Skip to comments.Vietnam, A Personal Journey
Posted on 09/26/2002 5:09:35 AM PDT by Jen
My name is Stacey. I am 33 years old and have been a Firefighter with a West Coast City for the past 4 years; a paramedic for 8. I have had the fortunate opportunity of coming into contact with many Veterans, most now on the brink of retirement. I feel extremely honored to have heard some of your courageous and painful stories. To know of your reluctance to speak after 30 years...the hell and the horror you endured, is so sad to me. The thought of boys forced to become men, or even young men forced to become "old" men doesn't seem fair. And, though the saying goes of love and war...all is fair. I am not sure it has as much to do with fairness as it does "survival."
After researching and speaking with many Veterans, I have come to find a common thread amongst the intricate, confusing and complicated fabric in time. I found threads of pure "truth" in the expressions of some who had real difficulty. Not only while in the midst of war, but well after; with coming home and daily life. So much judgment, isolation, feeling misunderstood, or not understood at all. It seems what many really needed the most was so simple. Things like recognition, respect, love, honor, acceptance, and a safe space to share, talk, yell or cry. A place to be exclusively honest with other vets regarding the surreal sights no human should ever have to see, let alone keep to themselves. I was surprised to learn many never heard an honest "Thank You." How difficult to have the absence of parades (like the other war-time heroes had in their honor), no national stamp for their efforts, no programs to assist in their transition and all that was lost, and even the 3-syllable greeting "Welcome Home" seems to have been said much too infrequently.
With all this, and wicked memories tatooed to their minds, recurrently chasing sanity, it is not surprising to me that there may have been residual effects and difficulty for some of our Heroes of Vietnam still with us today. It is in part, for this reason that I found myself wanting to do "something" for the Veterans of Vietnam. To, somehow, help this forgotten generation of a very volatile time.
Learning more about the War and Vietnam became very fascinating to me. My inquisition led me to meet a very good and kind man, a Vet through a friend. He was a delight, very funny and soon we became good friends. I would often ask about the war. He was always hesitant and seemed uncomfortable speaking of the past. He predictably would change the subject. And yet eventually with time, he opened up. One day, his gaze thousands of miles away.....he recalled scenes as though they were just yesterday. And he could have told me anything. Because I didn't feel shock or aversion. And feelings of judgment towards him never stirred. Only a calm joy that he had simply spoken about it. His stories made me want to learn more, attempt to understand and actually go see this place. I remember telling him one day I would visit Vietnam. I don't think he knew I meant it. I don't think he cared.
Eventually, the time and opportunity presented itself to travel to Vietnam. A friend I worked with was Vietnamese. He told me he was going back to Vietnam. We had spoken at length about the country, his life, and the war. He had lost his father to the Communists who imprisoned him for years, simply for being anti-communist. He extended an invitation to join him and months later I found myself purchasing a ticket.
Everything worked itself out so smoothly. We flew into Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) where I stayed branching out, free from my friend, for almost a week before moving on. I wanted to explore and really get to know Vietnam and its people. Plans to stay 2 weeks and then hit Thailand changed. Backpacking throughout Europe was eye-opening and life-changing, but Vietnam...well, I came to "love" backpacking in the beauty of this land, its distinct scent, kind and gracious people and the simplicity of it all. I ended up staying over a month. Though, I have learned that this place, in one Veteran's words, "was not a playground kid when we were there." The Vietnam of today was full of small friendly people, beautiful women, flooded rice paddies, conical straw hats, railways, cyclos, coffee plantations, water buffalo, white, soft, sandy beaches, great soups, scuba diving, massage, cheap pedicures and tailors, early morning markets, shops, mopeds, peaceful napping in hammocks with views of the light blue ocean and NO ONE else around! My idea of heaven. I also experienced the temples, pagodas, the Lotus and the beginning of the Monsoon Season; an amazing and exciting torrential downpour!
