I was 19 when Uncle Sam told me he was sending me to the tropics of Vietnam.
This time, at age 62, I returned to Southeast Asia on my own terms.
This time I found myself sitting down at a table with a former enemy combatant, listening to his perspective about a time in history when both of us saw the horrors of war much differently.
This time, I also hiked through a jungle with a Vietnamese guide who likely viewed me as the enemy some 40 years ago. We navigated that terrain together with a new respect for each other.
I ended up finding closure those last few days on my return trip to Vietnam. It came on a beach at 3 o’clock in the morning in a way I never imagined, but one in which I find peace now that I’m back in Lima.
Thursday and Friday, March 7-8:
PHONG NAM, Vietnam — I was a little apprehensive as I met the previous mayor of Phong Nam, who was also a Vietcong company commander during the war. I sat with a group of other American visitors in his prayer room and listened to our guide describe how this particular village felt during the war.
I left the group and went into the dining area of his home, where I sat at a table with a gentleman (approximately 70 years old) and talked about the firefights his men had with units of the 173rd Airborne.
The gentleman was obviously well educated, spoke perfect English and was extremely polite. He said that war is a terrible thing and that before any country went to war they need to re-evaluate their reasoning.
A SHAU VALLEY, Vietnam – I broke off from the group, and with another guide, went to the A Shau Valley. We went to several areas of the valley where my platoon had several battles with the Vietcong (VC) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), who controlled the valley.
We crossed the same rice patties; walked into the jungle and walked for several hours to some hills that were the scene of several battles. Many soldiers, on both sides, died and were wounded in these fights.
I felt very remorseful when thinking of all those fallen soldiers, also, very lucky that I was not one of the dead. Later, we went to several villages that I patrolled through in 1969 and 1970. It brought back a lot of memories that I had suppressed for 43 years. We went to a small fishing village on the Red China Sea that had not changed much.
I never asked my guide, and he did not volunteer any information about himself, but from conversations I had with him, I suspect that during the war he probably was a Vietcong officer. He was very intelligent and extremely knowledgeable abut the country south of the demilitarized zone. He knew several of the village leaders and had a wealth of information about the 173rd Airborne and the 1st Air Cavalry and other units that fought in the A Shau Valley.
In Vietnam they do not call it the Vietnam War; they call it the American War.
My guide said to me that if someone attacked our country, that we would fight and do whatever it took to keep our country, our values, our religion, our way of life … just like the Vietnamese did. He said that to us young American soldiers, we were ordered to Vietnam. It was just another place on the map. But to the Vietnamese, this was their home. During the day the people would work in the fields, and at night become ferocious fighters.
We took a motor-scooter and rode to the area where I got wounded. We saw the area at the base of some hills between two villages where we had set up a small base camp. We went into the hills toward the area where I was wounded. We got within about two klicks (a mile and a quarter) when I could go no farther.
I told the guide to get me to airport. I was ready to come home.
When I had flown from Hanoi to Hue to tour the A Shau Valley I wore an American military field uniform. I toured Hue and wore the uniform from Hue over the pass and back to Da Nang, where I wore the uniform for the day’s activities.
That night, about 3 a.m., I took the uniform to the beach area. I dug a hole and buried the American military uniform.
For more than 40-plus years, I never considered or thought that I would ever want or need to go back to an area that caused me so much pain and suffering. It had only been in the past year that for some reason, unknown to me, that I needed, had to go.
I’m glad I went. But when I left the military uniform behind in Da Nang, the war was over for me.
I hope that all combat veterans from any unit or branch of service can find the relief and forgiveness that I have found.
When I, and others, returned from Vietnam, we were called names and criticized by the American public. Now we are fathers and grandfathers and will never let that happen to another American soldier again. Whether you, personally, agree with a conflict or not, you need to remember one thing: We did not go to war because we liked it; we went because we were ordered to do so.
Always support our troops. They are doing a job that many people want no part of.