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MPT tells moving 'Vietnam War Stories'

"Maryland Vietnam War Stories" is exactly the kind of programming almost no one in commercial network or cable TV would spend resources on.

By the standards of commercial television, the demographics stink, the subject is a downer and the visuals are limited.

It's mostly three hours of talking heads, and virtually all of them are baby boomers. They're talking about a war we lost that many people wanted to forget by the end of the 1970s — including some of the men and women who served in it. And it's airing for three straight nights in prime time.

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Are you kidding me?

That's one way to look at "Maryland Vietnam War Stories," airing at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on Maryland Public Television. But I say all praise to MPT for the commitment it made to telling these stories through interviews with some 100 veterans from the Mid-Atlantic region.

"Maryland Vietnam War Stories" is exactly the kind of programming almost no one in commercial network or cable TV would spend resources on. And that's exactly the kind of societal role the men and women who founded the Public Broadcasting Service in the 1960s envisioned for public television: telling stories that matter to our shared history and sense of identity, whether or not you can make a lot of money telling them.

Don't get me wrong: In terms of narrative, vision and production quality, this is not Ken Burns. Despite some evocative archival footage, "Maryland Vietnam War Stories" overall looks flat and static. At points, you might say even sleepy. And that will undoubtedly turn some viewers off — especially younger ones who expect the TV screen to be popping nonstop like that of a cable news channel when big news is breaking in two or three parts of the world.

But this is about the stories and the history that the men and women featured in the documentary participated in. And the power is in their words.

John Pearson, of Baltimore, talks in the film about feeling "almost invincible" as a young man when he arrived in Vietnam as a member of the 101st Airborne Division.

But that ended on his first mission, he says, and from then on, he was focused on "just trying to survive" the 360 remaining days of his tour.

"I didn't plan on dying," he says. "My game was, [the enemy] wouldn't just take my life. I would fight him. He was going to have to earn it, if he wanted it. And I believed that until the day I got hit."

Pearson recounts in powerful detail how he was blown out of his foxhole by an explosion in one attack.

"The first words out of my mouth were, 'These SOBs done killed me,'" he remembers. "But then the smoke started to clear and I started coming to, and I said, 'Wait a minute, a dead man can't talk.'"

He chuckles at the memory for a second, but quickly returns to an elegiac tone as he recounts what happened next.

"That's when I crawled back in the hole," he says, where he found his mortally wounded sergeant.

"I looked at him, and all of this was gone," he says, gesturing toward the lower part of his body. "And he had gotten a letter that day that he had a new daughter. And he died in my arms telling me he wanted to see his daughter."

Jane McCarthy, of Olney, who was in the Army Nurse Corps, tells a similar story of trying to provide some comfort at the moment of death.

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She recalled head-wound patients who were triaged at the medical unit where she first worked in Vietnam, and what would happen to those who couldn't be saved.

"The neurosurgeons would come down and decide, 'I can't salvage this guy,'" she says. "So I would patch him up, I mean, if he was still alive. And I would take him over to the pre-op area. And I would put a screen up. And I would sit with him until he died. … I mean, these kids were 18, 19 — 18, 19, very unusual to see a 20-year-old — 18 or 19."

Jeff Anthony, of Washington, describes what it was like landing in Vietnam as a Marine.

"We flew into Da Nang from the Philippines," he says. "You open the door, and this incredible heat rolls in. And you walk down a ramp, and you're just in this different world. … I mean, literally, you're coming down the ramp, and there's another row of troops about to board the plane to leave. And the visual difference between the way these guys looked and the way you looked was enough to tell you in and of itself that you really didn't know what you were in for."

Later in the film, Anthony describes some of what he was in for as he and his fellow Marines fought at Khe Sanh in one of the war's bloodiest battles.

One of the strengths of the film is the way it looks at the war through a variety of lenses. Not all the stories are of combat. One of the most touching and surprising is told by Karen Engelke of Annapolis, whose husband, Dick Laws, was a Navy pilot killed in the war. He flew 203 missions, she says, but was "terrified of being captured" and "would rather die" than become a prisoner.

"April 3rd, 7:30 in the morning, someone was knocking at the door," Engelke says in the film. "And one knows immediately why these people are here … on that bright Sunday morning."

Her first words to the visitors were, "Is he dead?"

The chaplain said yes.

"The first feeling was not, 'Oh, my God, my husband is dead,'" Engelke said. "It was a relief that I didn't have to worry. The incredible tension was dissolved."

Engelke's story is revisited in the film's final hour and lends a gentle note of closure.

Harry Wilt, of Allegany County, who served in the Army's 71st Assault Helicopter Company, provides one of the film's most resonant moments in talking about his exposure to Agent Orange, the cancer-causing herbicide dropped from U.S. aircraft.

"I tell people I'm Agent Orange, borderline diabetic. I got PTSD and PTA," he says.

When people invariably ask him what PTA means, he says: "Parent Teacher Association. I got a meeting tomorrow."

Wilt laughs for a couple of seconds at the joke, and then the smile leaves his face.

"And they always ask me, 'How can you make fun of the way you are in your health, you know?'" he says.

Tapping his chest, he answers the question: "I'm ready to die any day that I die. That's when I rest. That's when my war's over."

Wilt looks down and composes himself against a rush of emotion summoned by those words. After a full five seconds of silence, he looks back up at the camera and says, "I'm tired of Vietnam."

The pain and weariness in his voice are cosmic.

You have to know something about interviewing to get a moment like that on film. First of all, you have to find someone like Wilt who is courageous and generous enough to share it. But you also have to know enough to back off and let him take the conversation where he wants it to go.

Five seconds of silence feels like an eternity on TV, but executive producer Ken Day risks it, and the result is golden.

I can't lie about being underwhelmed by the look and pace of this film. It could and should be more compelling, given the subject matter.

But the interviewing and editing are impressive. And the result is informative, illuminating and, in some cases, deeply touching.

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MPT has produced a historical record that matters today — and probably will matter for several generations beyond baby boomers.

Demographics be damned. We have more than enough channels catering to the metrics of Mammon.

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV

"Maryland Vietnam War Stories" airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on MPT.

If you go

LZ Maryland: Event for Vietnam veterans and family, featuring The Association and The Lovin' Spoonful; sponsored by MPT. June 18-19, Maryland State Fairgrounds, 2200 York Road, Timonium. http://vietnam.mpt.org/lzmaryland/

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