“Take Me Home Huey,” a 56-minute documentary about a Rancho Santa Fe-based artist turning a Vietnam War helicopter into a work of art, will kick off this year’s GI Film Festival.
The artist, Steve Maloney, first got the idea for the project in 2012, when then-President Barack Obama issued a presidential proclamation for the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. It was the first time Maloney took on military-themed subject matter.
“All of my art was more joyful, happy art dealing with pop culture and Americana,” said Maloney, who served as an executive director on the film. “This was the first serious project I ever did.”
The helicopter he reconstructed and decorated with imagery reflecting the war and soldiers who served was shot down in Vietnam in 1969, killing its crew chief and a medic. Maloney found the aircraft, a type nicknamed “Huey,” in a scrapyard in Arizona. The documentary captures the making of the artwork and the initial reactions from veterans and their family members, including the sister of one of the soldiers who died on board.
In addition to commemorating the veterans who served in Vietnam, the project is also meant to address the post-traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt and other mental health issues many of them face when they return home. Maloney said the short documentary detailing the work that went into the piece, as well as a song he commissioned helped make the project “really powerful.”
Maloney was 21 in 1963, when he enlisted in the Michigan National Guard. His father was a World War II veteran. Many of his peers struggled with the decision to enlist or find a way to avoid having their numbers called in the draft, such as enrolling in school.
“I thought really it was our duty to serve,” he said.
He also said he remembers the protesters. For the first time in U.S. history, the news media was able to regularly disseminate photo and video of a war, which impacted public opinion and spurred a generation of anti-war activism.
“It was a tumultuous period of time,” he said. “It was a televised war, it was the first time we learned more rapidly, almost instantly, what was happening.”
Many of the soldiers who came home from Vietnam didn’t have access to the metal health. Conditions like post-traumatic stress had not yet been formally identified by medical professionals. One of the veterans in the film said having PTSD is like “walking a thousand miles with a pebble in your shoe,” because it “grinds on every step and never goes away.”
“We have learned our lesson that we can’t let that happen again,” he said.
Veterans from the Iraq War receive more resources, but many struggle with the same mental health issues and risks of dying by suicide. Maloney said art, including his piece, can help them cope with those issues.
“The feedback has been extremely touching, engaging, patriotic, thanking me for what I’ve done,” he added. “It’s the proudest thing I’ve ever done.”
The fifth annual GI Film Festival will take place Sept. 24-29 at the Museum of Photographic Arts, Parq Event Center, UltraStar Cinemas at Hazard Center and the U.S.S. Midway Museum. For information, visit gifilmfestivalsd.org.