Below are my final thoughts on Vietnam. If you are sensitive to two words that are not PC. Do not read this, but “Gosh, Golly” just do not describe the moment.
For some reason on July 4 as I write this, I feel a whole lot better than I did two weeks ago and two weeks ago I did not feel bad.
Governments in their efforts to win wars may fail. Diplomats in their efforts to negotiate a settlement to save face, may or may not have success. But, the American soldier, the instrument for government policy, will get it right. When left to his or her own desire to be human in war, the American soldier will prevail and find a way to make peace one person at a time.
I came away from my one week trip to Vietnam convinced that the American soldier has won the war.
Allow me to start at the ending before going to the beginning. On June 28, 2008 after a 41 year absence, I rediscovered the affect of the American soldier on a hamlet. We were returning from a visit to Can Tho, Vietnam and headed to Ho Chi Minh City. We were looking for Tan Tru and the base camp of the 1st Platoon, Company C, 15th Combat Engineers, 9th Infantry Division supporting the combat operations of the 2nd/60th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division.
The guide stopped several times to ask directions to bridges Americans built 40 years ago ( I knew the way from memory, but I don’t think our guide wanted to take a chance on the memory of a 61 year old). We found a bridge still standing and while I was elated, proud, ecstatic that it was one built by my platoon, this was not the one I had set out to find. Way out in the boonies, we turned around to head back 50 kilometers to Ho Chi Minh City when I asked the guide to take a right, go 1.5 kilometers, turn right and take an immediate left, and then come to a halt as there would be a river, a tributary of the Mekong River. If it were not there, I said, we would go back to the city and I would be satisfied that we tried.
As we neared the mark, the guide turned around and said, “John, we are near 1.5 Kilometers.” To which I said, “Turn around and look out the window.” There in front of us was a right hand turn, we took the turn, and immediately turned a sharp left…and there in front of us was the ever lovin’, friggin’ bridge that forever changed my life. This bridge was not mine, but one that replaced a 287 foot bridge built by 11 men and myself in seven days, defended from attack for three nights, in the middle of what use to be a thatched hut hamlet.
The “hooches” have been replaced by brick stucco and metal and wood buildings, but, this was MY bridge and the turning point in my life in 1966-1968, my 18 months in Vietnam.
After taking pictures, I noticed I was being watched by a number of people. I got my “Kodak moment” photos I had taken 41 years ago out of the van and began showing them to folks. These pictures were of children who were ever present as we constructed the timber trestle bridge. Children were everywhere at that time. And, as the folks were looking at the pictures, many let out with a gasp, began laughing hard, calling their friends, passing the pictures around as fast as people came to see what the commotion was all about.
These men and women of 45-55 were looking at themselves in 1967. They pointed to a picture of me 40 years younger I had shown them, and I acknowledged that it was me. They covered their mouths, smiled, and hugged me. I was mobbed.
The governments of South Vietnam and the USA may have screwed it up, but the American soldier got it right. Forty years later, I now realize, the American soldier finally won the hearts and minds of the people.
I was a 19 year old lieutenant platoon leader of a Combat Engineer platoon when I left Fort Riley Kansas for Vietnam in 1966. What would be a 12 month tour turned into 18 months that changed the course of my life.
From Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho 150 miles, but a five hour drive away and two hours from Cambodia, people everywhere went out of their way to say “hello” to three visiting Americans. Children from kindergarten to third grade stopped us. “Hello, where are you from?” they asked. When we said from the United States, “Oh, what state?” they would inquire. And, these kids would strike up a short conversation in near perfect English. They smiled, their parents smiled and looked prouder than any parents I have ever seen of their children.
They are required to begin taking English in Pre-K and through most of their school years, which are almost identical to ours. Here in the states, our kids take Spanish for a couple terms in High School, a language that isn’t even in the dialect of Hispanics entering our country.
I asked our guide why the children were going out of their way to talk with us. He replied, “They want to practice their English.” He went onto say that many Vietnamese see the United States as a great country and they want to come here. He also hoped his 14 month old son would one day visit “the United States of America”.
I would like to wax philosophical of the loss of humanity in war and the conflict we soldiers face in killing the enemy who “is below human” but forging relationships with children and older people we meet to restore our own individual humanity and find hope amidst the insaneness of war. But, this trip exceeded my expectations of what we accomplished in Vietnam and I have no place in my heart right now to talk of war.
When the American soldier took a “pause for the cause” to reach out and touch an individual Vietnamese, by God and all things righteous, 40 years later we “won” the cause.
I am not one to wear flag lapel pins. I paid my dues and if my actions don’t show my patriotism, no pin will add to it. I was never more proud to be a citizen of the United States as I was the morning of the last day in Vietnam. Tuesday, July 2 is a day I will never forget.
The day before, we were given a tour of the U.S. consulate. With reverence we stood on the very grounds where our Embassy had been. We were at the spot in the Wall breached by the VC in January 1968. This breach was a microcosm of what would come. We wiped out the VC infrastructure throughout the country that week. But, that “Victory” for us brought in the NVA and American public opinion. Our victory that week was the beginning of the end.
The Vietnamese government has a 10 foot monolith on the street at the breach. Inside, we have a simple plaque to the four soldiers and single Marine who died January 31, 1968 defending the embassy. The reverence at that site was awesome.
As we prepared to leave the next day (July 2), I hiked the city from our hotel back to the Consulate. A very wide four lane boulevard divides the Consulate grounds from hundreds of people waiting across the street to queue up to apply for a VISA to visit the USA. I began taking pictures of the Stars and Stripes unfurled and waving from the original flagpole of the Embassy.
I became absolutely chilled by the goose bumps all over my body and they never disappeared. I have them now as I write this. Here I was 40 years after leaving Vietnam, once again on foreign soil, standing before OUR flag waving proudly as hundreds of people waited to get in.
Keep your flag pins. I will forever remember that engulfing moment of being damn proud to be a citizen of the United States of America.
I was finally waved off by a Vietnamese soldier guarding the Consulate. But, he was too late. I had my pictures and I had captured the moment. Remember what I said in my article before I left? From the movie, “Beyond the Sea”, “Memories are like moonbeams. Once you have one, you can do whatever you want with it.” If you see me smile when the flag is raised, you will know, that along with 2.5 million American Soldiers, sailors, Marines, Airman, Nurses, we have been there, we have done that, and I can assure you after 40 years, we got it right.
The person who provided for the trip and whom I accompanied summed it up far better than I: “We will win Vietnam in this generation because of the way the people were treated by the American Soldier 40 years ago. Those kids (now the adults we met) have not forgotten and they will want their children to live better.”
There’s so much more I would like to write, about the people and how they live and especially WORK (everyone works), the growth of the country, the changes, but my Flag in Vietnam and the looks on the faces of the Vietnamese men and women all over the country and especially at THE bridge confirm my belief that while governments quibble, the American Soldier is the human equation in the inhumanity of war This is the Greatest Country in the World. If you can’t believe that, why were there hundreds at the American consulate while in front of the French consulate, there was no one.
Finally, the beginning --the trip came from a person who has seen the movie “Pay it Forward” one too many times, perhaps. And fellas…Tiger beer and, bah,bah, bah (333) beer are still there and as good as ever at the end of a hot day.
You will not hear this from me too often, but on this occasion—“Thank you,
God, for allowing me to be a citizen of this great country—The United States
of America. Thank you for allowing me to be a soldier in the Army of the United
You will not hear this from me too often, but on this occasion—“Thank you, God, for allowing me to be a citizen of this great country—The United States of America. Thank you for allowing me to be a soldier in the Army of the United States."