The Colgate Scene
January 2004

Remembrance and healing
Broken Brotherhood looks at Vietnam's impact on a generation

Robert Aberlin '66 (left) and Lou Buttino '66 listen to a comment after the Veterans Day premiere of their documentary film Broken Brotherhood: Vietnam and the Boys from Colgate. The pair shot more than 200 hours of interviews for the film, which examines the impact of the Vietnam War on Colgate alumni from the 1960s and early 1970s. [Photo by Heather Ainsworth]

On a November morning in Memorial Chapel after the world premiere of their feature-length documentary film Broken Brotherhood: Vietnam and the Boys from Colgate, Robert Aberlin '66 and Lou Buttino '66 were both in a reflective mood. More than 200 people, including students, administrators, townspeople, and several alumni who appear in Broken Brotherhood, had gathered at the Hamilton Movie House to view the film on Veterans Day.

"I feel tired, but exhilarated," said Aberlin. "It's nice to finally get it out there. So many people were there, so many stayed around afterward to ask questions. So many shed tears."

"It's just nice to share this story about Colgate, with Colgate, and to see the wonderful changes here, especially with women students in the audience," said Buttino. "It may be a few days before I figure out exactly what I'm feeling, but the [premiere] was very special. I felt a lot of love around me, a lot of pride and a lot of goodness."

The premiere of Broken Brotherhood marked the end of a journey that began when Aberlin returned to campus for his 25th reunion in 1991. By journey's end, Aberlin and Buttino had traveled more than 30,000 miles, spent tens of thousands of dollars of their own money, and shot more than 200 hours of interviews to explore the holes rent in the social fabric of their alma mater and country by the Vietnam War.

"One of the things we tried to do was get away from the caricature that was made of the 1960s," Buttino said. "It was a complex time and there were complex decisions being made. Not everybody was a hippie, and not everybody was a Rambo."

At that reunion in 1991, Aberlin noticed there was no commemoration in Memorial Chapel for alumni who perished in Vietnam (Scene, September 2000). After exhaustive and often frustrating research, Aberlin managed to compile a list of 20 men (13 of whom died in Vietnam, seven in training missions). A plaque was dedicated in 1994 and the Vietnam Memorial Endowed Scholarship was created to honor alumni who "lost their lives in military service during the Vietnam War."

The process leading to the dedication of the Vietnam plaque in Memorial Chapel (a rededication ceremony is included in the film) also prompted many alumni to share their feelings about Vietnam with Aberlin. At the time, Aberlin was working on another film with Buttino, a documentary filmmaker who holds a joint appointment in film studies and the graduate school at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. After Aberlin shared some of the "unbelievable, beautiful" letters with him, Buttino wrote the treatment for the documentary he called "a story of remembrance and healing."

The two commenced work on the film acutely aware of the gulf between their own experiences during the Vietnam War and their fellow alumni who served in the armed forces. Buttino was a conscientious objector and Aberlin had a temporary medical deferment excusing him from military service that kept him in a kind of limbo throughout the war. Nevertheless, the duo was determined to present a range of opinions about the war.

Well balanced
The inspiration for the film's title came from Rev. James L. Kellaway '72, who referred to the `common brotherhood' among alumni in a prayer at the end of the film.

"We were a brotherhood at Colgate," Aberlin said. "We felt the brotherhood had been broken."

During the course of three years, Aberlin and Buttino spoke with more than two dozen people and learned just how much that brotherhood had been shattered and the extent to which it has been healed. Broken Brotherhood chronicles such travails as the alumnus who refused to believe that the only treatment for his wounded arm was amputation; how those alumni who protested against the war view their activism as an expression of democratic values; and how Buttino and his former roommate, Marine Corps veteran Brian O'Donnell '66, reunited and reestablished their friendship after the war had severed their relationship for more than 30 years. The film also doesn't shy away from those wounds that may never heal, such as the alumnus and veteran who places blame for the war's outcome at the feet of "rich college kids" who protested against the war.

But in the opinion of alumni present at the premiere, many of whom had traveled across the country, Aberlin and Buttino were nothing if not fair in their presentation.

"I think it's difficult to balance it," said H.W. "Buzz" Buse '64, a Marine Corps veteran who was wounded three times during two combat tours of duty in Vietnam. "But the film presents the thoughts of folks who fought in the war and those who protested against it very well."

Buse remembers an anecdote about the war's aftermath, which may be apocryphal, concerning an exchange between an American army colonel and a North Vietnamese colonel a few years after the war ended. The American colonel told the Vietnamese officer that they both knew that the U.S. forces in Vietnam never lost a single battle. The North Vietnamese colonel allegedly replied, "You know, that is probably true, but it's also irrelevant."

"That's a fascinating comment," said Buse, who appears in the film. "I think that one of the most difficult things for military men and women who experienced Vietnam is, why did it take so long for people to figure out we were going on the wrong track and that we probably ought to have a different kind of a strategy? I never have understood it. A lot of things have come out since the end of the war and the [Johnson] administration knew full well we were going down the wrong damn road and they kept pouring people in the place, knowing it was going to be a disaster in the end."

Garner Simmons '65, who witnessed some of the worst urban strife of the 1960s while serving in the Illinois National Guard, praised the film's "even-handed" approach.

"I was pleased that the film stressed that it wasn't the guys who were doing the fighting who were wrong," said Simmons, who also appears in Broken Brotherhood. "They were doing what they had to do, what they felt obligated to do, and because this country is built upon the filament of that obligation, if people back away from supporting their government to the degree that nothing happens, eventually this country will fall. At the same time, dissent is part of the fabric of what makes America great, and that was in there as well."

National broadcast sought
Patty Caprio, director of development programs and the Presidents' Club, has worked closely with Aberlin for 12 years to find ways to honor alumni who perished while serving in the armed forces during the Vietnam War. The film, whose evolution Caprio had witnessed, was "very moving and powerful" for her.

"I'm a part of that generation," said Caprio, who makes a brief appearance in the film. "It has been heart wrenching for me to see how so many of these gentlemen have bottled up their feelings for all these years."

That so many of Buttino and Aberlin's former classmates and fellow alumni came to Hamilton to support the film on a Tuesday night in early winter was "wonderful," she said.

"Since the Veterans Day screening, my main thought has been `What do we do next?'" Caprio said. "Do we take it to alumni clubs or pitch it to PBS or HBO first?"

That's of primary concern to Buttino and Aberlin as well, who in addition to putting the finishing touches on the film are also looking for a national broadcast outlet.

"This is an important story for people to see," said Buttino. "Especially now. We need to learn even more from our experience in Vietnam. Broken Brotherhood raises important concerns relevant to us all -- vital concerns about respecting each others' point of view, about looking for our common humanity in the midst of harsh differences."

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