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Vets await Burns documentary on Vietnam

Vets await Burns documentary on Vietnam

10-part, 18-hour series begins Sunday
Vets await Burns documentary on Vietnam
Top row: Gus Kappler during and after the war; bottom row: David Ernst during the war and in a hospital in Guam.
Photographer: Provided

When Gus Kappler begins watching the new PBS documentary by Ken Burns tonight, "The Vietnam War," he doesn't expect any new insight about why we were there and was it worth the cost. In his mind, he's already got the answers to those questions.

"It was a disgusting quagmire, there was no honesty about why we were there, and very simply, it was horrible," said Kappler, an Amsterdam resident and retired trauma surgeon who  spent much of 1970 and '71 in Vietnam tending to the wounded and dying. "But I am definitely going to watch, all of it. I think he usually does an excellent job with his documentaries, and after all these years I'm sure he'll be very fair."

Watch a preview

The filmmaker who captured the interest of most Americans more than two decades ago with his groundbreaking series, "The Civil War," Burns and his co-director, Lynn Novick, spent much of the last decade working on "The Vietnam War." Along with that monumental effort — the series is a 10-part, 18-hour documentary that will air over the next two weeks — WMHT is offering its own 30-minute companion piece that will air Monday and Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. called "The Wounds We Feel at Home," produced and edited by Matthew Rogowicz.

Kappler, who grew up on Long Island and recently retired from St. Mary's Hospital in Amsterdam, wasn't well versed in the history of Southeast Asia and all of its issues when he went to Vietnam in 1970.

"I had no opinion," said Kappler. "I was drafted into the Army in 1965 as an intern and was given a five-year deferment to finish my medical training. So I went in thinking all the time, 'Vietnam will be over with by 1970.' But it wasn't, and I had been struggling to get through my residency program so I wasn't thinking about Vietnam. I just knew it was something that was going to happen. I was going to have to deal with it, face-to-face. And I didn't really pay attention to the protests. Like I said, I really didn't have an opinion."

When the war was finally over, Kappler left the Army, rejoined civilian life and wound up in Amsterdam. Since then he has become a student of that divisive time in American history that had such a personal impact on him. He says four presidents, from Truman to LBJ, all should have realized that the cost of war in that part of the world was not worth the price.

"Truman allowed himself to be persuaded into supporting French colonialism, and that was the ideology that got us into Vietnam," he said. "The presidents after him were all implicit in that tragedy. We fell into a trap, and as a result we found ourselves in the position of having to enforce this imaginary line between North and South Vietnam. Now, I'm a strong advocate for the military. I'm not anti-military. But the Vietnam War was something we should have avoided."

After viewing a special preview of Burns' film last week, two Vietnam vets, Republican senator John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hegel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska and the secretary of state under President Obama, agreed that the U.S. government, on this occasion, failed its fighting force.

"These young men died because of inadequate or corrupt leadership," McCain told the Washington Post last week. "We must have leaders who can lead and be able to give them a path to victory so we will not sacrifice them, ever again, to a lost cause."

"Yes, it's difficult to see this, but it's important ... for our next set of leaders to understand the consequences of war and the consequences of decisions that we never get right," Hegel told the Post. "What also came out of Vietnam was the first real questioning of our government, a questioning of our leaders and a demand for accountable government — honest leadership."

While McCain and Hegel said revisiting this chapter in their lives was painful, it's important for them and others to watch and remember.

Wounded in action

That's also how David Ernst feels. He was a commissioned U.S. Marine in 1967 not too long after graduating from St. Bonaventure University.

"I've liked Ken Burns' other pieces, on the Civil War and other topics, so I will watch the whole thing," said Ernst, who grew up in the Buffalo area and has lived in Voorheesville for 30 years. "It's reputed to be a very objective look, which becomes somewhat easier as time passes. Certainly in 1968 it was very difficult to be objective, it was still difficult when we pulled our troops out of there in 1973, and 20 years after that it was still difficult because a lot of information had not been revealed."

Ernst had been promoted to captain and was in charge of an infantry company during the Tet Offensive in February of 1968 when he was wounded in action.

"We were just outside Da Nang at Khe Sanh and we were seeing this buildup of North Vietnamese troops," remembered Ernst. "We were anticipating this huge battle of Khe Sanh, but that never materialized. There was a lot of rocket fire, and skirmishes and small-scale fighting. I got wounded in late February, and was medavacued out. That was the end of the war for me."

Ernst became a reporter for the Buffalo News and worked there for 22 years, the last eight in the newspaper's Albany bureau. After leaving the newspaper business in 1989, he worked in various communications jobs in and around state government before retiring in 2011. Looking back, he says it's hard to justify the sacrifice made by so many Americans.

"When we first got in I bought into the domino theory," said Ernst, referring to the idea that if communism wasn't stopped in Vietnam it would spread throughout all of Asia. "I thought that notion was valid. I thought it was a principled argument to base the war on. But you have to have a chance at success, and the end has to justify the means. People can come to different conclusions, and I don't question their motivation. I came to mine as honestly as I could, and the death of 60,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese, North and South, made it clear to me that getting into the war was a mistake."

Doug Haseck, a Schenectady native, was a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, part of the 1018th Supply Unit on Hillside Avenue in Niskayuna, when he went to Vietnam in 1968. He's going to be traveling this week, but he hopes to catch as much of Burns' documentary as he can.

"I'm going out of town, but if I can I'll try to watch it," said Haseck, a Mont Pleasant High graduate who returned to the states in 1969 after spending most of his Vietnam experience in  Da Nang. "I'm interested. I don't know if any war is worth it, but what are you going to do? It certainly wasn't easy when I got called up, but you have to protect your country."

Bob Bishop of Glenville was involved in the war's earliest stages, serving as an electronic technician in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Mason in the early 1960s.

"I was there at the beginning, and I think it was our destroyer that fired the first volley," remembered Bishop. "I can remember thinking, 'we're at war.' So I'm very interested and I'll definitely be watching it. But looking back I think it was a total waste. We shouldn't have been there, the people didn't want saving and I don't think we really helped them. I commend the people who were there, they did a stellar job. We did the best we could, but I don't think the politics was real clean."

Hoping for honest approach

Kappler, who recently wrote a book, "Welcome Home From Vietnam, Finally: A Vietnam Trauma Surgeon's Memoir," and continues to fight for better resources for veterans dealing with post traumatic stress disorder, is hoping Burns' film doesn't spend too much time focusing on the war's worst horror stories.

"There is the good, the bad and the very ugly, and from watching some of his other films I don't think he's going to sensationalize some of the really bad, headline-making issues, like the My Lai Massacre," said Kappler. "I don't want to see how the military did this and did that. I expect Ken Burns to be very even-tempered, informative and honest. Being honest is very important."

Honesty wasn't in abundance when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara began recruiting soldiers in 1966 that would have previously been below military mental or medical standards. That news didn't become common knowledge until the 1990s.

"McNamara was afraid of alienating upper and middle class people, people who had kids in college, so instead of drafting them he carves out this exception for low-intelligence people and drafts them into service," said Ernst. "What kind of moral equation did he go through in order to be able to justify that? It's just so disheartening. Then there's all the lies about what happened at the peace conference, and we continue to see new revelations. You have to wonder, just how altruistic was our government at the outset, or were they just playing powerful politics?

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