In a new documentary, a son explores 'My Father's Vietnam'

Mystic resident Peter Sorensen, shown here in the war years, is at the center of the documentary 'My Father's Vietnam.'
Mystic resident Peter Sorensen, shown here in the war years, is at the center of the documentary "My Father's Vietnam."

Soren Sorensen distinctly recalls, as a 10-year-old, visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. with his Vietnam veteran father. Peter Sorensen took rubbings of two names on the monument's wall — Loring M. Bailey Jr. and Glenn Rickert.

"It just sort of sat in my head: who are these guys?" Soren remembers. "These two people moved him emotionally enough that he wanted to take rubbings of their names, and yet we never talked about this around the dinner table or in father-son discussions or anything like that."

That changed 15 years later, in 2000. Peter Sorensen saw an article in The Day about Loring M. Bailey Jr. — an interview with his parents, Loring M. and Dorothy L. Bailey, who lived in Stonington. The story, which ran in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam War's end, detailed the life and legacy of Loring Jr.; he served in the U.S. Army's 11th Light Infantry Brigade and died on March 15, 1970 when a Viet Cong booby trap exploded.

Peter Sorensen, who grew up in Avon but by that point was living in Mystic, was stunned to realize Bailey's parents lived just two miles from him. In years past, as Peter now recalls, he had looked for Bailey's grave with no success but never thought about researching where his parents were.

He called them up, explained he had known their son in Vietnam, and asked if he could come by. He was able to tell them stories they'd never heard about their son.

Not only that, but Peter and his wife, Elizabeth, ended up becoming good friends with the Baileys, right up until Dorothy Bailey died in 2009 and Loring Bailey Sr. in 2010.

Soren Sorensen happens to be a filmmaker. He saw the potential for a documentary in this story. The result, "My Father's Vietnam," was selected to be part of the 19th annual FLICKERS: Rhode Island International Film Festival in Providence, and it will premiere there Thursday.

Here's the backstory that Soren wondered about after that Vietnam Veterans Memorial visit: Peter Sorensen served in the U.S. Army with Loring Bailey Jr. in 1968. They met at Officer Candidate School in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. They both decided not to finish there and were sent to different bases, with Sorensen joining an engineer battalion and Bailey becoming part of an infantry brigade.

Peter remembers Bailey's wry sense of humor, his creativity and his enthusiasm for intellectual discussions and debates. He recalls that he and Bailey had a lot in common — from education and age to the fact that both were Hemingway fans.

"They were both writers," Soren adds. "They both lived in small Connecticut towns. The first interesting twist in the story comes when Loring actually got a job in Washington, D.C., before his orders to ship out to Vietnam. He got the job for my father as well. They were both going to be writers in D.C. and not have to go to Vietnam at all.

"But, in both cases, their orders for Vietnam were cut before their orders for the desk job. So they both found themselves over there."

Their paths crossed in Vietnam, too. Six months after his tour as a combat engineer, Peter put in a unit transfer application form and ended up working in the public information office as a journalist for the second six months of his tour.

Soren says, "When he saw Loring in country, he actually said, 'I can get you this job in the public information office and get you out of the field.' Loring was in the infantry; he was really in dangerous circumstances day to day. Loring jumped on it and said, 'Yes, please do that.'

"He was killed before my father could get him the job."

Peter wrote a letter to Elizabeth. Soren recalls the letter: "He says, 'I almost got this guy a job in the public information office, and now I feel I didn't try hard enough.' It's really hard to read."

Peter says now, "Everybody comes back with survivors' guilt to one degree or another, regardless of the war, regardless of the particular instance."

The other part of "My Father's Vietnam" has to do with the other person whose name Peter Sorensen took a rubbing of on the Vietnam wall — helicopter pilot Glenn Rickert. He, like Bailey, was someone Peter could see staying friends with after the war.  Rickert was a "down-to-earth, wonderful person and an expert pilot," Peter says. Rickert and his wife were in the process of adopting an infant from a Vietnamese orphanage when Rickert was killed. Peter has heard two stories about his death — one, that he was sent by military intelligence to pick up a satchel that the infantry had taken off a body, but the satchel turned out to be booby trapped and exploded when it was thrown onto Rickert's helicopter; and another that, as he was flying his helicopter low, a Viet Cong managed to shoot him.

The movie's title may be "My Father's Vietnam," but Peter says, "it's really everybody's war. The experiences are different, but there's a universality to the pain and suffering. Those in Afghanistan, Iraq, doing multiple tours, not only the men and women on the front line but the families back home — it's a heavy weight they bear, and they bear it for the nation."

Soren, who grew up in Avon and now lives in Providence with his wife and son, notes that "My Father's Vietnam" started when he asked his father if they could sit down for a conservation about Vietnam. Dan Akiba, who ended up being the director of photography on the documentary, encouraged Soren to shoot the interview with his father.

"We know emotionally or intellectually Vietnam veterans don't talk about it or they aren't celebrated, that they were mistreated a little bit when they came home. But I don't think we do anything about it," Soren says.

He notes that the last World War I veteran recently died.

"That's going to happen in my lifetime — the last Vietnam veteran will pass away," Soren says. "That will be the end of the opportunity to preserve this oral history, and that is something I care pretty deeply about."

"My Father's Vietnam" screening, 2:45 p.m. Thursday, URI's Paff Theatre, 80 Washington St., Providence, R.I.; $10.00; film-festival.org, (401) 861-4445.

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