By Mara Pelecis
A little more than 10 years ago, my father took his own life 30 years after coming home from Vietnam.
In mourning his death, I realized it was time for me to put together a story about the experiences veterans go through over time. Throughout the years, my dad faced many struggles. I had started the story years earlier when I tried to get him to share his story on camera. At the time, I didn’t realize how hard that was for him. Cameras were something our family always had around. We even had a small black-and-white darkroom in our basement, so the transition to video seemed natural.
While my dad didn’t talk about his experiences in Vietnam, he carried a zippo lighter with “Bien Hoa” inscribed on it and loved Vietnamese food. He wore his Army jacket while doing yard work and, when I was about 7, he taught me and my sister to shoot the tops off 2-liter pop bottles with a .22-caliber rifle, despite my mom’s disapproval.
Even though he taught us basic survival tips, he never answered any questions about Vietnam. It was only years later that things began to open up, mostly through stories I heard from his friends.
The bits and pieces I could gather—the images that started the narrative in my head as a child—I’ve come to call my inherited memories.
I imagined my dad in that green Army jacket somewhere in a country called Vietnam, helping people from a modern, white hospital-like ambulance with shiny red lights.
I also count my grandmother’s stories among my inherited memories. As a child, she lived far north in Archangel, Russia, during World War I so the family was not on the front in Latvia. Her husband to be—just 16 and in the Latvian National Guard at the time—was fighting both the Germans and Russians for an independent Latvia. During World War II, my grandparents fled Latvia again.
I imagined both sides of my family leaving Latvia in a passenger jet, much like the DC-10 we had taken to Los Angeles to visit friends and see Disneyland. The trip, I later found out, was just after my dad’s first hospitalization at the VA in Minnesota. He’d had his first round of shock treatments to take him out of a very bad place. He was gone for quite some time, but all I was told back then was that he didn’t feel well.
My dad’s trips to the VA hospital continued over the years—sometimes inpatient, sometimes outpatient. Sometimes a few years passed between visits, except for checkups. He was at the hospital the last time I saw him. They were changing his medications after a bad episode—they usually included paranoia. He was there for several weeks and I was home visiting for a few of them.
His suicide just a few months later took us all by surprise. No one expected Ivars “Andy” Pelecis to take his own life. Not his social worker, not his nurse at VA—who knew him longer than the doctors on rotation—and not his buddies in Alcoholics Anonymous.
At the funeral, one of those buddies—someone who had graduated from high school with me—told me the story of how my dad had saved him from suicide years ago. He was perplexed. We were all perplexed.
In 1989, Dad lost his job of nearly 30 years after the company he worked for was sold. The former owner understood him and his stays at the VA. And, since his better days were great, they kept him on. Losing that life routine was very hard on him. He was already in his fifties and never found stable work again.
Even though Dad had his bad days, he was always there to help others. He held AA meetings at the county jail and drove people who lost their licenses to work because, though they were sober again, they had yet to regain a valid license. He did it simply because he wanted to help them. As my brother-in-law would say, my dad was the busiest jobless person he knew.
As I tried to make sense of his death, I realized the experts alone wouldn’t answer all my questions. I had to talk with people who had experiences like he had—experiences that were hard to forget and that keep you up at night. I needed to find someone who had lived through war and somehow figured out how to heal their wounds.
I started by reading Vietnam veteran Jim Northrup’s memoir, which I had given to my dad years earlier. I also began attending various veterans’ events across the Twin Cities, including Beyond the Yellow Ribbon meetings and a few Veterans for Peace meetings. On a whim, my mom and I drove to Washington to see the Rolling Thunder Run to the Wall on Memorial Day weekend. There were so many men who looked like my dad. It was overwhelming. My imagination took over, and I could pretend he was somewhere in that crowd with them.
