Called to document: Retired teacher Michael Rothfeld salvages stories of war veterans for all to learn from
Posted June 30, 2017 by Liza Frenette
Michael Rothfeld was born in 1943 during World War II. His father worked as a welder in the Brooklyn Navy Yard “putting ships together.”
In his retirement from teaching, Rothfeld discovered his own desire to put things together: the stories of the men who served on those very ships, or in the air, or in the deserts, jungles, or frozen, snowy forests of war from World War II to Afghanistan and Iraq. He has produced five documentaries about war veterans, available on PBS, in libraries and in schools. He has chronicled gripping stories of prisoners of war who survived years of torture, and recorded stories about veterans who are helped by service dogs to get them through the suffering of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Shari Duval, founder of “K9s for Warriors,” spoke on Fox and Friends the morning of July 3rd in advance of the nation’s Fourth of July holiday, which celebrates the birth of America and honors all the veterans who have protected the freedom of this country.
In high school Rothfeld played sandlot football and then JV football with a bunch of guys, including his teenage friend, Michael Berdy. When he went to the City of New York’s Hunter College, Rothfeld studied American History and kept at the game, playing flag football with his peers, including Thomas Noonan.
Rothfeld got a job teaching in the South Bronx, he said, with a deferment for the Vietnam War because of the tough nature of the school and the need for his services there. One day he got slammed with a baseball bat and had two ribs broken. Another time a student was stabbed outside his office and died.
Outside the shadowy halls of the school, the long and disputed war was raging in the hot jungles of Vietnam. Captain Berdy died along with a bunch of other men when his helicopter disintegrated over Vietnam. He is now on Panel 32E, Row 61 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. A school in Coney Island is named after him: PS 188 Michael E. Berdy School. The school's motto: “Where children come first!”
Lance Corporal Noonan served in the Marine Corps and was killed by North Vietnamese soldiers while he dragged a wounded comrade to safety. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Purple Heart, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze stars, and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal. A park in Queens is named after him.
“It was very traumatic. It’s very upsetting when you lose someone that age,” Rothfeld said.
They were barely young men.
The imprint of these losses stayed with Rothfeld.
“I wish I understood what liberation is,
but history seems to come down to this:
behind us cut sod and a mound of soil,”
Richard Hoffman, “On Being Asked to Write a Poem on the Theme of Liberation,” from “Noon until Night.”
While the Vietnam War was protested across America for years as it dragged on, Rothfeld said student interest in American history waned. He began working in audiovisual in the schools, and then career guidance, which morphed into special education. Along the way he earned his master’s degree from Brooklyn College. He taught for three and a half decades as a member of the United Federation of Teachers, and retired from the South Shore High School. His wife, Carol Rothfeld, was also a high school special education teacher before going to work for the state in the field of mental health.
When he and his wife retired to St. Augustine, Fla., Rothfeld discovered that 34 WWII veterans were living in their retirement community. Breakfast conversation was a wake-up call.
His long-dormant love of history and his memories of his friend’s tragic deaths were ready to resurface.
“We started talking, one thing led to another, and I realized it was really American history I was listening to…. I knew it had to be recorded in some fashion.”
Rothfeld decided to begin documenting stories, and he enlisted the assistance of a local Public Broadcasting Station for his first work, “Serve and Protect.” The station was interested in getting a regional angle for the upcoming Ken Burns documentaries. Clips from Rothfeld’s documentary were used to advertise the PBS Ken Burns special.
For a documentary about the Korean War, he received editing, filming, music and interviewing assistance from students at the Art Institute of Jacksonville’s film department.
“Each documentary takes about a year,” he said. He puts the storyline together, locates veterans, and coordinates with students and schools to do the filming.
Flagler College students helped with the Vietnam documentary. His latest work, three years ago, documented rescued service dogs helping veterans suffering from PTSD in a program called “K9s for Warriors.”
When each documentary is released, Rothfeld embarks on a speaking tour. Each film has premiered at a large venue, sometimes drawing crowds of more than 1,000 people in ceremonies with a high school chorus, Color Guard and veterans on the stage.
Initially, Rothfeld formed a nonprofit Florida Veterans Programs and Projects to raise money for the work, but eventually he received support from the Veterans Council of St. John’s County and was able to disband his nonprofit.
His documentaries can be found in schools and libraries, where they are donated, and are broadcast around Veteran’s Day, or other special days commemorating certain wars. The documentaries are all in the Library of Congress’s permanent archives, he said.
Each month, Rothfeld also compiles and edits a lengthy newsletter for the Veterans Council of St. John's County, the Patriot Reader. He has also tutored at Learn to Read to help improve literacy.
Links to the five documentaries, all posted on the University of Florida’s online military digital library, are: