Decades later, vet goes back to Vietnam for good
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 10, 2016
NHA TRANG, Vietnam — Michael Cull is sipping a smoothie on a beach deck at the Sailing Club, sitting in nearly the same spot he did as a soldier 50 years ago.
He came to Nha Trang Beach for breaks during his tour from 1966-1967 at Camp McDermott, a couple of miles south.
Decades later, he came back for good.
“The way the mountains fall into the sea, the greenery — I’ve never seen so much beauty,” Cull said. “It’s a place of peace.”
Although there are a handful of war veteran communities in Vietnam today, particularly in Da Nang, Cull may be the only regular resident of Nha Trang, in the country’s south.
Nha Trang’s natural beauty has long been noticed by the rest of the world. The French built resorts here during the colonial period; afterward, the U.S. used it for recreation.
By the 2000s, Russian tourists descended en masse and the city’s streets remain full of Russian restaurants and signs, though fewer of them have lasted since Russia’s economic downturn.
A mix of Westerners and Chinese come to buy silk, dive at a nearby marine park and enjoy the generally calm waters along miles of sandy coastline.
For Cull, Nha Trang was a welcome respite from the shabby camp tents and job stress of helping servicemembers recover from “combat fatigue” — or what is now commonly called post-traumatic stress.
Cull joined the Army in 1964 and by 1966 volunteered for a command he knew would be going to Vietnam.
“In those days it wasn’t too dangerous, but you didn’t know where you’d end up,” he said.
Other than a mortar attack during Tet, the Nha Trang area itself remained relatively safe then for the commands in the area, which included the 5th Special Forces Group, a consulate and the covert Air America program.
Cull worked at 8th Field Hospital, where he treated servicemembers who had been in far more dangerous places and who couldn’t always overcome the psychological toll.
“A guy [killed himself] right behind my tent,” Cull said. “After that, I couldn’t wait to get out of here. “
After his discharge, Cull worked as a longshoreman in Jersey City while using the GI bill to finish his college degree.
His doubts about the war continued to grow, but he never said anything until he saw a few workers on the docks celebrating the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
King’s death fueled Cull’s desire to speak out for change. He publicly came out against the war soon afterward.
However, Cull’s antiwar feelings never extended to its fighters. Cull said he spent much of his career at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Alaska, helping veterans cope with the war’s aftermath.
When Cull first returned to Nha Trang in 1998 as a tourist, there was only one hotel. The country was struggling its way out of poverty. But as he wandered the streets, he fell for the place.
“It really proved to be as beautiful as I expected,” Cull said. “The people were so warm and welcoming.”
He began raising funds for veterans to return, delighting in the reactions of his former comrades as moments of smiles and serenity co-opted the images of war that represented Vietnam for so many, for so long.
Cull moved to Nha Trang in 2008, and he has a Vietnamese wife and a son.
Vietnam still has its struggles; although millions have risen above the poverty line during the past two decades, it is still a developing nation. International human rights point to imprisonment over freedom of expression and worship as ongoing issues.
That said, Vietnam has grown generally pro-American, as evidenced by a visit from President Barack Obama earlier this year. It is also one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
“This country is a miracle,” Cull said. “To see what they’ve done in a short period of time is amazing to me.”