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Defending 'China Beach'

May 21, 1988

For those who fought there, Vietnam is such an intense and indelible memory that we tend to believe that if something portrayed about the war didn't happen to us, it didn't happen.

In Calendar's generous coverage of the TV series "China Beach" ("Remembering the Real China Beach," May 18), that trap snared even the redoubtable Gloria Emerson, whose fine article grappled with coming to terms with the war; in the companion story Paul Dean and his interviewee, a Red Cross photographer, were completely swallowed up by it.

"China Beach" is not a documentary; it's a drama, and the truths it strives for are not literal but emotional. But the series is far more firmly grounded in reality than your articles suggested.

Literally every incident in the series that your writers or their interviewees dismissed as farfetched or unrealistic did happen. John Sacret Young, Carol Flint and I talked with about two dozen women veterans of the war in preparing this show; those interviews were augmented by exhaustive research and the experience of male veterans, including my own.

As a young Marine lieutenant, I was lifted out of the bush with my platoon and we were brought on trucks to the real China Beach for two days of R&R. I remember the place in acute detail.

Let me just list some of the assertions made by your authors:

Dean and the photographer he interviewed complain that China Beach didn't have a hospital, but for the many men who passed through it, the 95th Evac was most definitely there.

Emerson says "the burned in Vietnam did not ask for a song." But at least one did; a former nurse described it.

Dean's story questioned the handing out of Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars, which was what I did the six months I was a general's aide, in exactly the way it is shown in the series.

But what bothered me the most in Dean's article was the assertion that "China Beach" does not respect the Red Cross volunteers or their work. The only character in the series who treats Cherry, the "Doughnut Dolly," with anything less than perfect respect is a civilian bureaucrat. She's saved from him by two very tough Recon Marines, who then more or less adopt her. All of the soldiers in the series deal with her as we did then: as a sister we would protect with our lives.

If "China Beach" survives on the air, its characters will grow and change, just as those of us who were there did. The show portrays them as heroes--not perfect, idealized heroes, but as real people with real flaws and one totally redeeming quality: They cared and they were there.

We hope "China Beach" tells a few of their stories, and helps us in these more self-centered times to remember how these women served and what they did.


Co-creator, executive consultant

"China Beach"

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