Nearly 50 years after Tim Keenan was dropped into the jungles of Vietnam, he headed back to the battlefield to make peace with its horrors, his enemies, and himself.
By Patrick Sullivan | Nov. 4, 2017
The interview has been edited for length and clarity. —ed.
Nearly a decade ago, Tim Keenan retired as community corrections director for the 86th District Court, then he started on a personal journey almost by accident. He hiked the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, which led to a book, which gave him the strength to return to Vietnam, which led to a film.
Now Keenan, who’s served as president of the Traverse City chapter of Veterans for Peace over the past 10 years, hopes he can help other vets with PTSD, and he’s become an enthusiastic exponent of how hiking the Appalachian Trail can transform a life.
Keenan’s book, "The Good Hike," a combination of recollections of his hike and his time in Vietnam, was published last December by Mission Point Press, and a 36-minute film about his 2014 return to Vietnam, called Naneek, is making the film festival rounds. It won the audience award for best short documentary at the 2015 Traverse City Film Festival.
The Northern Express sat down with Keenan 50 years after his tour in Vietnam to talk about the whirlwind decade he’s spent coming to terms with his past. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Northern Express: This all started when you retired from your job as community corrections director in Traverse City in 2008 and at some point decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. How did that decision come about, and what were you looking for?
Tim Keenan: I was picking up equipment — every couple of months I’d buy something, because it’s so expensive, and I wanted it to be light. But part of me was thinking, Well, if no one mentions it, I may not even do it. But I had mentioned it so many times, all of a sudden, people said, “Well, you’re almost done with work — are you going to do the trail?” I thought, Oh God. No, I guess I’m in. And plus, I was anxious. The woods stuff.
Express: In your book you wrote that despite spending so much time in northern Michigan, you’d never really spent that much time in the woods because of the post-traumatic stress disorder you brought back from Vietnam.
Keenan: I had never camped and hiked overnight since Vietnam. I would walk with my kids in the woods sometimes, and my dog sometimes, but when I was in the woods, I’d be very edgy, just edgy. I never said anything to anybody, but that’s the way it was. I wasn’t comfortable, and I was glad to get out. So, you know, I don’t know why, but I decided to do the trail and see what happens. I’ll just go as far as I can.
Express: When did the trip become something bigger? When did it become about confronting your experience in Vietnam?
Keenan: Oh, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me when I got on the trail, as far as the Vietnam stuff goes. Because I know, even now, I think about it every day. I mean, it’s not something that ever goes away. It’s there. And all these events that happened to me in Vietnam, I never know when they’re going to surface in my life. Anything could trigger it. It could be nothing. So my son Colin dropped me off in Amicalola State Park [in Georgia], and then he gave me a hug and said, “Call me when you want me to pick you up.” And I never called.
Express: You called him from Maine.
Keenan: I called him from time to time. All my children were worried about me. I mean, I was 62 and, what are you doing out there? But I didn’t realize how difficult it was, physically, to do it. And plus I had to go uphill. I was hiking by myself for the most part, for like 400 miles I hiked alone, and when I was going up hills, I’d think, Wow. We did this in Vietnam. That’s what we did. We took hills. Hill after hill after hill.
Express: You have some pretty horrific stories about battles set on hills in your book.
Keenan: I guess the only thing that kept me going [in Vietnam] was being with a bunch of people my same age. You know, none of us knew anything about what was going on. Most of us were drafted. Ninety percent of us. And that’s what we were doing. We’d take a hill. And then take another hill. And then come back and take the hill we took before. The main thing was contact with the enemy. So when I was on the trail, that’s what I was thinking about. And I was thinking about people too. Friends lost. But going up the hill, I just take a break and stop and take some deep breaths and just realize how grateful I was to be here and be able to walk. Just walk. Don’t worry about all of the other stuff. It’s not going to happen. There’s going to be no firefights. No grenades. No bombs being dropped. None of that stuff is going to happen.
Express: Aside from the cold and the fatigue, did anything bad happen to you while you were hiking the trail?
Keenan: The closest thing to bad, I was near Fontana Dam, and I was going to try to find a place to get resupplied. I was walking down the road, so I hitchhiked and got a ride from this dude, in his camper, me and this other hiker. And were in the back of his camper because there was no room in the front. And we were going for a long ways, and we said, “Hey, I thought it was only like a mile or two down the road on the map. It seems like we’ve gone further. What’s happening?” we said from the back. And he said, [Keenan imitates a deep southern drawl] “What’s the matter, you scared or something?” And I go, “Stop this vehicle now.” And the other guy said, “Stop it now.” So he stopped, and we got out and start hitchhiking back. We were three or four miles beyond where we needed to be, and we don’t need to walk extra miles.
Express: You kept a journal along the way. At what point did you realize it would become a book?
