HUE, Vietnam — Whenever Army Maj. Yancy Baer deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan — and when he came home the last time in 2009 to face the amputation of a leg — Vietnam veterans were always there to greet him and lend their support.
Baer is now returning the favor. He and six other cyclists, including three other wounded Afghanistan and Iraq war vets, completed a 320-mile journey earlier this month through the former battlefields of central Vietnam.
Their mission: to raise money for Vietnam veterans who want to return to this southeast Asian country for the first time since the war but can’t afford to make the trip.
“If it wasn’t for Vietnam vets standing up and lobbying for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, I truly believe we wouldn’t have the care or the warm homecoming that most of us have experienced,” said Baer, 42, of Choctaw, Okla. “It’s a shame their generation didn’t support them the same way.”
Baer lost his left leg below the knee after a noncombat injury in Iraq in 2009. He rode on the bike trip alongside Army Sgt. 1st Class Gabe Monreal, who had his left leg amputated below the knee after a firefight in Afghanistan in 2010. The two buddies met during rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Baer plans to retire soon. Monreal remains on active duty.
“The Vietnam veterans are doing stuff for us all the time,” said Monreal, 37, of Corpus Christi, Texas. “We are so spoiled. The support is incredible.”
The cyclists, who rode on behalf of San Antonio-based Operation Comfort, raised $170,000 in corporate sponsorships and personal donations. The money will be used to send at least 25 Vietnam veterans back to the country next year.
The cyclists pedaled up and down mountains in unforgiving heat and rain, along winding roads through cities and villages, rice paddies and jungles, where the vestiges of a war that ended 40 years ago still linger.
Six days later, they ended their journey April 6 in the former imperial capital of Hue, where one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles was fought in 1968. They flew home from Hanoi a few days later.
Thirty riders from the United Kingdom’s Help for Heroes, some of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, also participated in the ride.
Among the American contingent were Army Sgt. 1st Class David “Kaweka” Lau, 39, of Olympia, Wash., and Capt. Chris Rosebrock, 28, of Chicago. Their trip coincided with the day two years ago when a suicide bomber struck their foot patrol in Afghanistan, severely wounding both men. The blast killed three other American troops, five Afghan police officers, an interpreter and 11 civilians.
Lau nearly lost his right leg at the hip, but doctors managed to save it. A piece of shrapnel nicked Rosebrock’s femoral artery and he almost died. In many ways, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam are the same for those who fought in them, said Lau, who’s also set to retire. Those who survive, he added, face the same gut-wrenching questions, such as “Why did I make it home?”
“It’s deep. It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “Even though their war was 40 years before ours, to sit and talk to them, it’s like talking to a guy who just fought in Afghanistan.”
Despite his own traumatic experience, Rosebrock said he’d gained a deeper appreciation for the rigors that American combat troops faced in Vietnam.
“It gave me a unique perspective of what these guys fought in,” he said. “Because I’m trying to get up a hill on my bike, and scouring for shade for a second, and I look across into this thick brush, and I thought, ‘How did these guys fight in this?’ ”
John O’Connell was the only Vietnam veteran to make the ride. He served as a Marine Corps infantry lieutenant along the demilitarized zone during the bloody year of 1969. He’d never planned to return to Vietnam, but after working with today’s younger veterans, he eventually changed his mind.
O’Connell taught Baer and Monreal how to surf a few years ago in California. Now they, along with Lau and Rosebrock, have helped him achieve the closure that had eluded him for decades.
“I didn’t know what I was going to face here,” said O’Connell, 67, a retired Los Angeles Police Department captain who lives in Shell Beach, Calif. “There were so many bad memories.”
The cyclists passed through some of the places where O’Connell had fought. He remembered being with his Marines: the ones he lost, the ones who are still alive, all of whom he still loves.
“Once we got out to Khe Sanh, it really hit me,” O’Connell said. “I yelled out, ‘My God, I’m back home again.’ ”
“When we got to the Rockpile,” he added — a mountain that U.S. troops had used as an artillery and observation post — “I actually felt a shot of joy in my heart.”
O’Connell led a prayer near a spot where some of his men were killed 45 years ago.
“It was like a final farewell,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “I’m going away grateful for having come back to Vietnam, and I am grateful for having come back with guys like these.”
Reed and Brown are McClatchy special correspondents based in Vietnam.