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Since the end of Vietnam war, many people, Vietnam Vets and "Viet Kieu" have returned to Vietnam. Each of them has many personal reasons for such emotional trip; however, there is a Vietnam Vet who has gone back there not in a search for his own healing or spiritual journey, but to look for and to reassemble the broken pieces of America's conscience that were left behind and forgotten....
The Betrayed, The Neglected
In late February I climbed off a plane in Tan Son Nhut airport, to set foot for the first time in 38 years on the soil of Viet Nam. Many Vietvets have gone back to visit in the last 20 years, some to try to heal themselves, to lay ghosts of their past to rest, to reminisce with other vets on a tour, to show their families where they spent the most intense time of their lives, to enjoy the beauty of the country and its many attractions.
But I did not go halfway around the world for any of those reasons. I survived the war perhaps better than many of us who served there, I was older when I went, had studied the country and the conflict for years, was in some ways more prepared for the experience. And I was lucky, I was in battles, saw men die, lost good friends to the enemy, was wounded myself. But I did not have to endure as much as many others did, and carried home less pain from the war than some others.
There was one pain that only began after I left Viet Nam, and that was the shame that grew over the years after 1968. It was then that I saw the slow abandonment of the Republic of Viet Nam to the might of a massive Northern conscript army equipped by the Soviets with mountains of supplies, while the ARVN supplies ran lower and lower as Congress choked off the flow year by year.
Many vets recall the ARVN as not being a good ally, and in truth South Viet Nam, its government, and its military had many problems. There was poor training and leadership in some units, there was corruption in the upper officer corps, there were even VC sympathizers in the ranks, along with drafted men who were not well motivated to fight. But there were also some really good units, which fought hard, like the Vietnamese Rangers that had part of the line at Khe Sanh beside the Marines.
What only a few US vets realize is how much Tet '68 changed that. The violation of the truce and the atrocities that the attacking communist forces made it really clear what kind of war they were fighting, and sympathy for the VC dropped like a stone. Most Southerners decided that they really did not want to be taken over by the North. No more Buddhist monks burned themselves up in protest of the war. Enlistments for the Vietnamese military went up threefold, training got better, weapons supply from the US got better, corruption and incompetence declined. It took time, but by 1970 when Vietnamization started, it proved possible for the improved ARVN forces to take over the fight as our units left the country, one by one.
And fight they did, there was a major invasion of the South in '72, nothing remotely guerrilla about it, 200,000 NVA regulars with modern tanks, excellent Russian artillery, and antiaircraft missiles. Horrendous battles went on for months, including a siege of An Loc that was like the Alamo, except even though the city was largely overrun, the South Vietnamese soldiers hung on like bulldogs and eventually won the day.
In the end, the NVA divisions retreated back over the DMZ and the border into Laos, having taken an incredible 40% casualties.
But politics in America had undercut support for the war, even the material support we'd promised the South. The ARVN began to run short of spare parts, fuel, medical supplies, and ammunition. They fought on through '73 and '74, with things getting worse month by month. Eventually, what US indecision and weakness had made inevitable did occur, and Saigon fell. With it fell a night of suppression, repression, and vindictiveness as the communists broke every promise to "liberate" the South and offer "reconciliation" to those who had opposed them. Thousands died, hundreds of thousands went to "re-education" camps, other hundreds of thousands went to "New Economic Zones", and the standard of living fell to one of the lowest in all of South East Asia. Hunger was rampant, despair was common, and millions of Vietnamese left the country every way they could, even though the risks of even trying to leave were high, and the risks of the journey included an appreciable chance of death.
This was the fault of my own country, which had not kept all its promises to RVN. And I knew that good people, many, many good people, were paying a heavy price for our failure to support them. Since I could do nothing about it, I tried hard for years to not think about it too much.
But last year, I heard the stories about the RVN soldiers who could not leave Viet Nam, as some others were fortunate enough to do. They are marked for their past patriotic service, and suffer various kinds of discrimination that makes life more difficult. And of these, the worst off are the disabled ones, those veterans who suffered major injuries, lost arms, legs, eyes, hearing, and health. They receive no pension, there are few if any jobs for them, their lives are terribly hard. The thought of this suffering, going on for decade after decade under the revengeful Hanoi government, bothered me greatly and I could no longer avoid thinking about it.
