Retiree Michael Rothfeld had been enjoying his eggs over easy and the stories told around the table of the Liars Club, a community breakfast group of about 40 men in St. Augustine, Florida, for months when he realized, “These stories are American history and should be saved.”
So in 2006 he got to work. He produced five documentaries recounting the stories of veterans who served in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. These films are now shown as part of the Florida Stories of Service on Florida’s PBS stations. They are also in the libraries of county schools and colleges in the area as well as in museums, the Smithsonian and the permanent archives of the Library of Congress.
Rothfeld retired in 2000 after 35 years as a special education teacher at South Shore HS in Brooklyn. His master’s degree in U.S. history was a natural bridge to his second career as a documentary producer when he learned there were 34 veterans living in his neighborhood whose stories needed to be told.
He attended film classes at local schools and colleges to gain the technical know-how to film the documentaries. The stories are told by the veterans themselves, in interviews with Rothfeld, and are supported by archival motion pictures and by photographs and memorabilia collected by the men. Clips from one of the documentaries were used to advertise a Ken Burns PBS special on the subject.
Two of his documentaries are slight departures. One focuses on the stories of four prisoners of war — streamed to more than 23 million active servicemen worldwide on National POW Day. The other, his last, features Iraq and Afghanistan veterans explaining how service dogs are helping them deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Rothfeld said each documentary took about a year to make and had a premiere in a large venue, often attracting up to 1,000 viewers. Then Rothfeld set out on a speaking tour.
The documentaries, all available in the University of Florida’s Digital Military Collection, are: Serve and Protect: Stories from WWII; Korea: Forgotten War, Remembered Heroes; Vietnam: Service, Sacrifice and Courage; Prisoners of War: Stolen Freedom; and Unleashing the Underdogs: The K9s for Warriors Story.
Rothfeld also publishes a monthly online newsletter for St. John’s County veterans and a quarterly newsletter for the First Militia Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army. He is also the webmaster of the County Veterans’ website.
Although he is not a veteran, Rothfeld has been named an honorary member of the national Vietnam Veterans of America in recognition of his contributions to veterans’ causes. He is one of only eight such honorary members nationwide.