Unexplained circumstances, lack of accountability, or simply a terrible trick by fate, in any case, the truth about the men and women who never came home is hidden between the official accounts, and what really happens in the heat of war. In his documentary Unclaimed filmmaker Michael Jorgensen follows Vietnam veteran and lifelong humanitarian Tom Faunce as he tries to uncover the real identity of a man in Vietnam named Dang Tan Ngoc, who claims to be Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, an American service man who was considered "missing in action"(MIA). Proving whether this elderly man is really who he says he is or perhaps just a delusional individual becomes a puzzling challenge for which there seems to be no rational answers. Due to his age and possible trauma, the man can't remember his birthday or place of birth. Furthermore, he has lost the ability to speak English, and though he looks Caucasian, he has adapted to life as a Vietnamese with a wife and kids. Going back and forth between the U.S. and Vietnam, Tom and his team search for anything that can prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that this is in fact the man who heroically served his country and was left behind.
Director Michael Jorgensen talked us about the human core of his film, the difficulties of working with a deceiving government, and the importance of bringing awareness to cases like this and how they reflect in today's treatment of veterans.
Carlos Aguilar: How did you come across this story and Tom's journey to find the truth?
Michael Jorgensen: It all came about when Tom Faunce, my main character, called me. He had a friend who knew of my work, and he called me and told me the story. I was quite intrigued by it, but what really convinced me to do is that I had read a small book Tom had written about his childhood growing up on the streets of Detroit and his experience in Vietnam. I thought there was a deeply human story there, regardless of how his quest to reunite John with his family turned out.
Aguilar: How difficult was it to do research and find information about John Hartley Robertson, and the bizarre circumstances behind his whereabouts?
Jorgensen: I did a lot of research about this mission and the MACV-SOG Organization that the Pentagon put together in January of 64. Then I tried to find everything I could about his missing man, and what was known about him. That was really a black hole. He disappeared; there are no files about this guy at all. There is a couple of statements by people who were in the air or on the ground when his helicopter went down, pretty minimal.
Aguilar: Tom's determination to see this story through goes beyond duty. He seems to sincerely care for John. Why do you think these two men that had never met, have this incredible connection?
Jorgensen: Tom really sees himself in John. Watching the film one can understand more about his childhood and being unloved, abandoned, and unwanted. Coming back from Vietnam amplified this, coming back and feeling the rejection of being a Vietnam veteran in the 60s and 70s. Tom has seen John as a way to heal himself and also redeem himself for his time in Vietnam.
Aguilar: After almost 40 years, and keeping in mind there has been several other wars ever since, one could assume the public has lost interest in the Vietnam War. Do you think this influences in part the government's lack of interest to solve cases like John's?
Jorgensen: You make a very good point; it was a very unpopular war. The soldiers were not treated very well when they came home. I think there is a deep emotional wound on those veterans and on the entire country. For the most part people just want to forget that, they just want it to go away. That could really be one of the reasons contributing to what seems to be a bit of apathy on the part of the government.
Aguilar: Given that the government seem to want to throw you off in terms of finding the truth, how reluctant were they to give you any information or help you get some answers?
Jorgensen: There was really very little information to give. The contact that I worked with in the government was very deceitful. I thin they were trying to steer us clear of even doing this story. As we were just about to finish the film, even before Tom’s team had found John's sister - because they had a really hard time trying to find his relatives - the government had told us that they had gotten blood samples from a brother and sister and that they were doing DNA tests. That was totally untrue, his brother was dead at the time and his sister has never been contacted by the government. That’s where we are left even today. You had a family and a service member, Ed Mahoney, who served with this man, who say unequivocally that’s John Hartley Robertson, and then you have a government saying “We did a covert DNA test, and this guy is not him.” The two couldn’t be further apart.
Aguilar: Is it easier for them to deny it than to admit any fault?
Jorgensen: I think it's always the fall back position of the government, to deny and to try to let it go away rather than to face the issues. But as you can see at the end of the film, shortly after the film screened at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, the government launched a very large investigation into their own MIA agencies calling them “dysfunctional, inept, and potentially fraudulent”, and that ‘s in regard to more than 83,000 cases since WWII. That’s shocking.
Aguilar: How does the lost story of one man affects today's veterans? Is there more to be found about this particular case?
Jorgensen: Certainly from the evidence, and from people that I’ve spoken to who I would characterize as very reliable, there is obviously a lot more to be found. Whether the government will ever talk about it or come clean about it, that’s another issue. This film really for me was about “How far would you go for someone that you don’t even know?” We are seeing this stories even today with veterans about how they come back and feel very isolated and how PSTD is a big issue. They are trying to reintegrate into society by trying to help other people; some have been more successful than others.
Aguilar: Do you hope your film brings shines some light on the issues by exposing past mistakes?
Jorgensen: Absolutely, on the MIA issues and the issue of PTSD, because it is really an epidemic. I’ve always maintained that you can train men to go to war and to fight, but the human heart is not wired for war. The heart is very fragile, and these guys endured some pretty horrific events going into battle. I really hope it shines a light on these issues because these veterans deserve everything that we can provide them.
Aguilar: John and Tom connect through their presumably shared experiences, how was it for you as a filmmaker to come into this story as an outsider?
Jorgensen: For me as a filmmaker, this is the greatest possible scenario in that there is really deep humanity here. The background of this story is the Vietnam War and the MIA issues, but all audiences, no matter what your background is, can connect to the story because of that profound humanity that you see in both Tom and John.
Aguilar: Is Tom still working in more of these cases related to veterans left behind? Have the struggles faced here shaken his commitment?
Jorgensen: Tom is eternally committed to veterans, specially veterans from Vietnam and his humanitarian work. He is a guy who admittedly says that he’ll be happy if he dies on the field trying to help other people. That has really been his mission since he came back from Vietnam. To go to these remote places, and no matter who these people are he will try to help them the best that he can.
Aguilar: Are you working on any new projects? What's the next issue that concerns you?
Jorgensen: Coming put of this I’m very interested in our search for our own humanity and where it lies. I think I’m going to be pursuing something along those lines for my next project, which I’m just researching right now.
Aguilar: Have you shown the film to veterans, which I would assume are one of the audiences most interested in seeing this story, what have been their reactions?
Jorgensen: Lots of veterans have seen this film. Veterans from WWII , from Vietnam, and even veterans who have come back from Afghanistan and Iraq, they
are all very grateful because it is shining a light on their own experiences. Tom personifies the fighting man story, so it has been very positive. It's a way for them to say to their loved ones “Now you can see me though this man and understand a bit more of what I went through and the challenges I’m
facing trying to integrated myself not only back into society, but back into my family unit”