So I went to Saigon, where through the help of some Vietnamese immigrants to the US, I made contact with local people there who would help me do a small survey of disabled RVN veterans.
And over several days I met 21 of these men, saw their military papers, their broken bodies, the tiny apartments or shacks they live in, and heard their stories through an interpreter. One man is blind, missing a leg, deaf in one ear, living all alone in a bare concrete room no bigger than the walk-in closet of a nice house in Raleigh, dependent on friends to keep him from starving.
Another lives with a wife and child in a shack he built in an alleyway, where the authorities could throw them out any time, and scrapes out a very bare living doing repairs on the street to motorbike tires.
Still another is missing both legs just below his hips, has one arm partially paralyzed, cannot speak well any more, and lives in a shack with a scrap metal roof on the edge of the river, with his wife and children taking care of him and selling vegetables from the river to support them all.
I gave away all the money I brought to Viet Nam, and sent home and got more money from my family and some Vietnamese friends and gave that away too. We got one man a wheelchair, another a cart so he can sell lottery tickets, arranged some house repairs for a family whose home was flooding all the time. We gave everyone at least 500,000 dong ($32), which will help them for a little while with food, medicine, maybe some rent. It was not enough, but it was all we could do, and it will help for a while. And the men thanked me, sometimes with tears in their eyes, not only for the money, but as one man (with no legs) said, "We have been forgotten and disgraced in our own country for over 30 years, and now someone comes to see me and try to help. The money is important, we need it badly, but to me it is more important that I am remembered, that somewhere I still have honor."
Those 21 men are just a tiny fraction of all the disabled veterans in the South. Over 2 million men served in the RVN forces, and many thousands of those became disabled. There is no doubt that any search for disabled veterans will find plenty of them, starting around Saigon and then going into the countryside, and into every other city in the South. They are the saddest victims of the war, they and their families have suffered and keep suffering, even more now as they get older and their health declines. I wish I could make the antiwar activists, who were so proud of supporting the North and disrespecting American vets, go and see what they really helped achieve.
I am American and these men are Vietnamese, but we shared in the fight for freedom, and I feel we are related somehow. They are my former allies who are hungry, and sick, and worried every day about how they can go on. I want to help them, and a small charity has been started, called the Vietnam Healing Foundation, to raise some money for them. We will do what I can, and the good news is that a dollar goes a long way in Viet Nam. I will go back again, to find more, and give more help. It will not be enough, but I believe it is an important duty to give something back to these men, the betrayed, the neglected, the forgotten. To make them feel remembered, and recognized for their sacrifice, and to give them another day's food is all so worthwhile that I thank heaven for the chance to do it.
Some have said to me "But what about our brothers right here, the American vets who have problems?". Heaven knows I support them, and want the VA to do as much for all injured and disabled vets as possible. But regardless of how imperfect the VA is, for every American vet just living in this country makes him a thousand times better off than the men I saw in Viet Nam. Sending a few dollars to help those forgotten soldiers will make zero difference to American vets here, but will make an enormous difference to them. Our politicians betrayed the promises made to South Viet Nam, and we cannot fix that. But I can try to make a difference, however tiny, for those men who have been treated so badly for so long.
Do you notice that this letter has been written for American readers? And if you are a Vietnamese, I know what you are thingking... for you are not a bystander. I will post on this page again all information needed for you to send support. By chance, I had the connection with that Vietnam Vet and knew the meaningful activities of his group; but for the reasons we all knew well, we had to keep his name anonymous. For now, you can pass this web page to your friends and so on...
In the past you might hear of different, humanitarian works of Vietnam Vets, unfortunately most of those "charitable" effort had been compromised and carried out openly by the "selective," hypocritical organizations that used to oppose the war. This guy and his Vietnam Vet friends are always on our side since their service in Nam; solid and strong in the same belief as ours of the struggle for the survival and freedom of South Vietnam. If you are interested in giving a helping hand, for more information please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
By the way, the Holiday is around the corner, Merry Christmas to all!