One of the first veterans I spoke with was Phong Phan. My dad and I used to go to his Vietnamese restaurant in St. Paul, not far from the VA. Phong was usually at the restaurant and would stop by tables to talk. He and my dad would even talk a bit about Vietnam. There were many pictures of Vietnam, photos of guests at the restaurant, including many veterans. A poster-sized image of Phong in his South Vietnamese MP uniform hung behind the register.
When I learned from Phong, who also speaks French, that “souvenirs” means memories, the title for our film became clear. Connecting memories with souvenirs—likening a memory to a tangible object in physical space—made sense of things in a new way. I began to think of my dad’s souvenirs, everything he had piled up, everything that he had kept boxed up, both physically and emotionally.
In the spring of 2005, just a year into the project, I was invited to create a photography installation of my work with Souvenirs at the Minnesota Center for Photography, where we also held a screening of the first interviews. After the screening, I realized the audience was made up of women—only women and mostly my mom’s age. After watching 20 minutes of interviews, some were crying. Many hugged me.
Some had lost siblings or husbands to the bottle, some to divorce, to emotional separation, or to suicide. I realized that the story wasn’t just about my dad and veterans, but about the entire family.
While the veterans shared their stories on screen, we all had our own to share about the pain we witnessed, the helplessness we felt, the overwhelming urge to try to make things better, for our veterans and for those coming home now.
Fitting this journey into a 90-minute space took me another seven years. During this time, my husband and I married and had our two children. I was often tired and wanted to work on something “easier,” like a project on music or a documentary about someone else’s life.
The memory of my father, along with the words of my mother, kept me going. “If talking about this can help even one person avoid the same fate, then let’s talk about it.”
After screenings, I’m often asked, “What is the answer? What works best?”
While I don’t know the answer, I have learned the significance of acceptance—accepting that things will be diﬀerent than they were before, and that it’s alright.
While there are many therapies and medications that can help people during diﬃcult times, there is no one-size-fits-all remedy. Some find help within the system. Some do better outside the system. The answer for others is a combination of the two. It also takes time to find the best individual solution—the right therapist, support group, living situation, medicine and the right routine—and those routines may change.
Our expectations need to shift, too. As a society—a community—we need to understand and accept that adjustment takes time. Healing takes time.
I will never forget how I felt when my dad first lost his job. After a year unemployed, depression hit hard and he spent four months at the VA. It was hard to explain that to people who constantly asked if he’d found a job yet.
Once, at a gathering of family friends, after someone had asked me that question, someone stepped in. He was a retired lieutenant colonel who had also served in Vietnam. He looked at the person asking, and answered.
“Andy may need some time. Things may be catching up with him. But we have to respect him. He saw things that I never had to see.”
That man saved my day. When I told my mom, she told me that he was also the only person from our church who ever went to visit my dad at the hospital. Dad always said he didn’t want visitors.
What is most frustrating is that the problem doesn’t seem to be getting better. A 2013 VA report estimates 22 veterans take their own lives each day, which could be defined as an epidemic. To add insult to injury, some contest that number because they don’t think vets who have been back for more than a few years should be included.
I’m now editing Souvenirs from a 90-minute film down to 60 minutes, so that we can reach broader audiences. Though I thought I was done with my healing when I finished the feature, I am revisiting the story again, but with more distance this time.
Although things are easier than before, fortunately, I can laugh at the thought of being done with it.
Even when I’m “done” I won’t be finished as there will always be vets with stories and those stories parlay into my next project—a community art project that started in May, in honor of Memorial Day, and will continue through Veterans Day.
The project will invite people to create artwork that addresses the number of people we are losing to suicide back home. We hope to raise awareness by talking about this in our everyday spaces, not just in films or the news, because although we know more—and understand more—we aren’t there quite yet.”
—Mara Pelecis is an artist and filmmaker living in Minneapolis. Her work focuses on community engagement, including veterans issues. For more information on “Souvenirs,” visit souvenirsdocumentary.com.
Stories in this Series
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