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"Naneek" follows Michigan vet's return to Vietnam 40 years later

Nov 11, 2015

Tim Keenan, president of Veterans for Peace of Traverse City.
Credit Neal Steeno

When soldiers are sent into war, they often leave a chunk of their hearts and souls on the battlefield.

They may make it home, but part of them remains tied to that far-off battleground.

Tim Keenan of Traverse City lived with that hole in his heart and soul for more than 40 years. He was a 20-year-old infantryman in the fall of 1967 when he was dropped into the frontline fighting in Vietnam at Dak To.

For weeks, Keenan’s platoon fought and bled to take a position called Hill 1338.

After four decades, Keenan decided it was time to return to Vietnam, time to see where he fought and to reach out to the “other side” – soldiers who were North Vietnamese Army.

Filmmaker Neal Steeno followed Keenan and his son, Jake, on this emotional trip. The result is a documentary called Naneek.

Keenan tells us he’s thought about going back to Vietnam for many years, but never found anyone who would be willing to make the trip with him.

“Something inside of me wanted to go back there, because … I don’t know if it does this to all people that served in the infantry, but it left me with just negative feelings about an entire race of people,” Keenan says. “I wanted to try to make peace with the Vietnamese people and perhaps my enemy too, to see them in a different light.”

Steeno tells us that Keenan was part of a storytelling series in Traverse City a few years ago, and while Keenan told what was “essentially his war story” on stage, Steeno kept an eye on the audience.

“Over the course of 30 minutes you’d see these people in the audience react in such a real way,” Steeno says. “Tim has a way of connecting whatever story he’s telling in such a beautiful manner.”

The two stayed in touch over the next couple of years until Steeno dreamed of filming a project in Vietnam one night.

“That next morning I woke up shaken up and I called Tim, and ironically he’d said he talked to his son and was ready to go back before I even mentioned it. So it sort of felt like it was made to be,” he says.

Keenan tells us he could never have made that journey without his son, Jake.

“He’s such a sensitive guy anyway, and he really senses when I’m feeling emotion and he was there for me ... every step of the way,” Keenan says.

Keenan says he was nervous about meeting with former NVA soldiers, and that the gathering started out a little cold. But the dialogue opened up when he told them he was involved with Veterans for Peace in Northern Michigan.

“And I saw them, and they saw me as a human being, and I saw them as human beings, and I wish they would never have been my enemy. I mean, they could be my neighbors,” he says.

Steeno has taken Naneek to the Traverse City and Woodstock film festivals, and he hopes to show it to as many veterans as possible as well as acquire an educational distribution deal so that it can be shown in schools across the nation.

More information about the film can be found at naneek.com.

Tim Keenan and Neal Steeno tell us more about the film and Keenan’s journey of healing in our conversation above.