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When Ron Osgood decided com- munity college wasn’t for him in 1967, he failed to grasp the consequences until he received his draft notice. His subsequent enlistment in the Navy inadvertently led to his pursuit of a career in television and ultimately to teaching media and telecommunications at the college level for more than 25 years and to his work as a documentary filmmaker. Osgood’s Vietnam experience has been the catalyst of his most acclaimed work, the widely screened film My Vietnam Your Iraq, and his most recent endeavor, a groundbreaking interactive website with first person stories of those who fought on all sides of the Vietnam War: The Vietnam War/American War: Stories From All Sides, at

How did you find your way to Vietnam?

I graduated from high school in 1966 and went to a community college in Chicago. I didn’t like it much so I dropped out, and in 1967 that was the wrong thing to do if you weren’t interested in going into the military. I hadn’t thought much about the war until one of the kids in my neighborhood who went to Vietnam with the Marines was killed in his first month. That was a real eye-opener, but it was too late since I had just received my draft letter. My father, who served in the Navy during World War II, suggested I could talk to a Navy recruiter. I went in and was able to enlist.

Did your father’s World War II experience influence your view of the military?

I didn’t know much about his service. I have some photos and records and know a few of the fun stories vets tell their kids, but little more. Ultimately, that lack of knowledge became a motivating factor in my latest documentary work.

What did you want to do in the Navy?

I wanted to get into electronics. I went to boot camp in December 1968 and then to a basic electronics school. When everyone was getting orders to ships, my orders were to another school to learn how to operate the Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System (FLOLS). I couldn’t figure out why I was chosen. All the others in the program were in at least their second enlistment. I found out the Navy was trying to put younger people in this particular field at an earlier time in their service. I believe I was a test case.

What was your service in Vietnam like?

I spent most of the next three years aboard the carrier Oriskany—about 23 months of actual time in the Gulf of Tonkin. I operated the FLOLS and Pilot Landing Aid Television system. We recorded the planes taking off and landing. A squadron would go out and do their mission and when they came back they could study their launch and landing.

Your career path began on Oriskany?

I didn’t really like TV at the time, and I really had no clue what I would do when I got out of the Navy in 1972, but I knew I needed a job and I had the GI bill. I went back to community college. I flew from Vietnam back to Chicago, and, since school had already started, the very next morning I was in college. Amazingly, I also met my wife in a class that first day. My experience led to a job working in the TV/AV department at the college.

How did this blossom into your career?

I found I was interested in TV after all. When I followed my wife to Southern Illinois University, I decided to pursue a degree in TV broadcasting. I didn’t really like broadcasting, but I enjoyed the craft part of TV. I joined a student group that was making documentaries. I then went into a masters program in educational media where I found I could put together my interest in the media in a way other than broadcast TV. I was a media director in Wisconsin and a video producer at the University of Iowa before landing a position at Indiana University teaching TV production. I retired in 2012 after 26 years there. In recent years I was able to work on my documentary projects.

Did Vietnam stay with you after the war?

I didn’t think much about it. I kept in touch with some guys I’d served with but never participated in activities or events. I got married, went to school, started a career and mostly just moved on with my life and left the military behind.

When did you decide to turn toward Vietnam-related projects?

Two events in 2005 affected me. I read a news article about a Vietnam vet whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004. It got me thinking about the fact that I too had a son, and thinking what kind of advice would I give my son about deciding to go to war or not. It was powerful. In a letter he’d never sent, the vet’s son wrote to his dad: “I wanted to be just like you.” About that same time, there was a rededication of Chicago’s Vietnam veterans memorial and I felt I needed to go. It was the first time I’d ever gone to anything like that. Hundreds of guys were there and I saw how important this was to them. I went away feeling proud. As I walked back up the street, there was a rally going on against the Iraq War. Two soldiers back from Iraq, still on active duty, were speaking out against the war. I’d never been to a protest before. When the event ended, I went up to one of the soldiers and told him I thought he was courageous to speak out. He looked nervous and said to me, “My dad won’t ever let me come home again.” His dad, he said, had served during the Vietnam War and was very pro Iraq War. I thought that was really sad.

And that experience led to your documentary My Vietnam Your Iraq?

I thought about the letter to the vet from his son and this young man and saw an intriguing story about the dynamics between a Vietnam veteran with child in the Iraq War. It was a great project.

Some detected an antiwar tone in the film. How did Vietnam vets react?

It was almost 100 percent positive. Most people are impressed with how much candor there was in the interviews. I think that was because these people, who didn’t really want to tell their stories, opened up to me as a fellow veteran. Some did take an antiwar stance, but it’s not my story, it’s the vets who are speaking. So if it happens there is an antiwar feel, it’s because that’s the way these people felt.

How did spring from the making of the film?

One vet I interviewed in the film, Arthur Barham, tells a story about finding a letter on an NVA fighter who’d just been killed during Tet. It was the first time he’d talked about his combat experience. He told me how a dead enemy soldier didn’t mean as much to him as a young man as it did 40 years later. Barham said: “He was just like me. Complaining about the same things I complained about.” Barham recalled that he had been able to send the same type of letter to his parents that the dead soldier was not able to send to his parents. It really made me want to do something from the point of view of that dead North Vietnamese soldier and the American that lived: two men who have an encounter; one lives and one doesn’t.

How did you decide on a website instead of a traditional documentary?

In 2009 I began trying to figure out how to do this, and I decided one of the things I’d like to do is tell it in a new-media way as opposed to the traditional linear documentary form. That also helped land a fellowship opportunity and grant.

How did you reach former NVA soldiers?

I got a journalist visa. That meant I’d need a handler, who I expected would be a lifelong Communist Party member and everything would be “no.” It turned out he was a 31-year-old who knew more about American pop culture than me. He was a good guy to work with. In theory I would have to give a list of veterans I wanted to interview a month ahead of time. I told them I had leads but not specifics and suggested we could find people along the way to interview. That caused problems. They have veterans associations across the country, but the majority of members fought for the North. In many cases the officials provided me with the people for my interviews. I knew they were likely people they usually used for these types of things, but still they had stories Americans hadn’t heard. It was a challenge finding accessible veterans who fought for the South. Some were skeptical or afraid to speak and others were denied approval by the government. I have interviews from ARVN in the United States but I really want stories of ARVN vets who still live in Vietnam.

What did the former NVA think about this?

They would say that after 1975 they moved on with life. “Why do you want to know about the war?” they’d ask. I explained the importance of knowing more than just one side of the story and that Americans would be interested in hearing their side.

Why do you, and why should U.S. vets, want to know the other side’s stories?

I always want to know things from the other point of view. There are two sides to everything, like in the Japanese movie Rashomon, where the same story is told from the perspective of different people. Another reason, for me, stems from the fact that I know so little of my father’s story. If nothing comes out of this but an archive of stories of veterans from all sides of the Vietnam War, it will be worth it. The goal of this was never to tell the history of the war; it is to tell the stories of individuals and their small part of the war.

Any negative reaction from Vietnam vets?

A lot of vets I’ve shared this with and some I’ve interviewed have no interest in what the NVA say. It may be because of bad memories or just that they have no desire to learn about their experience. I think it is sort of sad, but I understand.

What’s the next step for the site?

I need funding to enhance elements of the site and build the interview archive. I want to make it easier for vets to get their stories recorded, and I’d like to have a companion Vietnamese language site so that we can tell the story from—and to—both sides. That is the ultimate goal.


Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.