Backpacking from the South to the Northwest Highlands of Lao Cai almost into China, provided a rare opportunity to experience the smiling faces of the Hill Tribes people of Sapa, their handmade hemp clothing, and the absolute beauty of as many shades of green the eye can possibly perceive, lining the tiered landscapes, which no photo could capture. While in Saigon, I traveled south into the Mekong Delta and around to the Cu Chi Tunnels. I was so amazed by how tiny the tunnels were! I could hardly fit. They were small and dark, and I couldn't ever imagine being the one to go down there in search of the enemy. Those who did, as one Firefighter in my department did, had such an incredible amount of courage!
I often found myself trying to imagine young men here in Vietnam in time of war; establishing tactics and strategy, loaded down with gear, strong, sneaking, walking, running, intent, determined, angry, dirty, wet, tired, raw, paranoid, petrified, numb! I know my mind could never come up with the images they saw. But still, there was a sense of fear present when imagination conjured up images of hiding in the palm, wading through the mirky canals, sounds of distant bombs, B-52's flying over head, gunfire, or bullets whizzing by too close for comfort...muck on shoes and soaked to the waist, walking on the ridges of the rice paddies, and getting cut up walking through the elephant grass as it danced with the wind.
One day soon after I arrived, I went to the Independence Palace (the place where the first Communist tanks rushed the iron gates back in 1975) and I cannot deny, I experienced an eerie vibe walking through that building. That same day, I stepped into a cold, desolate museum that seemed like I was back in time. While upstairs, I entered an empty room except for some glass cases. Here I saw...a captured American Flag. It was such a strange sight to see. I was surprised, and then felt uncomfortable, disbelief and then anger began to boil inside. I thought, "Where is my axe?" The irrational thought entered my mind...how I would love to break the glass case and take the flag!
It was hard to leave that room. Downstairs, in the palace, I saw for the first time, Military Identification Tags ..."Dog Tags." I stood there for a long time just looking at them disconcertingly. Then, with my hands, I motioned to the Vietnamese girls behind the counter. They didn't speak an ounce of english, but understood that I was asking to look at the tags in the case. I wondered if they were real? I wondered why our government hadn't come over and bought everything up as there were old pins, medals (a purple heart), spectacles, brass bracelets, a canteen, Zippo lighters, a pair of military boots, a bowl, spoons, and a large communications radio. I thought they must be real, for the country was not saturated with tourism at all. English speaking people were hard to come by, and I didn't feel there were enough tourists for the tags, specifically, to be mass produced in an effort to generate revenue. The tags looked old, tattered, soiled, bent and rusted. There were not many of them. I bought them all.
It was difficult not to buy the other remnants...especially that purple heart. I had a budget, however, and needed to stick close to it. As I walked outside, my steps slowed. I took one of the tags out and looked at it closely as the traffic whizzed by. Suddenly, it dawned on me...maybe THIS was what I could do for the Veterans. Something so small and yet it was "something." That day, I decided to search for as many tags as I could find in the weeks to come. Even if they were not genuine, the optimist in me said, there had to be at least one tag that was real. And, if I could find that ONE family and return the tag, somehow everything up to this point would be worth it. Besides, I rationalized, the worst thing I would be doing would be contributing to their very poor economy.
Almost a week later, with culture shock easing, I left Saigon and moved up the coast into Nha Trang. I knew I would need some help in finding the dog tags. I sought out a person who spoke a little more english than usual. He was the driver of an old beat up taxi. I asked him about the dog tags and if he knew where to get any. He said no. I asked him if he could write down, in Vietnamese, where I could find dog tags. That way a piece of paper could simply be my translator. I could hand it to people in hopes of finding more. He did so. And I was careful not to misplace it. I had concerns, though, about whether he understood me correctly because when I handed it to several people, they shook their heads, "no." But I soon found out that he had understood. I handed it to someone in Hoi An and the person motioned with his hands for me to stay. I did so. It was daylight, but still I felt cautious.I waited along a dirt road next to a merchant making shoes for about 15 minutes before he ran back. Out of breath, he handed me a piece of crumpled paper. I put my hand out and opened it to find 8 tags. I bought them, saying thank you, "cam un."
