One Marine’s journey: summoning the courage to go back to Vietnam
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 12, 2017
I wonder how I looked to you
I wonder, were you as terrified as I was?
I wonder, did you hate me as much as I hated you?
I wonder how long you’d been fighting your war
I wonder if you had any children
And I wonder had you survived and we met today, would you speak to me?
— Excerpt from the poem “Notes to the Man who Shot Me, Revisited,” by John Musgrave
WASHINGTON — To him, the enemy didn’t change, no matter how many years passed.
Every time John Musgrave saw a picture of a contemporary Vietnamese soldier he was consumed by the terror and hatred that had taken hold of him in 1967, when he watched his buddies go down one by one on the battlefield until finally it had been his turn.
He left Vietnam after being carried from the battlefield on a stretcher soaked in his blood.
Going back there was out of the question.
“It was like they were the undead,” he said of the enemy soldiers.
“They didn’t age and I was afraid of what my response might be when I encountered them — that I just might come apart. That it would be like an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ that they had been waiting for me all these years to finish what they started.”
It was only decades later — after the drinking and the near suicides, after the births of his children, the end of his first marriage and the miraculous rightness of his second one — when his buddies began returning from Vietnam with tales of, well, redemption, that Musgrave finally began contemplating such a journey.
Last week, 50 years to the month since he left Vietnam, Musgrave learned that a GoFundMe effort to send him back had succeeded. He will finally return to the place that still haunts his dreams.
He can’t wait.
His eyes were gouged out
He had been disemboweled
and his testicles and prick
were cut off and stuffed in his mouth.
… When I made myself look into those empty sockets
of that face I had seen laughing
just the day before,
I knew I was looking
at the true face of war.
— Excerpt from “The Listening Post was Overrun,” by John Musgrave
In their four years in Vietnam, the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, earned the nickname “The Walking Dead” because it fought near nonstop battles and is believed to have lost more men than any other American unit fighting in Vietnam.
It was Nov. 7, 1967, and Musgrave, a line rifleman in the battalion, had been in Vietnam for 11 months. He’d been wounded once — in August — by shrapnel from a hand grenade.
His war was well developed by then. He’d seen the cruelty of his enemies and the ugly face of hatred, bitterness and cowardice.
Friends had died and others had done monstrous things.
He’d long given up on his belief that he would live. He only wondered how he would die.
“When the ambush was sprung, everything became chaos,” Musgrave wrote in “Notes to the Man who Shot Me,” the title piece of his compilation of poems published in 2003.
Everyone hit the deck except for one man who stood fighting until he took a bullet to the chest. Musgrave followed another Marine onto the battlefield to help their downed buddy.
The first bullet hit Musgrave’s chin. A sniper had been lying in wait for other Marines to run out.
“That’s when I became bait,” he wrote.
The shooting paused until another Marine had lifted Musgrave to drag him off the battlefield. Then the sniper opened with a fresh burst, striking Musgrave in the chest and, to the best of his knowledge, killing the man who tried to save him.
Musgrave nearly died on that battlefield; he nearly died on his way out of Vietnam.
He nearly finished the job himself in the years that followed.
For decades, he believed both the men who’d run out to save him died on that battlefield. But last year, a friend found an after-action report. Nineteen men in his platoon were wounded that day, including Musgrave. One died.
After 49 years, that guilt doesn’t dissipate easily.
Learning to heal
Some had been blown into the trees –
Their entrails hanging
below them, draped over limbs
As I looked up
I felt no compassion
No pity, not even horror
I just thought they looked like
Christmas trees in Hell.
— Excerpt from “B.D.A. (Bomb Damage Assessment),” by Musgrave
He would never run like a boy again. A cane became his companion. So did the pain.
Long before he got home his war had stopped making sense. After war, life made no sense. He believed that he had no place back home and that he’d abandoned his unit, which went on to fight at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive in the coming weeks.
But slowly, over many years, Musgrave began to heal.
Words helped. A gentle man, he poured them out onto the page in an almost violent extraction — as if they burned to the touch.
Surviving every day helped. It was one more day to heal. And loving his four children became his reason to be.
He became a strong anti-war advocate and that sent him down the path to his calling: working with and counseling veterans.
Musgrave began negotiating what he called his own personal ceasefire about 15 years ago.
His work with other veterans gained momentum, particularly with post-9/11 vets. He found he could help them heal. Or at least help save them so time could do its part.
He teamed with Iraq War veteran and Army Maj. Jeff Hall, who was based at Fort Riley, Kan. Hall navigated his own recovery from PTSD and was working with soldiers in the Warrior Transition Unit, using art and theater to help them extract their bottled-up rage.
With the base commander’s support they ran a theater program, retreats and off-post meetings with active-duty wounded soldiers who felt more confident opening up outside the confines of the military.
“We’d go around and tell our story,” Hall said. “He would tell his story. He is a counselor and he would counsel these guys. It was conversation that helped.”
