Vietnam War: A 50-Year Veterans Reunion Helped My Dad Process A Brutal Battle To mark five decades since his unit fought in the Battle of Ben Cui in Vietnam, NPR video producer Kara Frame's father got the guys together. It was more than a reunion; it was a way to heal.
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'They Are My Men': A 50-Year Veterans Reunion Helped My Dad Process A Brutal Battle

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'They Are My Men': A 50-Year Veterans Reunion Helped My Dad Process A Brutal Battle

'They Are My Men': A 50-Year Veterans Reunion Helped My Dad Process A Brutal Battle

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All over the country, families are gathered for Thanksgiving weekend. And, from now until Christmas, we're going to be getting personal with some of them. We're going to be highlighting family stories, and we're starting with Kara Frame and her dad, Tom Frame.

Kara is a video producer here at NPR who has been sharing her family's story. It goes back to August 21, 1968. That's the day 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in the battle of Ben Cui during the Vietnam War. Her dad, retired Army staff sergeant Tom Frame, was there. And for the 50th anniversary of that battle, Kara wrote about how her father's experiences in the war, especially the trauma of that day, has shaped their family. And they are both with us now from the studios of WDIY in Bethlehem, Pa.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for talking with us.

KARA FRAME, BYLINE: Thank you very much.

TOM FRAME: Thank you.

MARTIN: And Sergeant Frame, Tom, I know it's controversial, but could I start by thanking you for your service? Would that be OK?

T. FRAME: You certainly may.

MARTIN: And are you OK to tell me what happened on that day in August 50 years ago?

T. FRAME: It was - our mission for the day was to go into the Ben Cui rubber plantation. They had some information that there was a company of North Vietnamese regular soldiers, and our mission was to go in and find them. It was called a search and destroy. And when we got out there, we ran into a little bit more than what they had told us. We ran into about a regiment and a half, and we were overwhelmed almost immediately. It got down to some hand-to-hand combat, and we had to evacuate the area because we were about to be overrun. And tough day, obviously. We lost a lot of good guys. I think about them every day.

MARTIN: How do you think that battle has affected you in the years since?

T. FRAME: It makes me appreciate each day when I wake up and I look at the window. It could be raining, could be snowing, could be beautiful, and it's still a good day. And, each morning, when I wake up, and I look out the window, I thank God, and I think about the men we lost that day - every day.

MARTIN: And, Kara, what about you. You've started talking about that and documenting this experience for your father. What got you started doing that?

K. FRAME: Well, I always knew that my dad was a veteran. And I think, from early age, I was always curious. I remember we saw "Saving Private Ryan" together, and after that opening sequence, I looked at him, and I was, like, is that what war is really like? And he chuckled, and he said, yeah. That's what it's like. And, as I got older, I just became more curious. And, at the same time that I was becoming more curious, I think my dad was finally reaching a place where he was able to open up about it and really begin to talk about it.

MARTIN: And Sergeant Frame shared Kara that - one of the ways that this experience affected him is that he wakes up with a sense of gratitude. But there's also been another side of it that you've also documented. And one of the things that's been very moving about your reporting on this is you've described the effect on you. You write about the anger. In fact, in your piece, you wrote, my anger kicks holes in doors and walls, strains relationships and is best calmed with several cigarettes and solitude. Kara, when did you trace what was happening in you to what your dad had experienced? How do you think you made that connection?

K. FRAME: Well, I would say it's honestly been something over - only in the past couple of years that I have become so intimately drawn to the long-term effects of PTSD and recognizing how it manifests itself in my dad and then looking at myself and understanding my trauma and being able to trace all of those lines. I think that, as children, you watch how your parents deal with issues. And, you know, in our house, in our family, we have anger issues, and I know that I carry that with me as well.

MARTIN: Sergeant Frame, do you agree with what Kara said?

T. FRAME: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Tell me about the pilgrimage. Sergeant, why don't you start? You've started organizing gatherings. How do you describe them?

T. FRAME: One of our reunions, I was approached by a gentleman from Odessa, Texas. Our Medal of Honor recipient is from Odessa, Texas. He's one of the reasons I'm here today. And a fellow down there that lives down there has a ranch. And he said, listen. I have a ranch in Texas. You're all welcome there. And it's seeing the men again. And I just - this past August, I got to meet one of the fellows I haven't seen in 50 years.

