As a young man, Pastor Raul Ries left the battlefield of Vietnam only to enter a mental and spiritual battle at home. Through the documentary Taking the Hill, he reaches out to fellow veterans of past and current wars, sharing how Christ’s hope and compassion set him free. Public showings are impacting veterans and their families nationwide.
Story by Carmel Palmer
Photos by Carrie Rosema, Sadie Lyda, and Steve Shambeck
As the film Taking the Hill ended and the lights came up, a veteran sat stunned in his seat. The pain from Vietnam he had worked hard to bury had been unearthed during the last 54 minutes. A phrase uttered by Raul Ries halfway through the movie echoed in his head: “I didn’t think God could forgive me.” Yet Pastor Raul’s story, which opened with torment this man understood, ended with hope he couldn’t imagine. As the auditorium slowly emptied, the man gathered his courage and, with two fellow veterans, approached Taking the Hill campaign coordinator Rex Wolins. As they discussed the film, he began to say, “Raul’s words really hit me: ‘I didn’t think God could for-’”
Before finishing the word, he began choking on tears. In his head, he was back in Vietnam. A woman was walking toward him out of rice paddies, carrying a basket. She was crying, shouting, and getting close when she dropped the basket and a gun spilled out. “We had to kill her,” he sobbed. “They told us to be always on guard. We had to kill her.”
“We had to kill her,” he sobbed. “They told us to be always on guard. We had to kill her.”
Rex gently explained that Christ paid for all sin on the cross—he only needed to accept God’s forgiveness. The man prayed to receive Christ. Afterward, Rex remembered, “His face radiated joy and relief. He grabbed my hand and cried, ‘Thank you!’ I told him it wasn’t me, but Jesus. This film is so important because it’s a doorway to wholeness that no drugs can provide. We can’t push a delete button—these veterans will always carry memories. But the power of God’s Spirit can enable them to overcome.”
Raul’s story of struggle and redemption has catalyzed change for veterans nationwide through the Taking the Hill campaign, which brings the documentary to churches, military bases, and other venues. Despite pouring rain, the three screenings at Rose Hills Cemetery in Whittier, CA, were attended by many veterans. The screenings were hosted in conjunction with a traveling Vietnam memorial, a nearly 300-foot replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C. At each showing, people came to know Christ. Raul connected personally with many, both after speaking at one showing and while at the wall. “Every single Taking the Hill event is very intense for me,” he said. “But Christ comforts me. Abiding in Him is completely life-changing.”
“Every time I approach the wall, I think about the 58,000 men listed there who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country’s freedom—and about their families,” Raul remarked. “But then I think about Jesus, who paid the ultimate price to bring us mercy and forgiveness. Without Christ, I would be tortured, miserable, and angry. But He provides cleansing from all sin.” Raul first visited the wall in Washington, D.C. during Taking the Hill’s filming, accompanied by fellow veterans Pete Silva, Tom Kamataris, and Pete “Chick” Cicatelli. It was the first time the friends had seen each other since the war. “It was very painful,” Raul confessed. “We had 41 names up there of people we knew. One, ‘Stutes,’ was a close friend.”
The three friends and Stutes were part of Raul’s Marine company, Alpha 1/7. “When we came back to camp after operations, we listened to 60s music and talked about our families,” he reminisced. “We felt safe in camp, but we knew we’d go out many more times. Every time, someone would get wounded or killed. For 13 months, we worried about that every day.” During one operation, Silva stepped on a foot trap—a hole in the ground containing a grenade—and lost both legs. Raul was with him and actually carried the legs to the medevac. Another day, Stutes triggered a Bouncing Betty, a landmine which detonates above ground. All his limbs were blown off—he bled to death in Chick’s arms.
Witnessing friends’ deaths and injuries profoundly affected Raul. He had always struggled with anger, but he became filled with explosive fury that a brief stay in a psychiatric ward after returning to the U.S. did little to mitigate. Raul soon married Sharon, who he had known in high school. For years, she and their sons were the targets of Raul’s rage and destructive behavior. He was preparing to kill them all when he struck their TV set with his shotgun, turning it on. Pastor Chuck Smith was on TV, sharing the Gospel. The love Raul saw in Chuck’s face drained his anger, and he knelt there and surrendered his life to God.
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. 2 Corinthians 10:4
Decades later, a woman approached Raul—by that point pastor of Calvary Chapel Golden Springs (CCGS), CA—at a conference about A Quiet Hope, a 1983 Vietnam documentary that Raul and some of his fellow Calvary Chapel pastors and veterans had participated in. She told him the film had profoundly affected her. “Have you considered making another film?” she asked. He said probably not and that such a project would cost about $350,000. Laughing, she replied, “Oh, I think it will cost more than that.” She handed him a check for the amount she believed he would need and gave him a warning—“Satan will hate what you do, and will come after you.”
“Satan will hate what you do, and will come after you.”
