John Musgrave Plays a Key Part in Ken Burns' Vietnam War Series


John Musgrave became permanently disabled the moment a Viet Cong soldier fired a machine gun into his chest.

It was 1967 and the nation was in conflict over the Vietnam War.

Musgrave, a member of the 1st Battalion 9th Marines, spent two years in military hospitals recovering.

"They treated us disgracefully when we came home," he recalled. "There is no other word for it. The best we could hope for was indifference beyond our own personal families. There was no thank you for your service.

"There were people accusing us on the right of losing the war -- mostly the World War II veterans that we joined to emulate were calling us losers. They more than anybody else we wanted to make proud. And on the left, we were war criminals, baby killers.

"It made a lot of Vietnam veterans hide who they were."

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Musgrave, whose story is told in Ken Burns' Vietnam War series beginning Sunday, moved to Baldwin City after the war. There, at Baker University, he began writing.

In more recent years, he has worked with the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, helping soldiers as they came home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

More specifically, he worked with Theater Of War, a group that travels to military bases and hospitals, "putting on productions of ancient Greek plays that were written by Greek generals preparing their troops for the wounds that had no scars," he said. "They were literally warning their troops before war with these plays that there will be a price to pay emotionally."

They were plays about post traumatic stress and its symptoms -- its own battles.

When he was first asked to do readings for Theater of War, "I am thinking how long will it be before I'm bored," he said.

"They bring into the auditoriums these young soldiers who have been home less than a week. They are not pleased to be there. Within 15 minutes, you could have heard a flea cough in that room. Within 30 minutes, I was weeping and most of the young men I saw were weeping."

It was at one of those Theater of War presentations that Lynn Novick -- who co-directed the 10-part Vietnam War series with Burns -- called and wanted to have breakfast the next day with Musgrave. He happened to be in Norfolk, Va.

That was in 2012.

"I had with me the man who served with me in Vietnam and helped save my life the last time I was wounded," Musgrave said. "We talked about what they were hoping to achieve in the series. I told her 'Thank you, God,' because I knew if they made one, it would be true.

"It would be America's story."

The 18-hour series includes digitally re-mastered archival footage, photographs that helped define the war, historic television broadcasts, home movies and audio recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. It also has the music that helped define a generation and a society divided.

Throughout much of the series, Musgrave's story is told -- from the moment he was shot, his stay in the military hospitals and how he ended up protesting the war.

"It just pissed me off and it made me be in your face," Musgrave said. "I refused to be ashamed of my service. I just wouldn't do it."

At least one other Kansan is in the series -- Lt. Col. U.S. Army (ret.) James Willbanks, a scholar at the Commanding General College at Fort Leavenworth, who has written "Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War.

Episodes include coverage of the Gulf of Tonkin -- one of the most controversial events of the war -- when the U.S.S. Maddox on Aug. 2, 1964 was pursued by three North Vietnam Navy torpedo boats. The Maddox fired and the North Vietnamese attacked with torpedoes and machine gun fire. This led the U.S. Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave President Lyndon B. Johnson authority to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was threatened by community aggression.

The series also explores the antiwar movement, the Tet Offensive, the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the return, in 1973, of 591 American prisoners of war from North Vietnam.

"To those Vietnam veterans who say 'We don't need to watch it, I was there,' I say I can tell you I learned a lot by watching it," Musgrave said. "Every American has something to learn from this documentary."

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner ___

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