Hoonah Vets Recount Vietnam War in New Documentary

A new documentary profiles the lives of Tlingit veterans from Hoonah who fought in the Vietnam War. “Hunting in Wartime”premieres in the Southeast Alaska Native village Friday.

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(Image courtesy Samantha Farinella)
(Image courtesy Samantha Farinella)

“When I grew up, I wanted to be a hunter and a fisherman and I could do both of them,” says Donald See in the film trailer.

“I don’t think any of us said that we’re going to be soldiers when we grew up,” says Fred Bennett.

“When I was in Vietnam, I told myself if I ever make it out of here, I’m going back home and I’m staying there until the day I die,” says Victor Bean.

See, Bennett and Bean are three of the men Brooklyn filmmaker Samantha Farinella interviewed for her documentary “Hunting in Wartime.”

“It’s about the human cost of war and survivability in a community. It’s also how you go through something and survive it and come out the other side. And thank goodness a lot of these guys did,” Farinella said.

For some of the vets, her interviews released decades of bottled up emotion. As Ron Paul says in the film, many didn’t talk about the war when they returned.

“Everything you went through, you hide it and you’re smiling on the outside but you’re cold inside.”

In some ways, the Hoonah soldiers had a lot in common with the Vietnamese people they were fighting.

“Almost every veteran I interviewed in the film says that they had a lot of respect for the Vietnamese people,” Farinella said. “They did feel close to them. It was a similar culture. One of the vets Fred Bennett said, ‘They come from a small fishing village like I did. They’re tight-knit with their families.’”

Farinella and Hoonah veteran George Lindoff. (Photo courtesy Samantha Farinella)
Farinella and Hoonah veteran George Lindoff. (Photo courtesy Samantha Farinella)

Farinella said the film explores Tlingit culture and their connection to the land. As hunters, the soldiers from Hoonah were used to taking life, but in war, it’s different.

“A good portion of the veterans I interviewed said that when they first had someone in their sights, they tried to think of them as a deer,” she said. “But as George Lindoff said, ‘I knew I was lying to myself.’”

When the men returned from war, many had terrible nightmares and experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. Some struggled with drugs and alcohol. “Hunting in Wartime” explores how, with the help of family and community, many of the vets climbed out of despair.

Fred-Bennett
Hoonah veteran Fred Bennett (Photo courtesy Samantha Farinella)

“My wife is tough,” says Warren Sheakley in the film. “She slammed me up against the wall, almost knocked my lights out and said, ‘You talk about it.’ And then I said, ‘OK.’”

Farinella started the film in 2010. She visited the village several times, traveled to Juneau and as far away as Hawaii to interview about 20 vets from Hoonah. With a local friend and other connections, she built relationships in Hoonah with the veterans, their families and the community.

“It took a village, everybody was helping and that felt good. Small things, like the Hoonah Senior Center opened up so I could interview people in a quiet space. I was invited to play softball. It took a while. It was building trust,” Farinella said.

Marlene Johnson was one of Farinella’s local connections. Johnson was born and raised in Hoonah, and her nephew Ronald Greenewald fought and died in Vietnam. Johnson thinks most people in Hoonah are happy about the film.

“And I think the veterans are, too, that somebody realizes they did something for their country. And for people that’ve never been thanked for it, this to them is their thank you,” Johnson said.

The film has already started a conversation. After a screening of last year, one vet’s nephew said to Farinella, “I never knew my uncle did that.”