Once again, Hal Kushner is a free man.
Forty-five years ago, the great relief of freedom came after five years as a prisoner of war — time mostly spent in brutal Vietnamese jungle environments.
These days, it seems, he finally feels free to speak openly and often about the freedoms Americans enjoy and, at times, take for granted.
And on this particular day, on a very grand yet sobering stage, he’ll talk of the ultimate sacrifices made by the fallen to secure those freedoms, from Lexington and Concord to Kabul and Baghdad.
And between those two chronological poles, he’ll talk of the prices paid at places like Khe Sanh and Hue City.
“This one will be different,” says Kushner, who will serve as keynote speaker for the Memorial Day ceremonies at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., beginning at 1 p.m.
This vaunted assignment, Kushner assumes, can be attributed to the increased recognition he received after last September’s airing of “The Vietnam War,” a 10-part documentary series in which Kushner played a major role.
Woven into the multi-faceted storyline was Kushner’s chronicling of his five-plus years as a POW. Kushner was a U.S. Army flight surgeon captured by the Viet Cong after his helicopter crashed into a South Vietnamese mountain in 1967. His harrowing experience included a 30-day jungle march, at gunpoint, in the beginning, three-plus years in bamboo cages, and a 57-day, 540-mile march to Hanoi near the end.
Since last fall’s Vietnam series on PBS, requests for Kushner’s speaking services have increased dramatically, he says. He’s become much more open to telling his story — and sharing his feelings for America and its military — due to another fall-out from the TV event.
“My part in the series was very well received,” says the 77-year-old ophthalmologist, who has lived in Daytona Beach since 1977. “I got about 600 communiques. Every single one of them positive. Letters from England, letters from France. I got a million Facebook messages from people I didn’t know. Every single one of them positive.
“My attitude has certainly changed. I never told my story. It wasn’t painful for me to talk about; I just didn’t talk about it. My patients kinda knew about it, but mostly by osmosis, from being around town and hearing about it somewhere. Very few people ever asked me about it.”
That has changed quite a bit. Last week, Kushner was in San Francisco to speak at the Marines Memorial Club. Next week he’ll be in Virginia speaking to a group from the 1st Aviation Brigade. Between those, he’ll work a week at his ophthalmology practice following his Memorial Day duty at a Vietnam Veterans Memorial looked upon by many as sacred ground.
“They want me to talk about my own experiences and my feelings about the wall, which I have,” he says of the black granite walls engraved with more than 58,000 names of those killed during the Vietnam War.
Of the 27 Americans imprisoned with Kushner in a Viet Cong jungle hell, five were eventually released and 12 survived. The others died, and since Kushner was a doctor doing the best he could with the rawest of materials, they all died in his arms. The first time he visited the wall at the Vietnam Memorial, naturally, he sought out their names.
“Yes, I remember that,” he says. “I found the names. I was very moved by it.”
In the years after his 1973 release, Kushner began devouring Vietnam War history, learning as much as he could about a war that divided his country and left a scar that continues to frame many of today’s international debates.
“Most of the military people I know, even in retrospect, think it was a rational thing,” he says of the U.S. efforts to help South Vietnam defeat the northern Communists. “The way we fought the war is what’s questioned among the military groups.
“Most Americans are pretty ignorant about what was going on in Vietnam. And I was ignorant at the time. I studied it after I came back. It’s very important to me, of course.”
In speeches, he often includes much of what he’s learned along with his own personal story, which focuses heavily on the many and varied moments of heroism he witnessed, as well as his first-person views on the human will to survive. The increased attention on Kushner, and his increased willingness to tell the story, have led to an increase in emotions, he says.
He normally details his own ordeal in scholarly, matter-of-fact fashion. But even with more repetition, he says, the chore has taken on personal difficulty.
“I think, as you get older, you have less control over your emotions,” Kushner says. “I get much more emotional, even watching movies, than I used to.
“Maybe it’s because I’m 77 now and realize I don’t have much time left.”
Hal Kushner’s speech will be livestreamed on Facebook, via the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Facebook page. The ceremony begins at 1 p.m.
© 2018 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.
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