After Nha Trang, I moved into DaNang and then Hue. One day, while in Da Nang searching for a place to stay and dodging the heat, I decided to cool down and have a beer in the lobby of some hotel. I played a casino game and checked out the menu. There were 2 Australian men in their 50's also drinking beer. I chatted with them as they bragged of all the pleasures of Vietnam and inquired as to whom I was traveling with? Surprised to find I was backpacking alone, they offered me beer. I declined and instead got the attention of the girl working there, then handed her the note. She read it and looking up at me, nodded yes. My eyes lit up. She picked up the phone and soon after, a woman pulled up on a moped. The girl behind the bar told me to "go."
I felt a bit leery, but strangely, safer than with the English speaking men. The woman on the moped had a great smile and patted the back of her bike. It was a little unnerving, and definitely against my upbringing. "Never talk to stangers"...let alone go somewhere with them! It was a little crazy, yet exciting. And, I knew if I wanted to find more tags, I really had to let go...and also of the idea of wearing a helmet! Basically, I just prayed and had faith that God would protect me.
The woman's name was Lien and we drove around on her moped, which I never did get used to. She was covered from head to toe, equipped with hat and long-sleeve gloves, so as not to soak up the sun. In Vietnam, a lighter-skinned woman, is a more desirble woman. I, on the other hand, sported a tank top, shorts and tevas, soaking up every ounce of sun and loving the warmth and humidity Vietnam was bringing, especially in the evenings. Lien took me to her home which was a modest typical home doubling as a small open-aired restaurant. Lien spoke conversation with improper english and slaughtered sentences, but I didn't care and we were actually able to converse surprisingly well. She spoke of her unhappy marriage with an abusive husband, showing me bruises and scratches on her body. Domestic violence in Vietnam is actively concealed and not uncommon. She was a wonderful woman and we laughed a lot together. She liked to wear my American sunglasses and spoke of her love for the USA as they had fought for her freedom. She was very hospitable and constantly wanting to cook. For a person who loves to eat, this was a dream; especially while backpacking! She made the most delicious meals I had eaten: morning brought banana pancakes and pineapple shake and afternoon brought spring rolls with vegetables and noodles. I told Lien of my search but she didn't seem to understand until she read the note in Vietnamese. She said she understood what I was trying to do. She said she could help.
Lien made a phone call and soon we both got on her moped. Certain suicide! I put my trust in her, as I knew not where we were going. After winding through the streets like some maze, we finally arrived at a very old and tarnished building. She spoke Vietnamese to a man in a Military Uniform. He was abrasive and did not smile. It sounded as though she was yelling at him. She seemed strong to me and I was happy to have met her. We were allowed in and directed to walk over to a counter where a man stood, also in a military uniform. She spoke with him and eventually he put some dog tags on the counter. Lien translated and I asked him to put all the tags on the counter. He did so. There on the counter, all I could see were the identities of ALL the different men...all the different stories of, somehow, my American brothers.
I wanted to bring them back to American soil. I bent down and searched through the glass, scanning the lower shelves and saw a few more tags. I looked up at Lien and said "all" of the tags, pointing to the remainders. She translated and he reached in and put the rest on the counter. He seemed impatient and unconcerned. When I asked where they had come from, Lien said poor villagers come down the mountains and bring them in every now and then. There, they dig for tags and other remnants and bring them to town for a small amount of money. I also discovered it is not uncommon for a person to be maimed by a land mine while digging or walking, as is the same for grazing cows.
We haggled for some time on price. I tried to rationalize with him, but it was like talking to a wall. Before leaving, I ended up buying them all. Lien told me we could come back at a later time and he might have some more, but it would not be today. I was willing to wait. The next day we talked and Lien told me that later in the afternoon we could go back. He would have to make a trip to get more. Her next call would have us both heading back to the beaten up building. We went in and he quoted me a price of $300.00. I was prepared for this and said "No way!"...though inside I knew I would not leave without taking every last one of them. We went back and forth and finally I bluffed giving him my final price. He said, "NO." I was learning their game and would play if that was what it took. I began to walk away with Lien. He was quiet as we headed for the door, and just before walking outside, he yelled. Lien said he was saying to come back. I stopped and repeated my final offer. He was quiet again and said, "okay"...as if it hurt him. I couldn't wait to free the tags from that case and get them into my backpack.
