Last week, just a few hundred feet away from where Rocky Bleier would come every summer to perfect his game with the Steelers, to prepare for the upcoming football season, he sat with others and watched a documentary that told the story of another important part of his life and something that happened in an open field far, far away from Saint Vincent College.
It was about his time in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
And yes, Bleier’s story has been told time and time again, the story of his injury and his courage to come back and play football.
But this time, it was different.
Bleier returned to Vietnam last year, the first time he was back since he was wounded, to revisit the area for ‘The Return,’ a documentary which will air tonight on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. It premiered last week during training camp for an audience that included Bleier, Art Rooney II, former teammates, and members of his Army unit.
It was an emotional return to Vietnam, visiting on Aug. 20, 2018, the 49th anniversary of the day that he was wounded when enemy gunfire hit him in the thigh and shrapnel from a grenade hit him in his lower legs, causing him to lose part of his right foot, while on a mission with the Charlie Company 4th Battalion (Light), 31st Infantry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade in an attempt to recover the bodies of others killed in an ambush in Hiep Duc. During the recovery attempt four additional soldiers were killed and 25 others were wounded, including Bleier.
“When we were first going, I didn’t know what to expect,” admitted Bleier. “I didn’t have a whole lot of expectations other than for saying I went back to Vietnam, the place where the firefight was. That was my thought process on the way. I didn’t anticipate some of the emotional things. I was glad I was able to do it.”
Emotion, yes, it was there. It was raw. It was painful. Especially when Bleier first arrived at the rice field where the attack took place.
“I never had the chance to come back up here,” Bleier said in the documentary, as he walked through the rice paddy. “I think about those guys that got killed.”
Then…the emotion really hit as Bleier broke down in tears standing, looking over the field, and remembering.
“I have told my story,” said Bleier about why he took part in the documentary. “I thought I had come to terms with what had happened, with what took place and answered all of the questions. I didn’t have a big traumatic experience that I repressed. That is how I perceived it going back to Vietnam.
“When I got back there all of the changes that had taken place in 50 years. The hustle and bustle of growth. Everything that was developed. That subconscious change brought up the question of why. You ask yourself why, what did we do, why were we there. Why did we lose 58,000 military personnel in that period of time? For what? How all of that impacted our society.
“That became an emotional aspect I had never thought of before. From that aspect it was very worthwhile being able to go back. It was a great deal of feeling coming to terms with that aspect I had never thought of before.”
Bleier, who was drafted into the Army during his rookie season to go to Vietnam, received the support of Art Rooney Sr. throughout his time there, and upon his return with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Rooney allowed him the opportunity to work his way back onto the field, which he did, to become one of the best to play for the black and gold and a four-time Super Bowl champion and member of the team’s Hall of Honor.
Bleier has shared his story, time and again in different manners, but this time he is hoping the way it’s is shared didn’t just help him, but will help other veterans who also served in Vietnam.
“To have that aspect, the question of why, come to the forefront and deal with it and understand it and maybe put it to rest,” said Bleier. “Maybe this will spur and give other veterans their own closure without having to go back as they view this documentary.
“Unlike the majority of Vietnam veterans who return, they don’t have an outlet to let out their feelings and a lot of them are repressed. The attitude towards the war and the veterans who served in that war. For me to be able to come back, since I became a story, and I have told my story.
“In hindsight, I look back and I am very happy to have gone back. I think it gave me the closure I wasn’t aware that was needed. It would give me a great deal of satisfaction in the end if it gives somebody the closure they need, maybe helps them understand and close things. That would make it all worthwhile.”
‘The Return’ will air on ESPN2 on August 20, at 8 p.m. The 30-minute documentary was produced by Jon Fish and narrated by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi.
“It’s a pleasure to be able to tell a story like that,” said Fish. “Rocky is the best. We are honored and flattered to be able to tell his story. We hope we did it justice.”
Bleier believes they did.
“They did a wonderful job,” said Bleier. “I hope those who get a chance to watch the documentary will have the same reaction I did.”