Documentaries tell the story of U.S. Virgin Island veterans
The Proudly We Served team, from left: Jean Picou, Steven Richards, Joan Keenan, Brian O’Reilly. (Submitted photo)

Documentaries tell the story of U.S. Virgin Island veterans

Retired schoolteacher Joan Keenan started off wanting to just capture the voices of World War II veterans living in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a place she’s called home more than 50 years.

But at the urging of and support from others – including The American Legion Department of Puerto Rico’s District 10 in the U.S. Virgin Islands – and with a crew of willing volunteers, that project has turned into three documentaries – all directed and produced by Keenan – over the past 12 years. In the past seven months the third of those documentaries has won multiple prestigious awards, including three from the national Telly Awards.

“Proudly We Served: Virgin Islands Veterans of the Korean War,” recently won a gold Telly Award for non-broadcast craft writing, and bronze Tellys for non-broadcast craft editing and non-broadcast general low-budget under $700 per minute. The Telly Awards was founded in 1979 to honor excellence in local, regional and cable television commercials with non-broadcast video and television programming added soon after; “Proudly We Served” was selected out of more than 12,000 entries from all 50 states and five continents.

This came on the heels of the documentary winning the Best Picture Award at the Oregon Documentary Film Festival earlier this year.

“We are so glad that Joan and her team were willing to work with us on the production of this documentary,” said American Legion District 10 Commander Charles David, a member of American Legion Post 85 in Christiansted. “And we are happy it has received such positive attention.”

Keenan started video production when she introduced it into one of her classes at Charles H. Emanuel School in St. Croix. After retiring, she began recording the stories of World War II veterans on the islands for the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. That project morphed into making a documentary, and in the grant-writing process Keenan said “The American Legion would be the ideal people to go to for support.”

In 2007, the first documentary, “Proudly We Served: Virgin Islands Veterans of World War II,” was produced. The 60-minute video explores the veterans’ motivations for serving in the armed forces and documents their experiences with racial segregation in the United States and the armed services. It also explores their contributions to the war effort and the effects it had on their lives. The documentary also received a bronze Telly.

Keenan wasn’t planning on doing a similar Vietnam War documentary but was persuaded to do so by Harry Daniel, commander of American Legion Post 131 in St. John and at the time the director of the Virgin Islands Office of Veterans Affairs.

“He asked me again – ‘I’d really like you to do this, Joan’ – and I said ‘maybe,’” Keenan said. “I thought for sure my partners would all be too busy. But they all said ‘ok.’”

“Proudly We Served: Virgin Islands Veterans of the Vietnam War” was produced in 2013 and featured the stories of 25 U.S. Virgin Islands veterans. And it was during a showing of the documentary at Post 85 that Keenan was asked by a Legionnaire to next produce something similar from the Korean War. The results have been an award-winning documentary.

“I’m very pleased that we got recognized,” Keenan said. “It was a whole team effort, and I’m just so happy that I got to share in this.”

The relationship with American Legion District 10 has been important to the production process. “It’s been good in that they were there to help us find the veterans,” said Keenan, who worked on the documentaries with Jean Picou, Steven Richards, Brian O’Reilly and Roberta Knowles. “To find veterans who had served, through them and through other veterans, and to get the veterans to agree to be interviewed.”

Awards aside, Daniel said the documentaries have been able to tell an important story. “They have helped us spread the word about the sacrifices made by veterans from the Virgin Islands,” said Daniel, a U.S. Army and Virgin Islands Army National Guard veteran. “And it’s given a lot of people a chance to know more and have a better understanding of the Virgin Islands and its people.”