40 years on, soldiers recall their own Vietnam
By Mike Wereschagin and Jennifer Reeger | The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review | Published: January 27, 2013
Forty years ago today, representatives of the United States and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords, intended to end the Vietnam War.
But treaties don't end memories. Wars survive in the scars of those who fought.
As one local veteran said, everyone who served had their own Vietnam. It fell to each to make sense of it in the 40 years since the men in Paris agreed to cease firing.
The fall of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon flashed across Michael Pulaski's television in grainy, black-and-white images on April 30, 1975.
The Natrona Heights native felt numb, standing in his home 9,000 miles away from the Southeast Asian country where he served two combat tours. Pulaski enlisted in 1965, when he was 20. He overcame a gunshot in the elbow, and led men into fire - some to their deaths - as an Army lieutenant and then a captain.
"What a ... waste," he thought.
Over the next three decades, Pulaski started a health care consulting business, turning around large health care systems in Atlanta, Washington, Florida and South Dakota.
Still, his distrust of the government lingers.
"It was a different war than we were told it would be. We discovered, just by rubbing elbows with the Vietnamese people - even those within the South Vietnamese government - it wasn't about a communist takeover of Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese people just did not want to be colonized anymore," he said.
Pulaski retired in 2009 and took a trip to Vietnam. He met former Viet Cong fighters who told him they did not hate him, and that he simply answered his country's call like they did.
"All of the chains of guilt I had were gone. It was a release," Pulaski said.
He fell in love with the woman who served as his guide. They bought a house in Tam Ky, where he lives with his doors unlocked.
"There is some residual guilt, in terms of the wrath that I called in on the countryside and the people - naval (artillery), aircraft, gunships, all the stuff we used. I was good at it," Pulaski said. He sees barren swaths of countryside, and children in orphanages with birth defects.
He works with orphanages and brings in medical equipment.
"I like it here very much."
After three years on front lines in Vietnam, Charles Patchin returned home to another battle.
Patchin landed in San Francisco and watched, furious, as protesters targeted a young Navy corpsman who lost a leg to war. They shouted "baby killer" and "murderer," he said.
"What do you say to somebody like that?" said Patchin, 68, of Latrobe. "What do you say to a child who is your age, who is able to protest and call you these vile lies, and is able to say it because you defend that slug's right to do it by offering your life to defend the Constitution of the United States?"
He didn't say much then. Instead, he and some fellow service members started punching the protesters. Police broke up that fight but Patchin's battles continued.
In 1986, the former Army paratrooper became a veterans' services director in Syracuse. He filed benefits claims against the government on behalf of veterans, their survivors and dependents.
Patchin lives with the war's after-effects. He was wounded nine times.
He carries the war with him, in his back and knee pain that came from humping gear through mountains and mud.
Yet, looking back, Patchin would not change his service.
He moved to his wife's hometown of Latrobe when he retired in 2007. He sees amputees from today's wars whose lives were saved by technology developed during Vietnam. He sees veterans getting better care in the VA system because of changes that came about in the system.
"I would not trade those experiences for anything," Patchin said. "There are men that I served with that were the finest in the world. But like everything else there's also the mud and the blood and the wetness and the death. But, yes, I would go back."
On a two-lane highway north of Saigon, Chris Moore found himself on the wrong side of the road.
An Army private leading a convoy of 5-ton dump trucks, Moore sped up to pass a small bus, crammed beyond capacity with Vietnamese, some of whom clung to a rear ladder.
Moore, who towed a 5-ton truck behind his own, drove into the lane for traffic moving in the opposite direction, a common move for American military drivers who were used to Vietnamese making way for their large machines.
But one man on a scooter didn't move. He stopped in Moore's path.
Moore slammed on his breaks and shuddered to a halt, his massive bumper at the height of the scooter driver's head.
"I'm looking down at him, calling him all sorts of (racially) derogatory names. I could see the hatred in his eyes. I can still see it," said Moore, 64, of Stanton Heights.
When he calmed down, he realized the sort of things he hollered weren't all that different from what racists in his native Little Rock yelled at blacks. Moore thought: "I am in this man's country, on the wrong side of the road."
Moore left the country on Jan. 4, 1971, exactly one year after his arrival. In 1980, he settled in Pittsburgh, where he hosts Black Horizons on WQED.
Moore returned to Vietnam in 2006 to find the communist takeover he'd enlisted to prevent undone by capitalism - Kentucky Fried Chicken and cellphones and Toyota Camrys.
"It occurred to me we don't have to export democracy at the butt of a gun. ... All we have to do is export Elvis, blue jeans and fast food," Moore said. He and the two friends with whom he traveled visited orphanages where birth defects blamed on Agent Orange ravaged their third generation.
"It made me feel like it's all a waste," Moore said. "And I'm afraid that 20, 30, 40 years from now, somebody's going to be going back to Baghdad or a city in Afghanistan ... and saying, ‘What the hell was this all about?' "
As Robert Schiffbauer flew out of Da Nang in 1969, he sensed there was more to his Vietnam story to come.
"I knew someday, looking out the plane window, that I would be back," said Schiffbauer, 64, of South Union, Fayette County.
Thirty years after he left the war-torn country, Schiffbauer returned. On one of his 16 trips to Vietnam, he found the woman he would marry.
"Through all that pain and all that suffering and all that destruction, something good could came out of it," Schiffbauer said.
When he first landed in Vietnam in February 1968, Schiffbauer found himself in the middle of the bloody Tet offensive.
In the air on a big, yellow commercial plane, Schiffbauer and his 200 fellow Marines sang the Beatles' song, "Yellow Submarine." But as they approached the airport in Da Nang, the Viet Cong launched rockets at them.
As an intelligence analyst, Schiffbauer was not on the front lines much. But he saw the destruction in places like Hue, which once was Vietnam's capital.
"You could tell there was a lot of history and very unique places that were really devastated by the fighting and bombing," he said.
After the war, as a political science major at the University of Wisconsin, Schiffbauer began soul-searching about Vietnam. He has come to view the war as a failure of the world's leaders to see that the French should not have been allowed to reoccupy Vietnam after World War II, but he has never wavered in his pride of service.
"There's not a day in my life that some thought or memory doesn't go by about the Marine Corps," he said. "It changed my life."
Schiffbauer has dedicated his time to raising money to build schools and clinics in Vietnam.
His trips back have exorcised his demons. His three adult sons have traveled with him.
They have celebrated Tet the way it should be, with food, drink and flowers - not under the rocket fire of 45 years ago.
And he and his wife, Anh, whom he met in a cafe in Vietnam in 2000 and married a year later, send money to help her family. Her mother raised her and her eight siblings alone after their father, a South Vietnamese army officer, was killed in the war.
"We tried to forget Vietnam after we left, but the people there couldn't forget," Schiffbauer said.
Mike Wereschagin and Jennifer Reeger are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Wereschagin can be reached at email@example.com.
Reeger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org