EMAILS AFTER VIETNAM TRIP
People who made charity contribution usually didn't follow up to check on how their donation has been used. And folk who ran charity organization shared the same "habit" for not bothering to report their works.
Remember the Vietnam Vet who wrote an article "THE BETRAYED, THE NEGLECTED?" He (a "cheap" backpack traveler) has just returned from Vietnam (on the mission to help the ARVN disabled Vets ) and sent me many emails that he exchanged with his group during the trip. I consider this is some sort of "report" and extract some interesting parts for you to review.
....Part of the problem may have been exhaustion, we ended up going to the orphanage late yesterday morning, and the kids remembered me from last time; so as soon as I went out to the courtyard area, one beautiful little girl ran up and stuck her arms up to be picked up and thrown around. As soon as her feet left the ground the rest of the kids washed over me like a screaming, wriggling tsunami. I never had fewer than two hanging off me or climbing over me when I sat down to take a breath, and more often had 3-5 of them on me. A half-hour of this will put an Iron Man marathoner into panting, so you can only imagine my condition when the VN man who took me there finally pulled them off me and cleared a path to get to the motorbike so we could leave. (We'd already delivered lots of candy and pastries to be distributed, and an envelope to the nun in charge with a million dong in it to help with any special needs.)
On the one hand, the motorbike took me out of there and the breeze of traveling started to dry my sweaty clothes and body. On the other hand, a 220 lb man riding on the back of a motorbike whose springs and shock absorbers were light duty in the first place, and are now worn out anyhow, going over the uneven, bumpy, and often deeply potholed streets gets the equivalent of a randomly generated series of major kicks in the butt. This is marvelous for the lower back, guaranteed to inflame every strand of tissue there and provoke swelling and sensitized nerve endings that add up to making you move like a 100-yr-old man just released from the flogging post after taking 30 lashes. This is when the idea of taking heavy duty drugs, and lots of them, really becomes attractive. Unfortunately, a limited amount of ibuprofen is all I have with me, so a few of those and a hot shower was all I could do once I managed to climb (more like a controlled fall) off the motorbike and drag myself up to the room.
But I was able to move better then, and had my old friend from last Spring tell me that arrangements had been made for a succession of visits to my room by needy men. (This way I would not attract so much attention as a foreigner in poor neighborhoods.) I had already seen one, the old one-legged Marine who lives in the alley shelter. He has been able, with our help, to cut back on working the streets to repair tires, and can now spend more time helping his wife and children.
Two more came in the afternoon, one of them another amputee, the other the Marine with a chunk out of his skull, one paralyzed arm, and badly impaired leg function. But they dragged themselves up the long stairwell to my room, and we sat and talked a bit, shared some Pepsi, and I forgot all my aches and pains for a while, as being the totally minor things that they are. I gave them their envelopes, and little airline bottles of cognac as a minor Tet gift, and they held onto my hand and thanked our charity, partially in the words the interpreter translated, but more in the grip of their hands, the timbre of their voices, and what was so clearly visible in their eyes.
I could see that my translator, a very young man who knew almost nothing about such men even existing in his society, was being affected a bit by all this. He had started to learn more of the reality of this system. And right after the two men left, he learned more, when we got a phone call that despite all our precautions, somehow some attention from the police had been attracted. So the meetings for the rest of the day were cancelled, until more is known of the situation.
When the dawn comes I will be going to the little church I attended last time, to go to Mass and also deliver to the priest the $150 my parish priest gave me for them. Right now I look forward to that service, to slide into the ritual of the Mass, and pray for peace, strength, and some luck to let us go on with our work. If someone is actually watching me, they will be welcome to make whatever they want of seeing one chunky graybearded white man worshipping in a crowd of Vietnamese.