Later that evening, I went to my hotel and laid them all out on a white sheet. It was hot and muggy and the fan blew warm air. I went through and looked at each tag...so many tags that had touched so many soldiers, so long ago. The tags, littered with red clay, stained my hands. I thought again of how they ALL had a different story. I wondered how many were still alive and if they would even care about the tags. I couldn't help to think of how amazing it would be to have your tag come back to you after all these years! I felt sorrow, too, for the soldiers, their families, and the loss of innocence and young adult life. I wrote in my journal and thought about shipping them home, as I still had a long way to go. They added a significant amount of of weight to my already heavy backpack. But, there was no way I could trust the Communist Government or Customs. I decided that I would carry them all with me. Maybe in some strange way, it was like carrying a small amount of the burden those alive still carry.
I continued my search-and-buy status using "dong" as the purchasing power (14,000 dong = $1.00), until flying into Thailand for a few days and then finally back to California. I felt fortunate for my incredible journey and all that I had learned about Vietnam...its people, the War, the American Soldier, and myself.
Please view the names on the dog tags arranged in alphabetical order. If you see a name which you think may be yours, or a family member's, please click on the name and fill out the information sheet to the best of your ability. If your information is limited such that you cannot fill out the required fields on the form, please click the "Contact Us" link and explain why. It is my hope to return as many tags as possible to the rightful owners: The Veterans themselves, or Families of.
And Thank you Johnny for your wonderful posts. Love you both.
Outstanding post, Jen. Thanks for sharing it with us.
What exactly should our politicians be doing then?
RELATED STORY: Paul's Trained Ants
When Paul Bunyan was short of help, he trained some enormous ants to do all kinds of logging work. They weighed over 2,000 pounds apiece and ate nothing but the finest imported Swedish snuff. The ants did the work of 50 ordinary men. In the winter, Paul had them fitted with warm mackinaws to keep them from hibernating
This story has a few plot holes in it.
Am I unclear, or does "backpacking" denote hiking? I took a cursory look at a map of Vietnam, and it is about 1400 miles from Saigon to Lao Cai on the Chinese border. If the author walked 4 miles an hour, it would have taken her 350 hours, or 35 days walking 10 hours a day just to get up there. That's 70 days round trip if she just walked every day - in dry weather. Add 20 days of torrential rain or site seeing, that's a three month getaway ... on a vacation that was originally planned as a two week stint with a stop in Thailand. Hell, she made better time than Patton's Third Army thundering on Bastogne!
I wonder if the Vietnamese guy she blew off immediately upon landing in Saigon had any flash of worry cross his mind when she wasn't back from her two week getaway after 2 1/2 months or so?
I laughed at the comment that she wasn't the type to talk to strangers, much less accept a ride from one. Backpacking alone through a rainy, densely jungled, Communist country she had never before visited and whose language she couldn't speak? Sure, but hopping on the back of a moped piloted by a quickly summoned woman ...
She also picked up an authentic Ted Williams rookie baseball card from that same guy in Hue. Surprisingly, Williams was wearing a Montreal Expos uniform! I never knew Teddy Baseball broke into the bigs with that club. Not to mention that Ted Williams was Asian.
Roger that. And thank you Bunny for all you do on our behalf.
Recently, I've got the itch to jump again -- probably because the time is fast approaching when I'll be too old and feeble to do it at all -- and have been inquiring about sky diving out of Perris, California. I never did free-fall, only static line jumps, so this will be something new for this old geezer.
A colleague at work remarked to me that at the rate I'm revisitng yesterday, it won't be long until I'll be flying the friendly skies back to Vietnam.
Never happen, I told him. But then, I never thought I'd get the urge to jump out of a perfectly good airplane again, either.
Hmmm ... I note that my "Salma Hayek" check-box is yet empty.
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