The last time John Musgrave had been in the Van Horn High School auditorium, the 17-year-old had already enrolled in the U.S. Marines, shortly before he became part of the 1966 graduating class.
The Musgrave who spoke at Monday morning's Veterans Day has become a widely recognized face of veterans across the country, thanks to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's 2017 PBS documentary “The Vietnam War” that prominently included Musgrave's story.
But no matter the story of their service, Musgrave told the crowd of students, teachers and others in attendance, any person who put on a military uniform made sacrifices and deserves to be called a veteran.
Among the veterans sitting in the front rows were two of his four friends from Van Horn with whom he enlisted, Jay Van Velzen and Dave Meyers.
“Veterans, we're survivors, and we represent thousands of different experiences. It doesn't matter whether you serve in combat or peace time, whether you serve in the reserves or full-time active duty,” Musgrave said. “For those of us who have served, it is a brotherhood.”
“When you enlist, that's when you're sacrifice begins. When you put on the uniform, you begin to serve others. It's the first time I knew I had fully made the varsity. When you meet a veteran, understand you are meeting someone who served their country and sacrificed.”
Musgrave wasn't an athlete in high school by any means, he said. Enlisting in the Marines meant a chance to finally make a big decision for himself, his “shortcut to manhood,” a ticket to his first big adventure a chance “to prove I loved my country as much as any guy down at the VFW.”
Musgrave emphasized the similarities of his generation and the current one of young adults, in that “we've grown into a war.” Whereas his generation grew up with the draft on their minds, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror are older than many students.
“As we grew, many of us wondered what hand fate would deal us,” he said.
The fond memories of his school and hometown Fairmount community kept him going through some rough times in Vietnam.
“I felt I had something to fight for, something to defend,” he said.
After his near-fatal injuries forced him stateside and he subsequently battled depression and PTSD and at one point joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Musgrave found his way to suicide prevention and counseling work, which he continues today with a main focus on post-9/11 veterans, as well as some poetry.
“Despite all I've been through, I have never, ever regretted my decision to join the armed forces and serve my country,” he said.
Musgrave later said he would've been thrilled to have been on the PBS documentary for one minute – he thought his role would be more about locating other veterans, he said – but the newfound recognition and correspondence he's received as a result aren't unwelcome.
In a way, Musgrave said, he can accept people's openness on behalf of a generation.
“They say to me what they probably feel they should've said to Vietnam veterans then,” he said.
In his work, Musgrave said the veterans he comes across are “as determined, as disciplined, as certain of their duties as anyone of us who fought in Vietnam, or Granada or Beirut.”
“There will always be a new generation of veterans, and because of that this nation will always be safe,” he told the crowd, before noting the selflessness showed by his Marine comrades who tried to rescue him amid gunfire.
“That is the only reason I'm standing here today, because of 18-, 19-year-olds who were much braver than I was,” he said.
Musgrave closed by asking for one favor. Hopefully, he said, the next generation of veterans can have the same opportunity he and speak to an auditorium full of grateful applause.
“Take one moment out of each day,” he said, “and if you believe in God, pray for the safety of the young men and women who are defending us.”
“Considering what they're enduring, it's the least we can do.”