Day­tona Beach vet shares his vivid saga

For­mer POW part of ‘Vietnam War’ se­ries

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Hal Boedeker Staff Writer

Hal Kush­ner, a Day­tona Beach oph­thal­mol­o­gist, tells his story of sur­vival vividly in “The Vietnam War,” a 10-part epic start­ing tonight on PBS.

The Army doc­tor was aboard a he­li­copter that slammed into a South Viet­namese moun­tain in 1967. The Viet Cong cap­tured him, took his boots and forced him to walk for 30 days. A woman gave him a bam­boo stick to bite on as she treated his wounds with a fiery rod.

Kush­ner, 76, tells of strug­gling to ex­ist in jungle prison camps, suf­fer­ing beat­ings and hav­ing lit­tle to eat.

“I think it comes down to a mat­ter of luck and calo­ries in the end,” he said Fri­day. “Most of our peo­ple starved to death.”

He buried 13 fel­low pris­on­ers who died of sick­ness, star­va­tion and sad­ness. When he was trans­ported to North Vietnam, he walked 540 miles in 57 days.

His saga of five and a half years as a pris­oner of war ex­em­pli­fies the per­sonal style of

“The Vietnam War,” the lat­est PBS doc­u­men­tary from Ken Burns (“The Civil War”) and Lynn Novick (“The War” with Burns).

“I’m a prac­tic­ing physi­cian,” Kush­ner said. “I see a lot of young peo­ple in my prac­tice, high school kids, col­lege kids. The war is as re­mote to them as the War of 1812.”

Through the film, he hopes peo­ple un­der­stand the pro­found change the Vietnam War caused in the cul­ture and the sac­ri­fice and ser­vice of or­di­nary ser­vi­cepeo­ple.

Kush­ner doesn’t ap­pear un­til the sixth part, air­ing Sept. 24, but he makes a strong im­pres­sion.

“He is one of most ex­tra­or­di­nary Amer­i­can hu­man be­ings I’ve ever got­ten to know,” Novick said. “I feel very, very for­tu­nate that he was will­ing to let us bring his quite re­mark­able story of what hap­pened to him dur­ing the Vietnam War to the Amer­i­can pub­lic.”

Kush­ner cites Novick as the rea­son he par­tic­i­pated.

“Lynn Novick called me in 2011,” he said. “She asked if I’d be in­ter­ested in it. I said I didn’t know. She flew to my home in Day­tona Beach, spent a night and a day there. I think we au­di­tioned each other. She told me a lit­tle about the project. I re­ally liked her, she’s a sweet­heart. Be­cause of her per­son­al­ity, I signed up.”

Di­rec­tors Burns and Novick had that ef­fect on dozens of peo­ple who tell their sto­ries in the 18-hour se­ries that airs at 8 tonight through Thurs­day this week and next.

Kush­ner and the other wit­nesses help ex­plain the U.S. in­volve­ment in the Viet­namese civil war in the 1960s and ’70s.

He re­calls that he never prayed in the prison camps but he did have a mantra: “I’ll be here when the morn­ing comes.”

“I just used to say that ev­ery night be­fore I went to sleep,” Kush­ner said. “I don’t think there’s any­thing pro­found about it.”

Novick stressed that the film puts ev­ery­day peo­ple at the cen­ter. “There are no ex­perts in the film, there’s no Mon­day morn­ing quar­ter­back­ing,” she said. “It’s peo­ple look­ing you right in the eye and telling you what they went through.”

The film does share in­sights into Pres­i­dents Lyn­don John­son and Richard Nixon — heard in pri­vate recorded con­ver­sa­tions — as well as North Viet­namese leader Ho Chi Minh. Henry Kissinger, John Kerry, John McCain and Jane Fonda are seen in archival footage. Most speak­ers are un­fa­mil­iar, and they in­clude peo­ple who fought for South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

“At the time, most of us in the gov­ern­ment and the or­di­nary cit­i­zenry felt like it was an ef­fort to stop the march of com­mu­nism,” Kush­ner said. “Our lead­ers didn’t un­der­stand at the time that they were na­tion­al­ists as well as com­mu­nists. It was quite ra­tio­nal to op­pose in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nism, which was ad­vo­cat­ing world rev­o­lu­tion and chang­ing our eco­nomic sys­tem.”

The story looks a lot dif­fer­ent now when ev­ery­thing is 20⁄20 in hind­sight, he added.

The film­mak­ers leave the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of events to the au­di­ence, Novick said. “We Amer­i­cans have some sense that the Vietnam War is a di­vi­sive and painful sub­ject for Amer­i­cans, but we don’t like to talk about it,” she said. “But we get up­set that we haven’t been able to fig­ure out what we think about it. We’re still ar­gu­ing about it.”

When speak­ers in the film saw por­tions in 2015, there were dis­cus­sions that were “re­spect­ful but heated, and that’s part of the story,” Kush­ner said.

He traces his strong pa­tri­otic views to be­ing an Army brat born in 1941. “I’m a Pearl Har­bor sur­vivor. My dad was a cap­tain in the Army Air Corps at Pearl Har­bor,” he said.

Kush­ner said he doesn’t tell his story of­ten.

“I have re­fused about a thou­sand in­vi­ta­tions to speak,” he said. “I am not a pro­fes­sional ex-POW. I don’t ride in pa­rades, I don’t open shop­ping cen­ters. Peo­ple who know me know I was a POW, and my pa­tients kind of know it. It’s not some­thing I ad­ver­tise.”

Hal Kush­ner, of Day­tona Beach, re­veals the story of his sur­vival.

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