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Columnist John Paradis: Urges Americans to watch Vietnam documentary

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Thursday, September 07, 2017

“The Vietnam War,” the latest documentary from Ken Burns, perhaps the most widely known graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, premieres Sept. 17 on Public Broadcasting System stations across the nation, including WGBY in western Massachusetts.

A one-hour advance screening of the series followed by a panel discussion moderated by Bill Newman with authors, veterans, and family members will be shown free to the public at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Academy of Music in Northampton.

With his co-director, Lynn Novick, Burns has worked more than 10 years and interviewed more than 80 people. They’ve had the herculean task of trimming hundreds of hours of video into an 18-hour series. Their resulting work includes rarely seen and digitally remastered footage from sources around the globe, according to PBS.

I am waiting in great anticipation to see each episode. I’ve read many of the reviews and have listened to several interviews with Ken Burns, and, so far, “The Vietnam War” is winning strong reviews for its accuracy and for seeing the war through the stories of the American service members who served there.

Over the years, I have been drawn into the troubled world of many Vietnam veterans. Now in their 60s and 70s, most were just teens when they went to Vietnam. There, they saw things no person should see. And when they came home, they were met by a hostile and ambivalent public.

I have spent hours listening to their stories. They have told me about their nightmares, their illnesses, their battles with the Veterans Administration, their broken marriages, and problems holding down jobs. They still get flashbacks when they hear a helicopter or jump at the sound of a car backfiring.

Still, to this day, their battle scars are deep and lasting.

Now, they are hoping that the PBS series will serve a higher purpose in helping their children and grandchildren understand what they have never truly talked about.

Hollywood has not been kind in its depiction of the Vietnam veteran, often portraying those who fought and died in the war as the worst in our nation. It will be good to finally have a thorough exploration of the war without the hyperbole and to honor the men and women who served as the best in our nation.

The Vietnam veterans I have come to know over the years and who I consider friends were ordinary people who had families and who went to war and did their duty. What they sacrificed, however, was nothing but extraordinary — fighting a war without their nation’s full support and becoming pawns in a political game. The wounds still sting.

Today, distrust of authority and skepticism about how much the public truly understands what they experienced characterizes many of them, and most are highly cynical about another exploration of their war.

“I’m not sure I can sit through that,” said one Vietnam War Army combat veteran a few weekends back at the Cummington Fair when I asked him if was going to watch the series. “We were the ones who got the blame and we were the least to deserve it. Then we got the middle finger when we got home, and it’s still all horses--- to me.”

Preston Hood, a renowned poet and teacher of creative writing from Colrain, was a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and alumni of the exceptional “Ward 8” program at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Leeds for veterans with post-traumatic stress. He hopes the PBS series will present an honest and accurate assessment of the war and its aftermath in forever changing our psyche as a nation.

“How else do we examine the somber reminder of so much loss on both sides, especially at a time when our country is more angrily divided today?” asks Hood.

Vietnam veterans gave everything they could and when they came home, many got the cold shoulder, or, to put it bluntly, the middle finger. What I hope the series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick will do is help explain their sacrifice, their humility, their grace, their heroism and most of all, their decency as American sons and daughters and human beings.

“To see these kids, who had the least to gain, and yet their infinite patience, loyalty to each other, their courage under fire, was just phenomenal,” says Vincent Okamoto, an Army Vietnam veteran, in a PBS trailer to the series. “And you would ask yourself , how does America produce young men like this?”

The Vietnam vet endured the absolute worst our nation has thrown them. They got placed in a pile of mud and now we need to shower them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

We owe it to them to attend the screening this Sunday here in Northampton, to participate in the dialogue that follows and then watch the series in its entirety.

“The Vietnam War,” a 10-part, 18-hour documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, premieres on PBS at 8 p.m. Sept. 17. A one-hour abridged version of the series will be shown at the Academy of Music in Northampton at 4 p.m. Sept. 10, followed by a panel discussion.

Across the nation, public television stations are gathering local, personal stories about the Vietnam War, both from the battlefield and experiences here at home. Valley residents can share their personal Vietnam War experience using WGBY’s social media platforms. For more information, visit wgby.org/Vietnam.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a column published the second Friday of the month. He is a veterans’ outreach coordinator for VA New England Health Care System.