Return to Vietnam – Part I
World War II is still very much alive in our media and our consciousness, as I’ve noted in recent blog posts. But one of that war’s offspring, the Vietnam War, hasn’t gone away either. Six decades after it began for Americans, that war too lives on in much the same way. This past April 30 marked an important date in both wars. On that day seventy years ago, in 1945, Hitler killed himself and effectively ended the Second World War. And on that day 40 years ago, in 1975, the North Vietnamese Army took Saigon and ended the divisive Vietnam War. A flurry of news reports and documentaries commemorated the latter anniversary date, but I had time to watch only one. That was because I was about to commemorate the war’s end in a more vivid and personal way. By coincidence, my first return to Vietnam since serving there both in a base camp and as an infantryman occurred just days after this significant date.
Like many Vietnam vets, I had often pondered going back. I suppose the appeal was a combination of satisfying my curiosity, finding some sort of validation for my wartime service, and seeking closure. The latter, I knew, stemmed from departing “the Nam” too abruptly in 1971. A short two weeks after my medevac extraction from a jungle clearing, I found myself “back in the world.” The suddenness robbed me of the opportunity to say farewell to my buddies and left me grappling with culture shock.
“In my mind the familiar names still came with asterisks noting the previous realities, but clearly Vietnam had moved on.”
Forty-four years hence, as the date of my second arrival in Vietnam approached, my apprehension grew. Cu Chi, Tay Ninh, Danang, Nha Trang, Dalat—all towns or cities, but my mind still wanted to render them as the wartime base camps that had taken on their names. However, I needn’t have fretted. Once my feet were on the ground and my senses absorbed the absence of helicopters, razor wire, sandbagged bunkers, and the boom of firing artillery, my apprehension dissipated. In my mind the familiar names still came with asterisks noting the previous realities, but clearly Vietnam had moved on. And so had I. However, as I soon learned, moving on didn’t mean Vietnam and the Vietnamese weren’t struggling with a different enemy.
—To be continued—