In the living room of his house off Emerson Street, Ted Englemann has two plastic filing bins on top of a short bookshelf. Each is filled with meticulously labeled manila files and handwritten notes. The bins are labeled “OSH 1” and “OSH 2.” And they represent decades of work, a project Engelmann calls “One Soldier’s Heart,” a book he hopes will give other veterans the chance to heal.
Engelmann, a longtime Denver resident and retired teacher, has spent the last several decades documenting and researching war for the book. At age 72 he said that the words have changed, such as the terms for what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but the “emotional wounds of war are pretty much the same.”
“By offering the experiences of other veterans and cultures in our war, and saying the two personal conditions I’ve come to know: the Vietnamese don’t hold American veterans responsible to the (damage) we did during the war,” he said.”I’ve been treated better in Vietnam than in my own country. Maybe those two items will help make a difference for veterans for their own path to recovery.”
In March 1968, when he was 21, Engelmann arrived in Vietnam as an Air Force sergeant. His father, who had fought in World War II and was in the Army Reserve during the Korean War, was also a photographer, which meant the younger Engelmann’s world revolved around photography growing up. So bringing a small camera to his base in Vietnam was second nature.
His camera shot half-frames on 35 mm film. This meant that on a roll of film with 36 images, Engelmann was getting 72 pictures. “By the time you got done it was ancient history of what you had started on,” he said of the time it took to take that many pictures. He took about 400 images in the year he was in Vietnam.
He’s not a great photographer, Engelmann said, he has found mistakes in composition or lighting in many of his images. But for him, it was never about taking the perfect picture. It was about documenting the events around him.
“I use the camera, I think, more to tell a story,” he said. “It wasn’t that I was really a professional photojournalist … I just used the camera mainly as a tool.”
Engelmann returned to Vietnam in 1989. He revisited the location of his base. He had brought along pictures he had taken of the base as he knew it then — images of battles and violence. But when he came back to the area, he found something quite different. The area had become prosperous again.
Before the Vietnam war, the area where Engelmann was stationed was a rubber factory run by French scientists. After the war, the scientists returned and created an arboretum for their research, Engelmann said.
“When I was there I was thinking, `Oh I remember when I was there this thing had rockets and mortars going off’ — and the noise and the craziness that was going on in the war, what we were doing and how we lived,” he said. “Now it is serene.”
He decided to give copies of the images he had taken in wartime to the scientists at the factory. As he returned the images, he felt a weight lift off, as if by leaving the photos behind he also had left some of his negatives feelings behind. Although he was photographing the same locations, the area was now peaceful, and maybe he could be, too.
“At that point I realized I never had to come back to photograph the war ever again,” he said.
In the years after returning from his 12 months in Vietnam, Engelmann spent his time documenting events for veterans coming home from the war. He traveled to major cities taking photos of welcome-home parades for soldiers in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Sydney. He would also go on to teach middle school science.
After he began returning to Vietnam to document the growth of the country, Engelmann decided to point his lens toward other wars. He bought his first camera in 2008 when he was embedded as a freelance photographer in Iraq. He hoped that by going back into a war situation similar to what he faced in Vietnam, he would be better able to understand why so many soldiers were dying by suicide after returning from the wars in the Middle East.
He hoped that understanding would give him the tools to help veterans on their emotional journey in his book. “One Soldier’s Heart” will have photography and research into wars throughout the history of the United States. Working on the book has been a journey of personal recovery for Englemann.
“Since trauma is cumulative, if not cared for soon, I was angry at the war. I haven’t found a way to recover through ‘normal’ channels, i.e., classic therapy,” Englemann said. “The path to recovery has been long and winding process. Another part of the puzzle, this work is probably what has kept me alive.”
In his own research, Engelmann said he found that in articles before the Vietnam War, country name was spelled as two words: Viet Nam. Both the Vietnamese government and United Nations currently spell the name of the country with two words. Going back to the two-word spelling of the country may be something that could help veterans separate themselves from the war, Engelmann said. There’s the war in which they participated, a single word, and then there’s the country that has its own culture and people.
“If we could use new terms, I think it could help us to come up with a new thinking. Viet Nam: it’s a country, not a war,” he said.
But everyone’s journey to recovery is different. The research into “One Soldier’s Heart” and the photographs he has taken over the years are Engelmann’s way of hoping he can help one more soldier find peace.
This March, Engelmann will take his final trip to Vietnam as part of the “One Soldier’s Heart” project. He hopes to find the families he first photographed 30 years ago, along with their children. Once he returns he will wrap up writing sections of what he hopes will become a published book. It will be the end of an era for Engelmann.
“This March, end of March, there will be closure, because I don’t have to back to Vietnam with a camera ever again,” he said. “It’s time for me to let go of Vietnam. It’s grown up, I’ve watched it do that.”
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