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Ken Burns' 'Vietnam War' draws in W. Pa. veterans

Stephen Huba
| Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Ken Burns' 'The Vietnam War' documentary currently is airing on WQED. Following a screeening and panel discussion, area middle school students will begin their own project to research the soldiers behind the names engraved on nine Prisoner of War bracelets.
Ken Burns' 'The Vietnam War' documentary currently is airing on WQED. Following a screeening and panel discussion, area middle school students will begin their own project to research the soldiers behind the names engraved on nine Prisoner of War bracelets.
The North Hills School District will use a new PBS documentary 'The Vietnam War' by Ken Burns as a learning experience for students and a community discussion on Sept. 25 at 6 p.m.
The North Hills School District will use a new PBS documentary 'The Vietnam War' by Ken Burns as a learning experience for students and a community discussion on Sept. 25 at 6 p.m.
Soldiers on patrol during the Vietnam War.  Documentariand Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have created a 10-part film, 'The Vietnam War,' premiering on Sept 17 on PBS. (check local listings). (Handout/TNS)
Soldiers on patrol during the Vietnam War. Documentariand Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have created a 10-part film, 'The Vietnam War,' premiering on Sept 17 on PBS. (check local listings). (Handout/TNS)
Ken Burns, from left, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Lynn Novick speak at PBS' 'The Vietnam War' panel.
Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP
Ken Burns, from left, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Lynn Novick speak at PBS' 'The Vietnam War' panel.
John Varine of Gilpin Township, in front on the left, poses for a photo with other members of the Army's 108th Artillery Group, stationed in Dong Ha, Vietnam. Behind them, Vietnamese citizens work on a school using materials donated by the U.S. military.
Submitted photo
John Varine of Gilpin Township, in front on the left, poses for a photo with other members of the Army's 108th Artillery Group, stationed in Dong Ha, Vietnam. Behind them, Vietnamese citizens work on a school using materials donated by the U.S. military.
John Varine of Gilpin Township, in the back, plays cards with fellow members of the 108th Artillery Group at their headquarters battery in Dong Ha, Vietnam, in 1969. Varine is among many local veterans watching Ken Burns' latest documentary, 'The Vietnam War.'
Submitted photo
John Varine of Gilpin Township, in the back, plays cards with fellow members of the 108th Artillery Group at their headquarters battery in Dong Ha, Vietnam, in 1969. Varine is among many local veterans watching Ken Burns' latest documentary, 'The Vietnam War.'
John Varine, 74, of Gilpin Township, served in the U.S. Army's 108th Artillery Group during the Vietnam War.
Patrick Varine | Tribune-Review
John Varine, 74, of Gilpin Township, served in the U.S. Army's 108th Artillery Group during the Vietnam War.

The Department of Veterans Affairs was so concerned about the realism of Ken Burns' new PBS documentary “The Vietnam War” that it issued a warning — viewing it could traumatize veterans.

But Westmoreland County Vietnam veterans who have watched the documentary say it's also a healing experience.

“When I see it, it does bring back memories, but I'd rather talk about it than hold it inside,” said Bill Bigelow, 69, of Hempfield. “When we came back, I didn't talk about it. I had my life to live — so many of my friends never came back.”

Bigelow, who did two Vietnam tours with the Navy between 1967 and 1970, said he thinks the Burns documentary is well done but obviously falls short of being there.

“It could trigger some things, but it's so long after the war. ... I'm sort of used to it now,” he said. “I'm thinking, ‘I don't have to watch this — I was there.' ”

Bigelow enlisted in the Navy after graduating from Norwin High School in 1966. He served on the USS Floyd County (LST-762) and the USS Sutter County (LST-1150), both of them Dravo Corp. LSTs made in Pittsburgh.

Serving as a gunner's mate and assault boat coxswain, he and the men in his unit traveled the coasts and interior waterways of Vietnam during the height of the war. One of his forays took him from the South China Sea to the Cambodian border.

“Two days after I got there, I saw my first kills,” he said. “We hit almost every base along the coast delivering stuff, taking fire all the time. They'd shoot at you from the shore.”

Bigelow finished his first tour in December 1968, returned to San Diego, got married in Virginia and went back to Vietnam for another 13 months, finishing in September 1970.

Twenty-three years later, he returned to Vietnam — this time with his wife's clown ministry. In all, they made 17 trips between 1993 and 2004, adopting a Vietnamese girl along the way.

During those return trips, Bigelow had a chance to meet with Vietnamese veterans, some of whom had fought the United States and even their own countrymen.

“I've been sitting with the communists and everything else. We're sort of friends,” he said.

John Varine, 74, of Gilpin Township, Armstrong County, said the Burns documentary is just now hitting the period when he was in Vietnam: March 1969 to May 1970.

Varine was drafted on a fluke while teaching chemistry in the Kiski Area School District.

“They were not drafting school teachers at the time,” he said.

At 25, Varine was older than many of his fellow Army artillerymen and did a longer tour — 14 months — than most.

He said “The Vietnam War” should be seen not only as history but as a cautionary tale.

“I think the documentary so far is excellently done. It gives a very balanced picture of the whole situation from many different perspectives,” he said. “Anybody who wants to know more about that whole period in our history should watch it.”

Watching the first episode last Sunday, Varine said he was struck by how avoidable the ordeal was for the United States. The European powers that were involved previously had opportunities to end the conflict but missed them all, he said.

“My strongest reaction is how badly I feel for all the people who lost their lives in that war. It was all unnecessary. It could have been avoided,” he said.

Trained as an artilleryman, Varine drew a “lucky” assignment as a motor pool dispatcher at the Army's 108th Artillery Group Headquarters in Dong Ha, Vietnam.

“They asked us, ‘Do any of you guys know how to type?' Two of us put up our hands,” he said. “I should have been sent to a fire base in a field somewhere. … I was very fortunate, much more than a lot of the other guys who were there.”

Varine noted that only about 20 percent of the American servicemen sent to Vietnam were in actual combat — a point made in the latest episode of the Burns documentary. The other 80 percent were in a support role such as his.

For those who were in combat, Varine said he can understand if they have a hard time watching the PBS show.

“It depends very much on how a person felt whenever he or she came home — the emotional things they had to deal with,” he said. “When I see the pictures of the fallen U.S. soldiers, it's just devastating to see. … The program brings back the horror of it.”

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280.

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