There’s one Vietnam story still untold. Dak To. It was 1969 and American combat operations in Kontoum province were ostensibly over. But not for 600 men in the 299th Engineer Battalion. In a gambit ordered by President Nixon, this battalion of bridge and road builders were left at their strategic post along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to lure the North Vietnamese Army into battle. During a grueling 61-day siege, without their infantry to defend them, half of the men in the 299th were killed or wounded.
Christopher Upham survived the siege at Dak To. But 40 years later, he still wakes up with the weight of Vietnam. In an effort to finally come to terms with his 14-month tour of duty in Vietnam and the abandonment at Dak To, Upham reconnects with his unit. Five of them decide to return to Dak To. With the trust of a fellow soldier, and the voice of a true insider, Upham leads his comrades back to Dak To, along the way questioning what they were asked to do, and what they agreed to do, for their country.
Through the modern day streets of Saigon, down the Mekong River, through the Cu Chi Tunnels of the Viet Cong enemy, and finally to the remains of the Dak To airstrip, we follow five characters as they make their way to the place that was singularly formative as teenage soldiers, and now, they hope, holds the promise of psychological peace. Upham’s spare, poignant narration tells his own story and lays the ground for the other veterans to reveal their deeply personal battles over what they did in Vietnam. Some are eaten up with remorse and guilt. Some are angry at being left for bait. Others hold to honor, duty, and the fight against Communism. Forty years later, Dak To still haunts even the most stoic among the five men.
Upham’s interviews have the intimacy of soldiers talking to each other. He reaches into the interior complexity of his comrades coping with events too large for one psyche. His sympathy as a fellow-soldier coaxes even the shadows of his characters, and the viewer will vacillate many times with the likeability of some, or all. Upham’s quiet memoir and the stunning, never-seen footage shot by the young Dak To soldiers, deliver a disarmingly intimate point of view. Edited with verite footage of the mature veterans as they move through present-day Vietnam, the invisible scars of war loom large.
Upham says, “Telling stories is my way of coping with the war.” Without falling into the well-traveled language of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, RETURN TO DAK TO raises profound questions about the personal cost of war. These five veterans didn’t receive a hero’s welcome home; they took off their uniforms and assimilated, as best they could. All these decades later, as we celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, they’re still digging deep to explain their feelings to themselves and each other. And the viewer can’t help to reflect on American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, wondering what stories they will be telling in 40 years.