John Musgrave’s gripping story of his Vietnam War service, which included injuries so severe that he begged his fellow soldiers to leave him to die, is recounted in Ken Burns’ upcoming documentary about the "misunderstood war."
Musgrave and Burns joined fellow collaborator Lynn Novick and another Kansas City area veteran, James Willbanks, of Leavenworth, Kansas, in a promotional event Friday night at the Midland. The two documentarians are visiting Kansas City and seven other cities to promote their series, titled simply, “The Vietnam War.” The 18-hour documentary is scheduled to air in several installments beginning at 7 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 24 on KCPT.
Ironically, Musgrave’s longest and most intense service was not in the jungles of Vietnam, but during the next half-century. Burns praised the Independence native and 1966 Van Horn High School graduate for his untiring advocacy, which has included programs aimed at easing the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and anti-war protests that caused him to be investigated by the FBI. Burns is quoted in a recent Vanity Fair Magazine article as having said: “I have this recurring thought that if some evil genie took away all our interviews but one, the one we would keep would be John Musgrave and we’d make a different film and call it ‘the Education of John Musgrave.’ "
Burns’ praise includes more than words. The legendary documentarian helped Musgrave secure a publisher for his soon-to-be-released autobiography. The story includes how he was wounded by shrapnel and shot multiple times, leaving a gaping hole in his chest. One of the bullets grazed his heart, but his fellow Marines not only carried him to safety, but, put their bodies over his as protection. Musgrave praises their heroism. “Those guys were a constant inspiration to me,” he said, adding that he also suffered nerve damage to his left leg when an artillery round blew him off his feet and today wears a brace and walks with a crutch.
Musgrave’s longest battle of recovery was coping with depression and suicidal tendencies. The severity of his trauma called for extreme measures, so he took up the sport of skydiving, which he credits with saving his life for the second time. “As long as I was able to jump, I wanted to live forever,” he said during a telephone interview before the Friday night event.
Musgrave, who lives in Baldwin City, Kansas, has spent a lifetime fighting so that other veterans receive the psychological treatment they need. He also believes it’s unfair that a disproportionate number of those serving in the military represent the country’s poor and working class.
“That wall in DC is covered with their names,” he said. “If I sound bitter, it’s because I am.”
In an excerpt from the documentary, shown at the Friday night event, Musgrave describes his first visit to the wall. "All of a sudden, my throat swelled up and I collapsed… I was sobbing on my knees and couldn't get my breath," he said. "I thought, 'this is gonna save lives.'"