“I told her, ‘He’s always after me,’ but I had no idea what was coming,” Raul confessed. He soon experienced his first flashback. Pulling into his driveway one evening, he stepped out of his car and into Vietnam. Gunfire was all around him; voices shouted in Vietnamese. Raul sprinted down the street, believing the Vietcong were chasing him. Sharon found him lying on the floor of his office, weeping and begging God for help. Though unable to preach or even read for a month, the experience made him more determined to continue.
Freeing Prisoners of War
At Taking the Hill’s first screening, in May 2011 at CC Visalia, CA, Rex Wolins carefully watched the audience’s reaction. He noticed veterans shifting in their seats, reliving their experiences through the footage. Suddenly a man in his 60s leapt up, shoved his way out of his row, and ran outside, his wife close behind. Rex related, “I was praying as I followed him outside. Even after pastoring for 30 years, I was in uncharted territory. He was breathing hard when I found him, repeating, ‘I cannot handle it, I cannot handle it.’ His wife turned to me, crying, and said, ‘Thank you so much for this film. You have no idea what I’ve been through in the last 35 years.’” Encounters at the 22 subsequent public showings of Taking the Hill, in addition to numerous letters and emails, have confirmed the film is exposing and reaching a deep need—not only for Vietnam veterans, but those from all wars and for their families. The film also contains footage from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Rex said they are discovering that the struggles of these different generations of soldiers are remarkably similar. He continued, “Satan wants to keep them prisoners of depression, unforgiveness, and guilt. Through film, we are attacking a spiritual realm. When you go into the Enemy’s territory—get ready for a fight. He won’t roll over. He never has. But the Holy Spirit’s power sets captives free.”
“Satan wants to keep them prisoners of depression, unforgiveness, and guilt. Through film, we are attacking a spiritual realm.”
Raul still suffers from physical problems which make him unable to speak for brief periods of time. He realizes that not confronting his war memories would be easier—but believes the cost is worth it: “I must reveal everything to minister to these guys. I pick over and over at a scab that’s already healed. But I have to endure that way to bring healing to these guys in Christ. Through it I’ve learned more about His love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.” Jesus’ person and power were the focus of his message at Rose Hills, where Raul broke down while mentioning Stutes. The veterans rallied for him, yelling, “God bless you, Raul! We’re with you, Raul!” until he composed himself. When he finished, a biker he had made eye contact with came forward to accept the Savior whom Raul testified had changed him.
Healing in Sight
For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. 2 Timothy 1:7
“That goes for everyone, no exclusions,” declared Pastor Pancho Juarez of Calvary Chapel Montebello, CA, which screened a showing in February. “God wants to give us all a mind healed from the traumas we experience in life.” Pancho, a former Marine, continued: “It’s not just military people who experience PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]. Someone who loses a loved one may appear to travel through grief, anger, doubt, and sorrow and then on to closure shortly afterward—but months or years later, they suffer a nervous breakdown. We all go through crisis. Afterward our minds can become conflicted, misshapen—haunted by memories of what we saw, did, or said. Prescriptions can help control the symptoms, but only Christ can address the core issues and release the conscience from guilt. He took our sin upon Himself on the cross. Mental healing is a long-term process that comes from studying God’s Word, believing it, and communicating with Him. I call that ‘mental hygiene.’ It brings cleansing, repair, and peace.”
Attendees of both events received information on CCGS’s military ministry, FrontSight. “The movie triggers healing; FrontSight provides veterans a community to support them through the process,” Rex explained. Bi-monthly meetings include Bible study and prayer, and the ministry’s social events honor veterans and promote awareness regarding their struggles. FrontSight also works alongside Taking the Hill, attending all events, providing follow-up to those struggling, and helping other churches develop similar programs. Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Dave Ford, a Vietnam veteran and co-founder of FrontSight, declared, “My heart is for all churches to have a military ministry. The military is a tight-knit family, and healing happens when one GI reaches out to another.” He continued, “Statistics show that one out of five soldiers recently returned from the battlefield exhibit PTSD symptoms. Yet those with questions have few places to find answers. A military wife recently told me, ‘Our family is my husband’s new battlefield—it’s all I can do to keep the marriage together.’ These veterans are struggling, and the church needs to be equipped to help.”
A Personal Mission
Raul aims to give away 10,000 copies of Taking the Hill and translate it into every major language to minister to veterans worldwide. He also desires to hold events on college campuses, raising up a generation that understands and honors veterans. No matter how large the ministry grows, he is determined to stay directly available for emails and conversations. “I want to be personal with these guys,” he said. “It’s hard—most of the time I can hardly talk with them because my heart breaks remembering my experiences, and I cry. But I don’t see that as weakness; I see it as strength from the Lord. My message for them is that Jesus took the hill of Calvary—without that, there’s no redemption. The only way to end the nightmares is to turn completely to Christ, trusting Him. He will heal you, use you, and make you a fruitful person.”
With all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Philippians 1:20b-21
Learn more about this movie and ministry: http://www.takingthehillthefilm.com/