.....The ride out to the far-away guy is over an hour, into the real countryside. Water buffalo all over, barefoot kids and adults herding them, rutted dirt roads, and the classic amazing range of 1000 shades of green, from the shiny very dark leaves (it's raining, you knew that, right?) of some trees to the almost luminous green shoots of rice just poking up from the brown surface of the paddies, where both colors are in contrast to the snow white cranes that stalk across the paddy looking for prey. We are on the flat plain that ends abruptly at the mountains that tower to our left, with forested sides and again, peaks invisible in the mist. We wonder if we'll ever find the place, but at the point where the road narrows, a young woman waits on her bicycle, clad in one of the super-cheap transparent plastic pullover ponchos people wear against the rain, and waves excitedly at us. She is the blind veteran's daughter, waiting patiently by the side of the road for the car with a foreigner in it to come along. She leads us the last mile to the final bit of path, on the side of which is their house.
Inside they wait for us, the whole extended family, little kids staring and hiding behind their mothers' legs to peek at me, no one comes here, certainly no foreigner has been here since the last US soldiers who had a base in the mountains from which they hunted the NVA filtering down from the north. The blind man is so happy to have us come, we sit, talk, he does English sometimes, he was an officer and worked with Americans, but it's too long now to remember the language. And the affliction that killed his optic nerves required an operation, his skull shows evidence of some sort of brain surgery, and it has had other effects on him.
To my horror, they start bringing out a feast, several dishes of food, a whole chicken (head still on, naturally), but we had lunch before starting this part of the trip, and I can only take two pieces of meat to at least show I am happy to accept their hospitality. For them to do this means lots of money spent, and I wonder if the reduced gifts we're giving to these new people in Hue (I'm running short of money at this point, due to all the expenses) will be enough to pay them back for what they've done. And finally, the old man has his sons pour us little glasses of rice wine, which you have to drink in a toast to the New Year. As I start to take in a swallow of it, I instantly realize that "wine" is a misnomer, this is distilled liquor, at least 90 proof or higher. This is Vietnamese white lightning, and I know that now I can forget about any mouth infections for a while, this stuff has killed every bacterium in my mouth and halfway down my throat. I manage, with great effort, to not choke loudly, and then tell them what great stuff it is, thanks, we really have to go now. He doesn't want us to go, I can see he wants company like the desert wants rain, but we just don't have the time, so regretfully we depart....
Well, here I am with time to kill in Saigon, so I thought what the hell, I know it won't be fun exactly, but may as well go see the War Museum. (Formerly known as the Museum of American Atrocities, but renamed a few years back to be a bit more attractive to the tourists.)
It has several sections placed around a large courtyard, and with lots of big equipment in the courtyard. (A Huey, two fighter jets, spotter plane, two tanks, another armored vehicle, a 175mm cannon, some other artillery, a bunch of bomb casings, etc.) The first hall is the Hall of Historical Truth, and has a lot of pictures from the earliest US involvement in Viet Nam, a lot of charts of how many planes and tanks and rifles and damn near every military supply item you can think of were used in the war or given to the ARVN. It has one wall with all the insignia of major US units serving in country. (Took a snapshot of that.) Then there's a long hallway with a couple hundred pictures from the war, some blown up very large. I looked at the first one and recognized a Larry Burroughs shot that won a prize, and then as I glanced around I recognized more and more of the images. They were all from the major display of war pictures that has been touring the US for the last several years, in fact I helped put them up at the library of the university in downtown Raleigh two years ago. By the end of the display I came across the plaque from some group in Kansas that had contributed the whole display to the museum.
They had a whole wall display of the names of all the commercial photojournalists who died in SE Asia, and I stopped to tell the guide at the desk that it's an incomplete display, since it doesn't list any of the military photographers and correspondents who died there too. She, of course, could have cared less. But I was wearing my old OD Marine cover, and one of the other guides, an older guy with white hair, came up and asked if I was a Marine in the war. He was an interpreter for a US unit in Chu Lai, and ended up at the battle of Hue. Like all the former Southern soldiers, he went off to the camps, but being only an E-6, only had to spend 3 months there. But he couldn't get a job for years afterwards, because of the official discrimination, until finally they wanted people who could speak good English and also French for the museum, and he has worked there since. (And very, very happy to have a regular job after all the years of being very poor.)
I went on to the other halls, where the pictures and stories started going directly to three main themes. These are: terrible effects of napalm and white phosphorous on people, with a bit on flechette wounds and grenade wounds thrown in for good measure; how the bombing of the North damaged residential areas and schools and hospitals (strongly implied to be totally deliberate); and of course, how Agent Orange is responsible for every birth defect, cancer, and skin disease in all of Viet Nam from then right until now.
