Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s compelling new 10-part documentary, The Vietnam War, which started Sunday on PBS, took 10 years to complete and takes viewers on a journey from 1858 to today.
Almost 60,000 Americans lost their lives during the war that spanned from 1954 to 1975. In the documentary, one family opens up about their inner turmoil over sending their oldest son off to Vietnam — and the moment they learned he was killed in battle.
“I was very protective and opposed to him going,” Jean-Marie Crocker, 94, says of her son Denton. “He was a very bright student and my husband and I thought that he could surely contribute in many ways to the world if he had given himself some time.”
But Denton — who was known for his “sunny disposition” and great sense of humor — was determined to do more and be on the front lines in Vietnam.
“He made the commitment and we had to sign for him,” she tells PEOPLE. “He was so excited and it hit me how much he wanted this.”
It was only when he said to his mother, “You have to keep my morale,” that her mindset shifted.
“From that point on, I never spoke to him about my fears or his safety,” she says, “because I was his alley then. I didn’t want to do anything that would make it hard for him.”
When her son left for Vietnam in September 1965, Jean-Marie felt a sense of relief after a year of trying to get him to stay.
“Once the decision was made and it was out of our hands, we then knew what we were going to try and have to live with,” she says.
But just about nine months later — one day after her son’s 19th birthday — Jean-Marie found out that he had been killed in battle.
“It’s something that is still so difficult,” she says with a shaky voice. “I was just reading the portion about our story in Ken Burns’ companion volume to the documentary and I sat there weeping.”
She vividly remembers the day she learned of her son’s death. She was sitting on the porch waiting for her husband to come home from doing errands when she saw two men in Army uniforms walking across the street towards her.
“I knew it had to be something horrible,” she says. “My husband arrived home right around the time. He was there with me when we heard. He looked absolutely drained of life. I’ll never forget how shocked he looked.”
His death also took a huge toll on Jean-Marie’s young daughter, Carol, who was extremely close with her brother.
Looking back, Jean-Marie realizes that “so many thousands shared that same grief.”
She says while Carol joined the protests as the war continued for another nine years, she felt “caught in it” and that Vietnam felt like her entire life.
“Life was never the same after that,” she says. “We were all affected by it.”
Carol, now a teacher, says that she started protesting the war after her brother’s death while she was in college.
“The concept of challenging the status quo and challenging ideas or evaluating situations was part of how we thought about things,” Carole, 67, tells PEOPLE. “Protesting the war felt like a big step in terms of doing something quite independently from my family.”
For Carol to see young people today protesting the things they deeply care about has both encouraged and inspired her. She also hopes that today’s youth — who weren’t alive during the Vietnam War — spends time learning about it and fighting for what matters to them.
“My concern was for the people who were suffering in Vietnam,” says Carol. “It was beyond anything I suffered with my personal loss. I cared about what we were doing over there.”
When Carol saw the documentary, she realized that while their loss is still raw, it also gave her an opportunity to see other families’ stories and feel like she’s not alone.
“It reminds me to constantly be brave enough to share our story,” she says. “I gained knowledge about the war too. It was very powerful. It’s a tribute to every person who lost their life.”