A few years ago, documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick asked Musgrave if he would participate in their documentary “The Vietnam War.” He was featured in it, along with dozens of other veterans and survivors — American and Vietnamese.
Watching the film this year, Musgrave was blown away by the journeys he was witnessing on the screen.
“They had aged just like I had,” he said. “And they were struggling with the memories, just like I was.”
He was able to relate to them as fellow soldiers for the first time.
“I think that watching that was when I emotionally completed my cease-fire,” he said.
A time to reconcile
You sit in your hole in water up to your waist.
You piss in your pants, what difference does it make, and
for a few seconds you feel warm.
You’re a Marine.
What in hell did you expect?
Remember, In Case of Rain
The War will Not
Be Held In The
Yeah, no shit.
— Excerpt from “Monsoon,” by Musgrave
They go around the table. The men talk about what they saw in war, and the buddies they lost, the guilt they have and about how they stay secluded, lonely and sometimes hurt the ones they love.
“I found myself wanting to do the job that the enemy didn’t finish on the field of battle,” Musgrave tells them. They are captured in a 20-minute epilogue to the Burns and Novick documentary showing Musgrave helping lead a counseling session over dinner with post-9/11 veterans.
“I would like to tell you that you are gonna reach a point that it’s all going to go away, but I can’t tell you that based on my own experience. I can tell you it’s still worth the fight,” he said.
A younger veteran reads a letter he wrote to John.
“I never expected a generation of soldiers whom I always believed to have a way worse war than my generation to be able to sit and help so well, to show us that it’s not just any war that we relate to — it’s the ones that force our souls to tear,” he reads. “That even though our will to live is calloused and weathered, we know they made it and that is an example to live by.”
Musgrave has also reached out over the years to men he served with — and to the families of some who didn’t make it home.
It was about 40 years later when he found the Marine who carried him off the battlefield that day. They spoke, Musgrave said, but the Marine’s wife later told him that it was difficult for her husband every time Musgrave called. Now he just writes to him on Christmas.
He also reached out to the brother of the Navy corpsman who rescued him the first time he was wounded. But life without his brother had been hard for him, so Musgrave backed off.
Then, the brother saw Burns’ documentary and reached out to Musgrave.
The brother, his wife and their daughter — who was just an infant when “Doc” would share a photo of his niece with the guys — came to Kansas to visit Musgrave this month.
“Now we are thick as thieves,” Musgrave said.
Back to Vietnam
I sometimes imagine
us meeting again
and talking about that ambush
while our children play together
You were a good soldier
I’ve come to realize
that you and I
had more in common
than we did
with the men who sent us
to kill each other
— Excerpt from “Notes to the Man who Shot Me, Revisited,” by Musgrave
Before the documentary aired on PBS in September, Musgrave joined Burns and Novick onstage at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kan., for a preview.
Afterward, an audience member asked him whether he had returned to Vietnam. Musgrave said he would like to, but he never had the money. In the audience that night, his longtime friends Vietnam veteran David Hann and his wife, Rose Marino, who’d made the trip, saw the outpouring of emotion for Musgrave.
People talked about raising money for Musgrave and his wife, Shannon, to make the pilgrimage. When no one took action, Marino created a GoFundMe page with a $10,000 goal. A wealthy donor committed to match that goal when it was reached.
Musgrave thought, “Well, good luck.” But when the page hit the goal Dec. 1, he was overwhelmed.
Hall, who is running for the state legislature in Oklahoma, said he hoped to join Musgrave on the trip, though the election might waylay those plans.
“I just want to be there to make sure he doesn’t fall down,” Hall said. “I want to protect him. I want him to really love this trip.”
“He’s strong enough — it will be good for him,” said fellow Vietnam vet and longtime friend John Solbach, who is organizing the trip.
Solbach was a corporal with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment in Vietnam and has known Musgrave for about 34 years. He has been back twice and believes the trip will be “cathartic” for Musgrave.
“The North Vietnamese men he fought against are old men now,” he said. “We may run across them from time to time at museums and memorials. They will be happy to talk to us and shake our hands. The same things happened to them as happened to us. They had their lives turned upside down. They didn’t know if they would live or die. They live with the terrors of war, with survivor’s guilt.”
Musgrave still lives with those same nightmares. He still wakes up screaming.
But now, he has great hope for meeting the people of Vietnam anew. He wants to see the beauty of the country without the dark cloud of war. He wants to see its people as survivors, like himself.
He wants to visit the battlefield where he was shot and be able to “walk out of that country upright.” And maybe, finally, feel like he completed his tour of duty.
“I am trying not to have unrealistic expectations,” he said. “I keep telling myself to calm down — in the vernacular of the day, just keep your shit in one pile; don’t expect the world. I just can’t imagine that it will be negative in any way.”
John Musgrave, a Marine who was wounded and permanently disabled in Vietnam, spent decades as a poet and counselor for post-911 soldiers negotiating his own personal cease-fire. After he featured in the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary "The Vietnam War," a crowd-funding effort raised enough money for him to return to Vietnam early next year.