Memories of Vietnam

DLK Vietman
A rare moment in Vietnam

It has been nearly fifty-years since I left the war in Vietnam, but that war has never left me. I carry no outward scars: It’s been years since I ducked for cover when a loud noise erupted near me; since hearing the whirl of helicopter blades filled me with dread; or since fleeting memories of the war interrupted my sleep.

However, I can’t forget the deception — brain washing, if you will — by the American government. I and thousands if not millions of Americans believed we were in Vietnam to save the people from the throes of the Communist North. I thought we would be greeted as saviors; instead we were often treated as intruders. As I mentioned in the second chapter, I felt betrayed then and I still do.

Thankfully, writing and publishing Round Eyes: An American Nurse in Vietnam in 2012, was a cathartic undertaking for me because I was forced to think about things I hadn’t thought of in a long time. Putting it down on paper helped me replace numerous unhappy memories with happy ones. It allowed me to choose what I wanted to remember and gave me permission to discard what I didn’t.

An unexpected, yet welcomed, outcome from my first book was the connection it created between me and other veterans and their families. Speaking in front of book clubs, visiting with veterans of all ages at book signings and talking with young people at schools made me realize how important it was and is to not hide from my experiences, but to share them.

I remember leading a discussion group about being an author at the elementary school my grandson attended. A fourth-grader came up to me at the end and proudly said, “My grand-dad was in Vietnam.” And then another piped up, “My mom is in Afghanistan and she wears combat boots, too.”

I wanted to keep that conversation going. So when faced with the prospect of running out of the 500 printed copies I originally purchased, I had to make a decision. I could remove the print version from Amazon and leave the e-reader format; I could pay a print-on-demand publisher to do a second printing of the original; or I could make the original better.

I chose the latter for several reasons, including reconnecting with Ginny, my former roommate, after the original book hit the market. Always the consummate photographer, she’d discover and then send me a picture from our time in Vietnam. Naturally, that compelled me to dig through my photos and with each picture I found or received from Ginny, the idea of doing a second printing and including our photos grew more compelling.

Additionally, I didn’t want the American War in Vietnam to be limited by what history says about it. Except for a few rusting tanks and revetments, it appears that all traces of the “losing side” of that infamous war have been erased—as if they never existed. Trees have taken back the jungle and bicycles have replaced tanks, jeeps and other military vehicles on the city streets.

U.S. Army Vietnam veteran Ivan Laningham chronicled his reconciliation visit to Vietnam in 2002. In one of his posts he observed:

Over half the population of Việt Nam is under 25. Most people I see and meet on this trip weren’t born when the American War was going on. Most people are new, without the bad taste of war in their minds and mouths; everywhere we go in-country there is new construction and a gaze ahead, not back.

In another post Mr. Laningham described driving past the old National Military Cemetery near Ben Hoa that he used to see on his trips to Cử Chi in 1970. “The cemetery was apparently still there, but the monument was gone. Instead, the communists hung on the [cemetery] gate a board on which people read, ‘Here the False Army soldiers were punished for their crimes’.”

—Laningham, Ivan. (2002) When from our Exile: Ivan in VietNam:

I regret that I never documented the stories my Dad told me about being a medic in WWII, how it felt being part of Patton’s march through Germany and being one of the first to arrive at Dachau. He died and his stories died with him, as did the stories of many of the Greatest Generation.

Unfortunately, stories can’t change the fact that the United States engaged its citizens into a war for all the wrong reasons. But we can change how that combat will be viewed by those that come long after we Baby Boomers become “dust in the wind.”

Personal accounts of the Vietnam War: what it meant, what it was like and how it was perceived by those who were — or weren’t there, for one reason or another — can become more than words or statistics alone. This history becomes humanity.

In the words of Rudyard Kipling, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”