Wounds of war still raw as Vietnam documentary preview airs in Northampton

  • Lady Borton, center right, speaks during a panel discussion after a sample screening of Ken Burns’ film “The Vietnam War” by PBS station WGBY, Sunday at the Academy of Music. Beside her are other panelists, Jessica Jimison, left, and Lidon “Don” Chevannes. Gazette Photo/Jerrey Roberts

For The Recorder
Published: 9/11/2017 9:23:06 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The chopping sound of helicopter blades, gunshots and explosions briefly filled the Academy of Music Sunday night as a large crowd gathered to watch an advance screening of a new Vietnam documentary.

The 10-part, 18-hour documentary series “The Vietnam War,” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, features rarely seen and digitally remastered archival footage as well as home movies and secret audio recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. In the hourlong excerpt, interviews with Viet Cong fighters, a South Vietnamese marine and a North Vietnamese Army veteran are interspersed with American veterans and newsreel footage from the era.

Following the excerpt, a panel of four discussed the film and the war.

“I don’t know about you, but I can barely stand up,” said moderator Bill Newman, director of the western regional law office of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The violence, the protests and the memories of those who were there to witness it brought up emotions for some of the veterans who attended the event. For Lidon “Don” Chevannes, it was too much.

“I didn’t watch it,” Chevannes admitted after the showing.

Chevannes was drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam from 1970-71. Speaking about his own experience in the war, his return stateside and his post-traumatic stress disorder, Chevannes was joined on stage by historian Lady Borton, nurse Jessica Jimison, and Michael Klare, director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies.

“I just hope what this film will do is make America learn that there is a big cost to war and it’s an even greater cost when these men and women come home,” Chevannes said. “And they realize America has to take care of that 1 percent that took care of them.”

Born five years after her father came home from Vietnam, Jimison recalled her father’s struggle with PTSD and his abusive behavior.

“From a really young age, I knew there was a lot of pent-up emotion very shallowly under his surface and I knew something was keeping him from accessing those emotions,” Jimison said. “As there were no winners in the villages or the jungles of Vietnam, there were no winners in our home or any other home where the veteran was dealing with post-traumatic stress, and the children and the wives were suffering.”

Through programs with the Veterans Education Project, of which Jimison served as a board member, her father was able to seek help and allow her family to heal.

Both Borton and Klare were critical of the film.

“I got upset in the first minute of the movie and I haven’t calmed down since,” Klare said, in reference to the film’s opening statement declaring that the war was started by people of good will who misunderstood the circumstances.

“I do not believe that people who started the war were people of good will,” Klare said. “I think that they were people who were driven by hubris and arrogance and racism in the sense they had utter contempt for the people of Vietnam. They had no understanding whatsoever what those people were fighting for and as a result they brought us into an utter catastrophe.”

People at the event were also able to share personal stories from the era with WGBY. James Bouchard, a veteran from Granby, carried with him a black three-ring binder filed with clippings, including a copy of a newspaper clipping from Sept. 11, 1969. The clipping contained a letter that Bouchard, a Marine medic at the time, had written after being shot on Aug. 25, 1969, in the Heip Duc Valley.

Sitting in the theater’s salon, Bouchard read the letter he had written to his parents following his injury.

“By the time you read this you should have already received a telegram from the American Red Cross saying something to the effect that I was injured in battle and doing fine,” Bouchard read.

“I remember myself on the ground, hot, thirsty and wanting water so badly. There wasn’t anything I could do except pray and think of the family back in the States. I even thought of what you said, Dad — ‘Son, keep your head down.’ I’ll tell you, I did just that.”

Bouchard, 69, enlisted in the Navy as a young man. After being a medical corpsman, his unit was attached with the Marines for three years. He served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 where he earned his Purple Heart.

Following the film, Bouchard said the screening was educational for him, if difficult to watch.

“I identified with a lot of it,” he said. “It brought up these memories.”

Northampton resident Gerry Clark was drafted into the Army at 20. Now 71 years old, Clark attended the screening to see what the movie was about, though he said he was apprehensive as he didn’t know what to expect.

Following the showing, Clark called the film “dynamic” and found it hard not to talk as the scenes brought back memories.

“Even though most of us probably only served a year,” Clark said, “that year seemed like a lifetime.”


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