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Rick Plumlee: Vietnam series will remember pain, wounds

Soldiers on patrol during the Vietnam War. Documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have created a 10-part film, “The Vietnam War,” premiering at 7 p.m. Sunday on KPTS.
Soldiers on patrol during the Vietnam War. Documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have created a 10-part film, “The Vietnam War,” premiering at 7 p.m. Sunday on KPTS. File photo

I’ve always tried to keep it simple, but now Ken Burns wants me to take a deeper look.

OK, I will. Cautiously and, yes, reluctantly I’ll watch Burns’ latest documentary, “The Vietnam War,” when it begins its 10-part, 18-hour run at 7 Sunday night on KPTS, Ch. 8.

My wife told me there was a time I wouldn’t even consider watching. She’s right. Again.

As a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam in the late 1960s, I had grown weary of not only listening to the critics of the war but also to those trying to make ’Nam vets feel good.

I felt fine, I feel fine, OK? Proud that I enlisted, proud to be a 20-year-old grunt and of what Fox Company did in our little corner of the war, only a click from the DMZ.

Enough said. Let’s move on.

I returned to the “world” in 1970 to find folks apathetic toward my ’Nam service — no, I didn’t personally experience the outright hostility that some others did — and my feelings toward them were equally apathetic.

When I was discharged, I was married with $124 in my pocket and we had our first child within a year. I needed to find a job, finish college and get on with life.

No time for reflection. And that’s how it remained. For decades.

But now come Burns and co-director Lynn Novick, who say the time is right for all of us to examine all sides of a war whose wounds still linger and help feed the extreme political discourse of today.

After spending a decade on the project and interviewing hundreds of people who were actually there in some role — and not second-guessing historians — Burns seems to hope the documentary will encourage us to have an informed and civil discussion about Vietnam. And that, in turn, will benefit how we work through tough stuff today.

You mean so we don’t make the same mistakes? So maybe we’ll put our agenda aside long enough to look at facts and informed observations?

So maybe if we can step back and do that with Vietnam, we won’t be so quick to use name-calling and uninformed generalizations to fuel our social-media rants?

Yeah, sounds like a good plan.

Burns, of course, is asking us to trust him when he says he’s presenting all sides and giving us a balanced look at Vietnam. That’s hard for me to do.

Trust almost no one is among the burning lessons I took away from Vietnam. But I’ve also learned the hard way any cabbage head can be a cynic.

There’s a time to be discerning, respectfully listen, look at information with a critical eye and then get off my duff and verify or refute.

Goodness knows there are ample declassified documents available from the Vietnam War era.

So given all that, why do I say I’ll reluctantly watch this documentary?

Same reason many of you will be, especially my fellow ’Nam combat vets and those who lost loved ones in that war.

I know I’ll be reminded of some leaders who put their interests ahead of those bleeding and dying.

I’ll have to listen to interviews with that era’s protesters. They’ll look different with gray hair, but it’ll stir unwanted memories.

I’ll think more than I want about Pappy, my best buddy in ’Nam. We called him that because he was much older — 24, I think — than the rest of us. He didn’t make it back.

But even reluctant steps are better than none, right? Moving toward the pain with constructive purpose is the best way to try to heal wounds, right?

It’s time. This country is worth it. And I know I owe it to Pappy.

Rick Plumlee was an Eagle reporter for nearly 40 years, retiring in 2014.

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