And not to be forgotten is the big picture of the naked little girl running down the road burned by napalm, but at least it doesn't say it was a US plane or pilot (it was all ARVN, and the bomb hit a bunch of their own troops as well, and there was no US advisor even on scene). I couldn't help myself, opened my big mouth and told the horrified Australian tourists staring at the picture that she now lives in Canada as a refugee. That got me very strange looks, so I shut up and went away. I figured there was no point in mentioning that napalm was used by the NVA to barbecue a whole Montagnard village, and that collateral damage to civilians is a tragic but totally normal part of warfare.
Nor, of course, would pointing out that the 40,000 tons of bombs dropped on Hanoi and Haiphong killed fewer than 1500 people, and less than 2% of the bomb strikes were off target and hit civilian areas, do any good. It's their dance hall and they get to pick the music that's played.
They really outdid themselves on the Agent Orange thing, the displays went on for yards and yards of wall space, lots of jars of deformed fetuses, lots of pictures of kids with birth defects, adults with cancers, etc. No statistics at all, which is the only way you can demonstrate that anything is different from the normal run of birth defects, skin diseases, and cancers that occur in any population. They list birth defects in the north, hundreds of miles from any spray, as AO related.
[Comment- would I say that there are no AO effects on anyone, anywhere? No, certainly not. The final studies indicate a strong possibility of an increase in early diabetes and just maybe prostate cancer, but the contrast between the exposed and unexposed groups is not like between smokers and nonsmokers. Whatever the effects of AO or any other factor in the war, they are not remotely related to what the boys in Hanoi like to claim. It's a basic sucker game to guilt people, the US most of all, into sending more millions to subsidize the fairly lousy state health system they have in Viet Nam. And the assorted tourists buy into it hook, line, and sinker, and it really ticks me off!]
Next came... you guessed it, My Lai. Lots of pictures of that, and a couple of other claimed massacres too, with a big portrait of Bob Kerrey and a list of a bunch of civilians claimed to have been killed by him and his SEAL team in their night raid. I hate the fact that some of these things happened, there is no defending at least a few of the claims of very bad behavior by our guys. The fact that there were comparatively few such crimes and that the policy of the communists was to commit many thousands of assassinations in the villages, not to mention the very organized Hue massacre of several thousand civilians, is never going to register with the assorted Australians, Germans, Italians, French, and others who wander past those displays with staring eyes and shock on their faces.
Thrown in were also some pictures of nasty interrogations, mostly with Vietnamese doing the bad stuff with US guys in the background, but a couple with Americans working on someone. All in all, the 50 yard stroll around that part of the big hall would convince anyone that the Nazis were amateurs compared to the US when it came to being bad guys and hurting innocent people.
There were a bunch of display cases of weapons used in the war, every variety of M-16 you ever heard of, shotguns, a couple of types of bloopers (I only ever saw the original), old French rifles, an M-1, a BAR, a greasegun, etc. Didn't happen to see any pistols.
The second-last building was the "tiger cage" replication, with lots of shots of abused people and sketches of assorted tortures, but if you read closely most of it related to the French and later the South Vietnamese and their interrogation and prison techniques. One mention of an island prison (I never heard of it before) run by the US, where supposedly a lot of the prisoners were badly treated and many died.
And the final building was dedicated to all the support given to Hanoi by antiwar and/or communist groups across the world. Americans featured prominently, but German, French, and every client nation of the old Soviet Bloc (Hungary, Poland, etc, and Cuba too). The picture of John Kerry is no longer on display, last I heard it was taken down somewhere after the beginning of his presidential campaign.
That about did me in, I was very glad to get the hell back out on the street and find my motorbike guy waiting for me.
Oh, and one other thing- from this display you would have almost no idea that any such thing as a South Vietnamese military existed, that they ever fought any battles or had any part of the war. The period of time from late '71 to the fall of Saigon, over three years and hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides, is invisible. They may have changed the name, but this is still essentially the Museum of American Atrocities.
