In November, for the second time in six years, members of the Vietnam Veterans of Diablo Valley embarked on a trip to Vietnam to distribute wheelchairs to those in need. And for the second time in six years, it was difficult to tell which group got the most from the experience -- the vets, or those they helped.
"It was a good way for me to go back," said Rich Lambert, of Walnut Creek, who flew helicopters during the Vietnam War. "It was very rewarding and heartwarming."
Partnering with the Danville-based Wheelchair Foundation, as they had in 2006, the 11 veterans (and six spouses) who made the trip distributed 320 new wheelchairs at prescreened locations during their 18-day stay. The chairs had all-terrain wheels to better suit the needs of rural villagers. Sixty were sports wheelchairs.
"There would be people present who it was obvious needed wheelchairs," said Ronald Lowe, of Danville, who returned to Vietnam for the first time since he was an Army infantry captain in 1969. "Some of them were in rickety old wheelchairs. Some were on crutches. We would actually set up the wheelchairs, blowing up the tires. They were local people there to help, and in come cases even the handicapped people pitched in to help."
Lambert, who returned to Vietnam for the first time since the war, recalled meeting two women, both double leg amputees, who struggled to get around on cumbersome, homemade apparatus.
"Seeing both of them getting a wheelchair and their mobility stood out," he said.
The veterans also visited orphanages, where they made monetary donations. When they weren't doing for others, they often were doing for themselves, trying to put their war experience into perspective by locating echoes of their past.
In the case of Danville's Jerry Yahiro, some echoes located him.
Yahiro, 69, was on the 2006 trip, but an excursion to the Central Highlands, where he had served as a mortar platoon leader, was called off at the last minute. He finally made it back in November, finding some of his old fire bases near the Cambodia and Laos borders. At one location, to his surprise:
"The Vietnamese military was having a live fire drill," he said. "I'm thinking, this is not real. It was like they were trying to remind me they were still here. It was a little unnerving."
Yahiro had to look a little harder to find other relics from his time in Vietnam. He saw patches of old runway and found a strand of barbed wire. There was nothing left to see in some spots.
"Jackson Hole, the first fire base I was assigned to, is now a military cemetery for about 5,000 North Vietnamese," he said. "They've taken many of our areas where we were stationed and turned them into a war memorial or a graveyard."
Lowe, 68, a retired Army major general, made a similar discovery when he returned to the once-remote compound where he lived with South Vietnamese soldiers and their families.
"I was pretty sure I found the right place," he said. "Well, it turned out the right place is now a Vietnamese victory monument. There was absolutely no sign of our compound."
With the help of a local carpenter who offered transportation on the back of his motorbike, Lowe was able to locate two churches and a monument he remembered.
Lambert, 69, returned to bases at Can Tho and Ben Thuy to find they had been turned into industrial parks. "There was no airfield or anything left there," he said.
Lambert had hoped to visit southern cities Ca Mau and Nam Can, perhaps even the shallow body of water U.S. troops once referred to as VC Lake, into which his helicopter spun after being shot down by enemy soldiers.
"The closest coordinates we could get were a day and a half, two-day side trip," he said. "People recommended it wasn't worth taking the time."
All three men marveled at the country's growth -- even Yahiro, who had visited Vietnam just six years ago.
"I noticed a lot more private automobiles than in 2006," he said. "Obviously, some people are making money."
Lowe noted the abundance of small businesses. "A little restaurant, a little store, a little something," he said. "That was true in the area where I had served, and it was true on the whole road going out there."
Lowe, who said he had no intention of returning to Vietnam when he left in 1969, was glad he went back.
"It exceeded my expectations," he said. "I went because I was going with friends and I was going for a good cause, with the orphanages and wheelchairs. And I wanted to see the country again. We did all those things."