Minutes after Episode 2 of the PBS documentary “The Vietnam War” ran its closing credits, a former helicopter gunship pilot reached out from Florida to John Musgrave.
For the past several days Musgrave, of Baldwin City, Kan., has riveted a national audience with his accounts of fighting the war as a Marine. The gunship pilot who had seen that episode wanted to thank Musgrave for disclosing a need, even now, to keep a nightlight glowing in his bedroom.
I’m afraid of the dark, too, the emailer wrote.
Since the Sept. 17 launch of the 10-part documentary by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Musgrave has read through dozens of messages blowing up on his wife’s cellphone nightly, expressing appreciation for the Independence native helping tell the Vietnam story in all its pain, complexity and personal horrors.
For Musgrave, the horrors included the night he recalled in Episode 2, when he could hear the enemy whisper but couldn’t see them. Thus, the nightlight.
Last week Musgrave emailed back to the inquiring gunship pilot: “So glad you survived …”
But he hasn’t had much time to reply personally to the messages. That will come later, after the series concludes this week. For now, he’s keeping to a full schedule, which meant a 40-minute chat Wednesday with The Star’s editorial board on Facebook Live.
Joining the online discussion was former Star investigative reporter Mike McGraw, a classmate of Musgrave’s at Van Horn High School who now is a special projects reporter for KCPT’s Flatland website.
“I think that this documentary will go a long way in helping to contribute to the healing of this wound to the American psyche,” Musgrave said. “I’m hoping it’s going to begin conversations at dinner tables and in living rooms.”
Musgrave acknowledged: “You can’t heal a wound as grievous as losing a loved one.”
The healing applies to Musgrave himself.
His wife of 19 years, Shannon Musgrave, said that John, after advocating for fellow war veterans since the early 1970s, has for some time been “negotiating his own personal cease fire” in coming to terms with Vietnam.
“This documentary is helping him make sense of it,” she said.
It’s not the first time that filmmaker Burns has found gold in the testimonials of Kansas City area storytellers.
In 1994 Burns helped make Buck O’Neil a national celebrity to the audience that tuned into PBS’ “Baseball,” a nine-part documentary on the history of the sport.
At an appearance to promote “Vietnam” earlier this month at Arvest Bank Theatre at The Midland, Burns drew a comparison between Musgrave’s contribution to that film and O’Neil’s role in “Baseball.”
Referring to Musgrave’s ability to connect with an audience, “you can think of Buck O’Neil in the same breath,” Burns said.
In “Vietnam,” Musgrave relays in a low-key Midwestern manner how he nearly died from enemy fire that “left a hole in my chest you could put your fist through.” His Marine buddies kept him alive.
In another episode he spoke of an evening back in the States, shortly after his service had ended, when he contemplated suicide until his two dogs scratched at the door of his trailer. That night, those loving dogs kept him from dying.
“Marine John Musgrave is the man and story I will never forget from the Vietnam pbs series,” tweeted a fan named John Morello on Tuesday. “His bravery, his injury, his struggle, his dogs …”
The documentary has scored particularly well with Kansas City viewers, according to local station KCPT. Station spokeswoman Lindsey Foat said an average of more than 56,000 regional households have tuned in each night, and the KCPT market has ranked among the top five nationally in per-capita viewership throughout the film’s airing.
Musgrave, a nightly viewer, said he has learned new things about Vietnam along with the rest of the country, especially from the personal accounts of the North Vietnamese. “I learned of the humanity of the men I was trying to kill,” he said.
As for his fellow U.S. citizens, “if I’m making a positive impact in anyone’s life, that would be wonderful,” he said. “This has allowed me to continue my service as a veteran.”
Musgrave will appear Oct. 2 in downtown Lawrence for a special screening of select clips featuring his story as told in “The Vietnam War.” The 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m event at Liberty Hall is hosted by KCPT.