Keenan: I never thought I was going to turn it into a book. I thought, I’m going to do this because I’m going to put this in some kind of form, and I’m going to give a copy to each one of my kids. Because I’m going to encourage them to do this because it’s a life changing event, hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. That’s why it all began, and that’s what it was going to be. And I did it. I got home, and a few months later I was done with it. It was rough, very rough. But that’s all I needed. And this guy that I knew down in New Mexico wanted to read it, and he read it and said, “You should do something with this.” So I ended up trying to revise it a little bit. And then he’s the one that actually suggested, he said, “Wasn’t one of the reasons you got on the trail about the Vietnam stuff? Your PTSD? Have you ever tried to write about that?” I said, “Yeah, I’ve tried for 30 years, 40 years to write about it, but I never can get beyond certain dates that happened, because when I write about it, I have to relive it, to make it sound as close to the intensity level that I want the reader to feel. I want him or her to feel what I was feeling. That’s so difficult.”
It took three or four more years to complete the book as Keenan sharpened his journal entries and forced himself to write about his Vietnam experiences through the year he spent there in 1967 and 1968.
Express: Was it cathartic to write the book?
Keenan: It was very, very therapeutic for me, to get it all down on paper and reread it myself and think, Wow, that all happened? And then to talk about it with friends. I was able then to go back to Vietnam. I think the Appalachian Trail gave me the courage to go back to Vietnam and meet the enemy.
Express: When did you decide you were going to make that trip?
Keenan: It was talked about on the trail. Cosmos, the woman that hiked with me for a bit, she joined me in Erwin, so we were 400 miles in, in Erwin, Tennessee. She was originally going to hike 100 miles with me, but she ended up hiking 1,800, all the way to the end, and then took a plane back to where she met me and hiked the other 400 alone. But anyway, she was talking about it sometimes on the trail at night. She said, “You should go back there, you need to go back there.” Because I had this thing, although I’d been working on it for years, about being racist. It really turned me into a racist. I was a happy-go-lucky boy in my senior class, and then all of a sudden I’m in Vietnam and now, a few months later, I hate all people with slant eyes. I mean, it was not a good thing. So I worked on that for years, trying to get rid of it, through counseling and talking to people and trying to mentally get my stuff together, because I don’t like that feeling of being a racist.
Express: Not only did you go back to Vietnam, but you had a small film crew with you, and you made a film out of the experience. How did that come about?
Keenan: My son Jake was saying, “Hey, why don’t you go back?” I said, “Hey, you get a passport, and I’ll think about it.” And he did get a passport. I wasn’t going to go alone. I’d asked my Vietnam veteran friends. None of them want to go back, and I totally understand that. But Jake said, “I want to go back with you,” so we started a plan. And meanwhile, Neal [Steeno], who I didn’t know very well at all, he calls me from Milwaukee, and he said, “Tim, I had a dream.” He’s a designer for M22. He said, “I had a dream that I was a filmmaker, and I filmed a Vietnam veteran going back to Vietnam.” And I talked to my family about it, and they said you should go for it.
Keenan had to think about it. He wanted something deeply personal out of the trip; he didn’t want to be in a reality show. In the end he met with Steeno, who promised he would stay out of the way. Keenan realized the film might be able to help other veterans. He decided to go ahead with the project.
Express: And so you ended up with a very moving film of an experience where you met your enemy and reconciled with them. Do you think having the camera around changed the experience?
Keenan: I don’t think so. I mean, when we were there, early, we were at this Buddhist temple, and I was with my son and Neal and the camera guy, Robert — they were on the other side of this building. And I said to Jake, “They are both nice guys. I hope they just stay out of the way and let me do what I want to do, and don’t ask me to pose or any of that stuff.” And all of a sudden I hear, from the back of the building, “Don’t worry, Tim. We won’t.” (laughs) I forgot I was mic’d. He’s listening to every word I’m saying.
Express: The film has gotten a lot of YouTube attention. It’s received 33,000 views. And there are a lot of comments, many of them very positive, but many of them very angry about how you engaged with the North Vietnamese soldiers. Are you surprised how raw those emotions are 50 years later?
Keenan: I just talked to Neal — our film’s going to be in the Saginaw Film Festival in November — so we talked last night. He was telling me about some of the comments. Some of the people are not very kind. I don’t surround myself with those kinds of people. I know, I was in groups with people who still call Vietnamese people gooks. I mean, come on. But that’s them. I am trying to get better. Because I want to clear my mind. It’s all about forgiveness. Forgiveness myself and having the Vietnamese people forgive me.
Express: How would you assess our country’s current relationship with war?
Keenan: We’ve always been at war. I mean, since World War II, we’ve bombed 27, 28 different countries. We’ve been at war. It’s kind of what we do. When I went to Vietnam I thought I was doing the right thing, for sure. I believed in my country. I still love my country very much, but as far as the war thing goes, I just can’t go along with it. I don’t think we do enough to attain peace. I think we just jump to conclusions and make a move, and we kill so many innocent people. It just continues to happen.
Express: Have any of your kids tried to hike the Appalachian Trail?
Keenan: No. My daughter got on for a couple of days. And she got off it. They weren’t prepared. You’ve got to prepare yourself. And, like my mentor told me, when you get on the trail, you’ve got to promise yourself, before you quit, you’ve got to go at least 30 days. Because everyone quits after just a couple of days, two or three days, they quit. Go a month. And then if you still say this sucks, then get off. And it was true. I would have quit after about 80 miles in Hiawassee, Georgia. I got off. I held off in a Holiday Inn Express with a hot tub for three days. And then I said, “Okay. Get back on the trail.”