Local Vietnam vets have mixed feelings about Ken Burns’ Vietnam film | VailDaily.com

Local Vietnam vets have mixed feelings about Ken Burns’ Vietnam film

The Vietnam War was confusing, deadly, heroic … the entire human condition pulled back to the surface in the wake of a new and sweeping documentary "The Vietnam War," by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Several dozen Vietnam veterans live in the Vail Valley.

"A lot of us are watching that PBS special," Pete Thompson said.

In Vietnam, Thompson was a 20-year-old Army advisor to Vietnamese troops who had been fighting for three decades.

“I remember my Vietnamese counterpart said, ‘We have been fighting this war forever, and we will be fighting it when you leave.’”Pete Thompson

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Pat Hammon was a nurse.

John Perkins was an infantry squad leader. He has been a local architect for four decades.

Kenton Krohlow, Dan Smith, Butch Mazucca, Carl Gray, Raymond Bleesz, Mike Mathias … they and others are still with us to help us remember. Tim Cochrane was like so many others who came home and brought parts of the war with him. Cochrane was a teenaged Marine near the DMZ between North and South Vietnam and was regularly doused with Agent Orange. He helped launch Vail Mountain Rescue. He died a few years ago.

Their military experience is varied. So is their take on Burns and Novick's work. They agree on one thing: Mark Twain's quote trotted out by Burns: "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

Hammon has met Burns and was invited to the preview.

"It's a very, very complex subject. He presented information that we had not had before. That got push back from a number of people," Hammon said. "For a lot of veterans who felt guilty and who do not have good feelings about the government, this has exacerbated those feelings."

Thompson calls Burns' film "extraordinary" because it attempts to explain so many points of view … Ho Chi Minh's beliefs and the behavior of presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

Long film, but shortsighted

Krohlow argues that even though the series is 10 parts, it is shortsighted, concentrating on the 1960s through 1975. To really understand Southeast Asia, Krohlow said, you have to go back to 1850 and French colonialism, or at the very least from 1919 to 1991 and the rise and decline of communism.

"Please don't tell me we 'lost' the war in Vietnam. The dominoes did not fall. Communism, except on our college campuses, is dying," Krohlow said.

He dismisses the documentary as "propaganda … noble savage good, WASP soldier bad."

"Ken Burns presented 18 hours of propaganda in support of a Marxist-Leninist world-view, a world-view that is at odds with human nature, but one that appeals to the totalitarian in all of us," Krohlow said.

The 1950s and '60s saw small wars and armed conflicts in Poland, Greece, the Berlin Blockade, an uprising in Hungary, a bigger conflict in Korea, Krohlow said.

"The Pacific Rim was alive with communist insurrections," Krohlow said.

The United States picked a fight in Vietnam and, after 21 years (1954–1975), withdrew from the fight and the battlefield.

"When America had achieved their objectives, they withdrew," Krohlow said. "The Pacific Rim was calm(er). Communism's advance was halted. Look at where we are today. Russia fought on in Afghanistan; Mao murdered his own in a 'Great Leap Forward'; Pol Pot finished his work in Cambodia. But the murderous regimes were spent."

In Country heroism

In Country: John Perkins, who has been a local architect 40 years, was an infantry squad leader in 1971, when President Richard Nixon was withdrawing more troops than were being sent.

"By the end, morale was low. It was mostly a draftee army, and no one wanted to be there," Perkins said.

Perkins served in South Vietnam's northernmost province. One mission was to secure the imperial capital of Hue for South Vietnam's presidential election.

Incumbent President Nguyen Van Thieu was awarded 100 percent of the vote, after all his competitors dropped out.

"Several companies were dodging booby traps, mortar rounds and sniper fire and one guy was running in the election. That was typical of the way Vietnam came down," Perkins said.

Perkins missed the Easter Offensive by 29 days. He left South Vietnam March 1, 1972. On March 30, North Vietnamese troops attacked on three fronts.

"I came within 29 days of being overrun," Perkins said.

Perkins was part of 38 combat assaults, a term that he said is misleading. It just means that he and his company were inserted into triple canopy jungle 38 times.

"I was never in a firefight. I never fired my M-16," Perkins said.

That's a blessing, because the M-16 was far inferior to the enemy's AK-47, Perkins said. They jammed and they were temperamental and unreliable.

"Imagine being in a full-blown firefight and your weapon jams," Perkins said.

In Country: Pilot Carl Gray became one of the only people in our spiral arm of the universe who can tell you whether a helicopter — and a pilot — flies better or worse with bullet holes in it, lots and lots of bullet holes.

Gray won't tell you he's a hero, and waves off anyone else who says it. But his Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts and dozens of Air Medals he earned flying helicopters in Vietnam prove that he is.

Gray performed every task imaginable. He rescued prisoners of war. He single-handedly held off the enemy after his helicopter was shot down and after his M-60 machine gun ran out of ammo. He loaded his injured and unconscious crew onto a medevac helicopter while returning fire with a .38 caliber handgun.

He was shot down five times and wounded three times during two tours in Vietnam.

Gray retired a few years ago from HAATS, the Colorado National Guard's High Altitude Aviation Training Site. As far as anyone can figure, he was the last Vietnam-era pilot in the country still flying on a military contract.

In Country: Thompson was a 20-year-old Special Forces Military Advisor to the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. His job was to "advise" soldiers who had already been fighting for three decades.

"I remember at one time, my Vietnamese counterpart said, 'We have been fighting this war forever, and we will be fighting it when you leave,'" he wrote in a letter to the Vail Daily.

Has it been that long?

Is it possible U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended half a century ago?

Vietnam was the first war beamed into America's living rooms on the nightly news. The federal government's obfuscation and deceit, the heroism of those who served there, the upheaval it caused back home, the woulda-shoulda-coulda arguing that if we had done this or that it would have been different, the protesters who still insist they were correct from the beginning … they're all still with us, especially if you're old enough to remember it firsthand.

Krohlow tends toward a Chinese view of history and historians.

"It's like standing in a rushing river. All one sees/feels is water — its drops, its currents, its power. As one gains some perspective (time, distance) one sees the outline of the river, its banks, its tributaries. As you gain more perspective, you begin to understand its history; how the river shaped the people," he said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

Watch the show

The final two episodes of “The Vietnam War,” a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, will air on Rocky Mountain PBS; channel is dependent on television provider:

• 2 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11 — “The River Styx” (January 1964 to December 1965): With South Vietnam in chaos, hardliners in Hanoi seize the initiative and send combat troops to the south, accelerating the insurgency.

• 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 17 — “Resolve” (January 1966-June 1967): Defying American airpower, North Vietnamese troops and materiel stream down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the south, while Saigon struggles to “pacify the countryside.”

Archived episodes, including versions in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, are available for streaming on the web (desktop or mobile) at http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-vietnam-war and PBS apps for smartphones, tablets, Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV.