Ken Burns’ Vietnam series evokes memories of a war both distant and close

Ken Burns participates in the “The Vietnam War” panel during the PBS portion of the 2017 Summer TCA’s at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday, July 30, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Ken Burns participates in the “The Vietnam War” panel during the PBS portion of the 2017 Summer TCA’s at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday, July 30, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

The first three segments of Ken Burns’ Vietnam series bring back memories of where I was mentally in 1966. I’d just flunked out of college and the draft board immediately came after me. There was one spot left in the Lake Village, Ark., National Guard MASH unit, and I squeaked in.

I remember not thinking much about the war at the time. I went along with many other Americans by accepting the spin the Pentagon and politicians were putting out about how we were winning in Vietnam. Mostly, the war was still out of mind, and I remember being more tuned into the civil rights struggle. Sent to Ft. Polk, La. for basic training, we were handed M-14’s and pretty much trained to fight a European theater-type war and while marching to chants – “your left! your right! one, two, three, four, I want to be an Airborne Ranger, I want to lead a life of danger... ”

Dwane Powell Nat. Guard
Dwane Powell in 1966 as a member of the Arkansas National Guard

I got my expert badge and was sent to Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, for training as a combat medic. While there I was exposed to the firsthand horrors of war when visiting the burn center, where most casualties were sent. The war was very much on my mind when I returned home to my once-a-month Guard duties, mostly lost weekends washing trucks, cleaning worn-out M-1 rifles, and lamenting having to miss the latest big rock concert someplace.

Our unit escaped being called up as it had been called during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I did get one honor during my six years. While serving summer camp duty with another unit one year, one of the officers took note of my cartooning ability and had me hole up in his billets for the two weeks to draw a series of caricatures of the adjutant general, who received them and quite liked them. Since I was not known for being particularly gung-ho, the officers in our unit were a bit miffed when forced to have a formation to present me with an award from the Arkansas National Guard headquarters.

As the war ground on and our leaders’ lies became more obvious, I became more and more against it, and seeing friends who were drafted or had joined come home damaged mentally, physically, or both compounded my feelings. Some paid the ultimate sacrifice. One thing about the so-called security of a slot in the Guard, we were always susceptible to being called into the war, and the rumors were constant that we might be called to active service any day.

I’m sure that if I hadn’t lucked into the Guard slot, I’d have accepted my lot by going into regular service, but looking back, I am damn glad I didn’t have to make that decision. The guard was a lot of Mickey Mouse, but it didn’t hold a candle to my experience during the six months I was in the “Real” Army. The Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial tells the story of how that came out, and Burns’ series is doing a great job of explaining how we waded into that quagmire.

Dwane Powell was The News & Observer’s daily editorial cartoonist for 34 years before retiring in 2009. He continues to contribute a Sunday cartoon.

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