterans groups and the public. Following a brief theatrical release, the film was broadcast nationally by NBC television on December 26, 2008, with sportscaster Dick Enberg hosting. The network repeated the broadcast in April. Later, video and DVD versions of the film were released, and Snag Films currently offers the documentary online.
The documentary provided Kartemquin Films artistic recognition and several awards from festivals. The Directors Guild of America presented co-directors Peter Gilbert, Gordon Quinn, and Jerry Blumenthal with the award for Best Documentary in 2008. An Emmy from the National Society of Television Arts and Sciences for Outstanding Program Achievement provided more respect. For World T.E.A.M. Sports, the film offered national attention for a growing non-profit organization that was chartered only five years earlier. It soon would host the first Face of America ride as a cross-country journey, a legacy that continues to this day with the Washington to Gettysburg ride and the Sea to Shining Sea cross-country rides with injured veterans.
Yet, the primary success of the film and the Vietnam Challenge itself was the experience of the participating veterans. Many of these veterans went on to create positive lives for themselves and for others, offering inspiration to veterans, persons with disabilities and the public to overcome obstacles and emotional challenges. Some of the veterans participated in later World T.E.A.M. Sports events, such as the Face of America and the Adventure Team Challenge Colorado. Others created new non-profit organizations to connect with and assist veterans and persons with disabilities. The Vietnam Challenge was the catalyst.
In November 2014, Blumenthal lost an eight-year battle against cancer. His passing “brought memories of that particular moment in time and that film rushing back to the surface” for team members at Kartemquin, said Singer. “Jerry had a particularly strong bond with the vets,” he recalled. Reaching out to several of the veterans who participated in the Vietnam Challenge, Singer also contacted World T.E.A.M. Sports to reconnect and share memories.
“Getting to experience Vietnam in such a unique intimate way was especially rewarding,” said Singer. “I feel really lucky to have been part of this journey and project.”