FORT WORTH, Texas – Greg Tomlin will always remember the day he and his father Jerry, a Vietnam veteran, visited the site where Jerry was wounded in combat.
All day the elder Tomlin was withdrawn. Then on the battlefield he spoke to his comrades who died the day he was wounded, telling them, “So long, boys. I’m never going to think about this again.” After that, Greg Tomlin says his father was different, like a burden had been lifted. Since that day their relationship has been stronger than ever.
Greg Tomlin hopes that a documentary he has produced, written and directed similarly deepens relationships between other Vietnam veterans and their sons and daughters by encouraging them to discuss what happened in the war. Such discussions will help veterans’ children “understand what their dads went through and what made them who they are,” he said.
“I always wanted to sit down and talk with my dad about this stuff, but I knew it was painful and I knew some of the stuff he did there was hard for him,” Tomlin told Baptist Press. Yet the trip to Vietnam shed light on “an integral part of who he is.”
Tomlin’s documentary, “The Man Left Behind,” follows retired Army colonel Paul Longgrear, along with his wife and three adult children, back to the Vietnam jungle where he was wounded and, amid the anguish, turned to Christ 45 years ago during the Battle of Lang Vei. The film has received critical acclaim, including selection as a finalist at the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival in February following its summer 2012 release.
Paul Longgrear smiles after visiting an ethnic minority village in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, which included traditional Montagnard dancing and gong music. Longgrear was a Special Forces officer in command of a Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) made up of Montagnard fighters during the Vietnam War. See video.
“We encourage other young men – and by young, I mean in their 40s by now – whose dads fought there [in Vietnam], if their dad’s willing to take them back, to explore that very important part of their father’s life with them,” Tomlin, a Southern Baptist, said.
The Man Left Behind is narrated by actor Terence Knox, whom Tomlin has known for 25 years. Many Vietnam veterans will remember Knox from his role on CBS Television’s Vietnam War drama, “Tour of Duty.”
On Feb. 7, 1968, Longgrear lay wounded on the battlefield and thought he was dying.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, he turned expecting to confront an enemy soldier. But what he saw changed his life. Longgrear says God appeared, in a form so bright he couldn’t look at it, and asked, “What are you going to do now?” Recoiling into a fetal position, Longgrear realized with tears in his eyes he had to submit his life to Jesus as Lord and Savior.
As quickly as God appeared, He was gone. But peace and a sense of being loved has remained with Longgrear the past four decades. In fact, the once-hardened soldier went on to become a minister.
Such an unusual conversion story “was difficult for me [to believe] at first, and it took a lot of conviction on my part from the Holy Spirit,” Tomlin said. Ultimately, he decided the story was both credible and consistent with scripture.
“There was one point when [Longgrear] was telling his story the first time I’d ever talked to him,” Tomlin said. “I thought, ‘This is … hard for me to believe.’ Then I thought, ‘Is this any different than what God did in the Bible?’ And the answer was no. And then the other question was, ‘Do you not think God is big enough to do this? Do you not still think that God works miracles?’ And I do. Because it’s never happened to me, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.”
The Man Left Behind also tells how Longgrear’s wife Patty promised to pray for him before he deployed and kept faithfully her promise. Longgrear said his wife’s words, “I’ll be praying for you,” echoed in his mind throughout the battle at Lang Vei. Patty Longgrear’s brother was killed in the war, and the film includes the family’s reflections on his death as well.
One of Tomlin’s goals with the film is to share the gospel with Vietnam veterans, a group to whom he believes ministry has been neglected. While veterans of other wars were welcomed home with parades and celebrations, Vietnam veterans often faced scorn, he said, a reality that exacerbated the spiritual and emotional wounds of war.
As a ministry to Vietnam veterans, Tomlin’s church in Fort Worth, Texas – Travis Avenue Baptist Church – rented a theater and showed The Man Left Behind. At the end there was a Gospel presentation. Though no one professed faith in Christ that night, veterans said the film was powerful. Several other churches have shown it as well.
“A lot of these guys have been through some seriously trying times and still have difficulty with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other ailments from the war,” Tomlin said of Vietnam veterans. “But our goal first and foremost was to share the love of Christ with them. And that’s to show them that God is more powerful than the effects of war.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is a writer in Shelbyville, Ky. See video.)