I guess the killer is that I know a majority of the visitors to that museum will go away accepting that what they have seen is all good stuff, rignt on the money, and the legend of the stupid, brutal American behavior in the war will just go on and on. And of course that means they'll be all the more ready to accept whatever the media say about us in Iraq and Afghanistan. The demonization of the US soldiers will continue to be a normal part of the world's view of us. Not for everyone, no, but for far too many. I wish I had a better answer for this.
Anyhow, that's what's there, so if you go to Saigon, save your $1 entry fee, go see a nice temple or something!...
......As to Viet Nam, whether I can continue to visit is now questionable. Being known to the system and bringing unwanted attention to the poor people I visit is not as beneficial as one would wish to be. On the other hand, maybe if I make better arrangements and stick with hired cars and getting out of Saigon quickly to other areas, I could still do some good. The major goal is to find the needy and put the money in their hands that will make their lives easier, but for many of the men it's so very meaningful to see an American vet bring them the help that I would love to keep doing that. Well, it'll be quite a while before I can consider any of that, meantime it's back to fundraising to replenish the charity's bank balance after dispensing several thousand bucks.
Thanks for listening, so to speak. I'm glad if you found any of this of interest. If anyone has any questions, please don't hesitate to let me know.
And when you get up in the morning, always recall that you live in freedom, which, like air, we can take for granted, but would miss terribly if it were no longer ours. God Bless America.
A Vietnam Vet
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Món Nợ Lương Tâm
Chúng ta trốn đi như những tên đào ngũ
Nhưng trên lưng của cải đã chất đầy
Người chiến binh vẫn nằm bên ụ súng
Tạc đạn cuối cùng đành nổ trong tay
Khi những vì sao mọc trên cổ áo
Có khi nào anh tự hỏi vì sao
Ôi những thân người phơi ngoài trận mạc
Những khăn tang vội vả quấn trên đầu
Ta nguyên vẹn từ hình hài răng tóc
Của cải còn từ sợi chỉ cây kim
Khi cả đất trời tự nhiên đổ nát
Biển dâng cao và cả núi non chìm
Con cái ta, những tiên đồng ngọc nữ
Người yêu muôn đời ích tử vượng phu
Ta đang sống ở trong vùng ánh sáng
Mà quê hương vẫn trong đám mây mù
Bọn chúng ta hèn như bầy thỏ đế
Khổ đau chia, khi sung sướng một mình
Lúc lửa đỏ bèn cao bay xa chạy
Còn nghĩ gì nghĩa huynh đệ chi binh
Có những món nợ chưa hề trả được
Ta đã quên hay còn giả vờ quên
Bởi người chết không bao giờ thức dậy
Kẻ sống còn không dại cũng thành điên
Ta nợ những người chết sông chết biển
Nợ những người ở lại để ta đi
Suốt đời ta luôn khôn lanh láu cá
Vẫn nợ biết bao kẻ chẳng được gì
Nợ những người phế binh lê la kiếm sống
Nợ lũ cháu ta liếm lá đầu đường
Nợ những người em thất thân làm đĩ
Nợ nỗi nhục nhằn dày xéo quê hương
Ta còn nợ những nấm mồ thất lạc
Nợ máu xương rải rác giữa đồng hoang
Nợ những mẹ già suốt đời bất hạnh
Đang còng lưng đi mót lúa đầu làng
Ta như kẻ chăn chiên quay đầu chạy
Bỏ mặc bầy chiên cho lũ sói rừng
Ta như tên lái buôn thường biển lận
Mà món hời đã thủ sẵn trong lưng
Ta tự hào cho mình là tốt số
Vẫn thường làm kẻ lội nước đi sau
Thật ra ta chỉ là phường bất nghĩa
Khi có ăn vẫn xếp sẵn hàng đầu!
Ôi những món nợ chẳng hề nhắc đến
Không có người sao ta có hôm nay
Lương tâm ngủ hay lương tâm còn thức
Người đang đêm sao ta lại có ngày
Lúc ta chết vẫn không hề nhắm mắt
Vì nợ nần chưa thức được lương tri
Bao người sống ở dương gian réo gọi
Bao vong hồn đứng đợi ở âm ty?
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