MARTIN: Sergeant Frame, it's just - it's an incredible thing. It's almost hard even to put into words both to see loss of life and also to have your own life saved. And I know Kara wrote in her piece that, at first, you all didn't talk about it, right?

T. FRAME: Correct.

MARTIN: But now, in recent years, has talking about it helped?

T. FRAME: I found out many years ago. My brother in law, who served in Vietnam the year after I was there, when he came home, we would sit down with a couple cold refreshments and talk about Vietnam. And that was part of my healing process - not realizing at the time - because I was actually talking about it. And I was talking about it with somebody who understood what I was saying. I understood what he was saying.

And we just - we kind of stayed like that together. I didn't talk about it, you know, every day. But it got me involved in a couple veterans' groups back in the middle '80s. And I always felt comfortable when I walked in the door when I'm around other veterans. And it doesn't have to be a Vietnam veteran - any veteran, man or woman. I feel comfortable, and I feel somebody has my back.

MARTIN: And, Kara, what's it like for you to hear that? I mean it's - as family members, we want to be close to the people we love. And yet, there are certain experiences that they have that we're never going to have. I want to mention you filmed a documentary about your dad's time in the service a couple of years ago, and you wrote about it again this year for NPR. Has this experience been meaningful for you? Has it changed something in your relationship with him?

K. FRAME: Absolutely. I feel really lucky that I have had the time, and I've chosen a path - a career path that allows me to explore some of these experiences that my family has endured, that my father has gone through and to try to understand the feelings and the emotions. Because it's - you know, it can be really raw, and it can be very emotional - like, these anniversaries or when the anger hits, and you're, like - you're frustrated because you don't understand where the anger comes from. So I think that it has changed my relationship with my father because - he might deny this, but I think I have more patience...

(LAUGHTER)

K. FRAME: ...With him than maybe some other family members. It has also - the documentary that I did was about the long-term effects of PTSD on marital relationships, and so that really helped me understand not only my father but also my mom and what she has been living with for the past 50 years as the wife of a Vietnam veteran with PTSD.

MARTIN: So, finally, this is Thanksgiving weekend, and a lot of people are going to be gathered with their families. A lot of families don't talk about things, you know? And I wondered if each of you has any advice for people who want to be better connected to each other, particularly around important events that may have happened in their lives that they don't easily share. Kara, I'm going to give you the first word, and then, Sergeant Tom, I'm going to give you the last word because, you know what? You're the dad. So...

T. FRAME: (Laughter).

MARTIN: And it's your story. So, Kara, do you have any guidance for people who aren't, you know, professional storytellers as you are? Like, how do you start the conversation?

K. FRAME: I think the simplest is just start asking questions and gauge their response. And just stay curious. You know, because I do this for a profession, I have more tools in my toolbox to open up these questions. But if you're curious, and you ask questions, you're not going to go wrong with it. You just need to give that space for somebody to open up to you.

MARTIN: And what about you, Sergeant Frame? What's your guidance - given especially, as you said earlier, that there was a time in your life when you didn't want to talk about these things? But, you know, the people who love you want to know you. They want to know you in your totality. How would you advise people to proceed here if they want to connect with you around something that's painful?

T. FRAME: Well, I think talk, listen and show compassion. It's tough. It has to be done to have some sort of - not so much acceptance of post-traumatic stress disorder, but so the family understands a little bit about what you're going through. You don't have to tell all the gory war stories. But some of the things all my children know - that I went through this battle, and I have PTSD. And I think that's almost a godsend that they understand. At least, I think they understand. But just to talk about it, listen and show compassion.

MARTIN: That is retired Army staff sergeant Tom Frame and his daughter, Kara Frame. And you can read Kara Frame's full essay at npr.org.

Kara Frame, Sergeant Frame, thank you so much for talking with us. And a happy Thanksgiving, a meaningful holiday season to you both. We really appreciate it.

K. FRAME: Thank you, Michel.

T. FRAME: Thank you. Same to you.

MARTIN: Throughout this holiday season, we will be bringing you conversations between family members, relatives sharing family secrets for the first time, families looking into their shared histories. If you have a story you'd like to share, we'd like to hear it. You can email us at nprcrowdsource@npr.org and put family story in the subject line. Or you can go to the NPR Facebook page and fill out a brief form. You're listening to NPR News.

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