Return to Vietnam brings mixed feelings for US veterans

Motorcycles and scooters are as plentiful in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) as they were when U.S. veterans served there, but helmets are now required.


By HOLLY ZACHARIAH | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: September 17, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — The Vietnamese guide drove the sedan through the countryside, carrying the two Americans toward the village of Ban Don and taking former Army Capt. Michael Close nearer to the spot where he spent three of the most harrowing nights of his life.

Close crashed his U1 Otter airplane somewhere in the Central Highlands during the war. The other two men on the small aircraft survived and were airlifted out, but as the pilot, Close had to stay behind to protect his plane. He hunkered down in a concrete bunker with some Special Forces troops — Viet Cong tanks rumbling the ground around them — as he waited for help to come.

More than 42 years had passed since those August days in 1969, but Close was sure he could find the old airstrip if given the chance. He wanted to go back.

In 2012, as he and his wife prepared to leave on a 15-day trip through Vietnam, specifically visiting the parts of the country Close had seen while piloting missions with the Army's 5th Special Forces Group in 1969 and 1970, he wrote a single sentence on a page of the journal a friend gave him for the journey: "Is this trip a good idea or a bad idea?"

He simply wasn't sure.

Difficult memories

Some 6.6 million Vietnam-era U.S. veterans are alive today, yet few among them have or will ever revisit the country where they fought. Many don't want to because they've long ago moved on. Some don't have the inclination or the means. Others think they could not bear it.

"It is difficult to get the public to understand how complex the psychological matrix is of the Vietnam veteran," said Dr. Ed Tik, an author and psychotherapist who has been working with veterans and treating post-traumatic stress disorder for more than 40 years. "As a community, as a country, as veterans, the United States has never faced its wounds from the Vietnam War."

Tik is the co-founder of Soldier's Heart, an organization that, among other things, takes veterans back to Vietnam. He will lead his 17th such trip in November. (Close and his wife, Chris, went alone on a privately arranged tour, not with Soldier's Heart.)

Most veterans return to learn, to understand, to share and to heal, Tik said.

"We wanted to encounter the former enemy and turn them into our friends," Tik said. "Trauma is from frozen war consciousness. The veteran's mind is still operating in a war zone even though it is over. We need to change the imagery our veterans are carrying."

He hopes that a much-needed national conversation about healing begins Sunday night with the start of the much-anticipated, 10-episode, 18-hour documentary, "The Vietnam War," by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It airs in the Columbus market on WOSU-TV (Channel 34) beginning at 8 p.m. and runs almost nightly through Sept. 28. It will rerun on consecutive Tuesdays starting Oct. 3.

"I pray this series will tear us open," Tik said. "I hope our country has enough wisdom and compassion to deal with the wounds it opens. We need a profound discussion about the war."

A different Vietnam

Not all who revisit Vietnam are suffering. The reasons to return, experts say, are as varied as individual experiences.

Close counts himself among the lucky ones. He went into the Army as an officer through OSU's ROTC program. As a pilot, he didn't trudge through the jungles like so many others.

"My experience in Vietnam was hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror," Close said. "The grunts? They were the heroes. Not me. Never me."

He is 73 now, and, after his military service he went on to become a Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge, an appellate court judge and mayor of Dublin. These days, he is managing partner at Isaac Wiles law firm Downtown.

Other than hearing loss and a sadness for fallen comrades, Close left the service with little baggage. He exorcised what few ghosts he had with two cathartic moments in the 1980s: a trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and, a couple of years later, an all-night session with a bottle and a buddy after they had watched the iconic movie "Platoon."

Nevertheless, Close acknowledges that few escape such experiences without at least one scar.

"If you see war firsthand, you know there's no glory in it," he said. "You learn to admire the courage. You learn to admire the bravery. But you don't admire the war. Frankly, I came home and moved on to a blessed life."

A friend had suggested the trip back because he had his own war wounds yet to heal. When a sudden health problem prevented the friend from going, the Closes decided to press on alone.

What they found surprised them. There are scars, yes. Wounded and maimed Vietnamese soldiers. A population born with deformities from the chemicals of war. Unexploded mines left across the country that still damage and destroy. Unchecked poverty. Lacking infrastructure. Too many orphanages.

Yet many vestiges of the war are gone.

Vietnam is a largely peaceful land, mostly Buddhist. Much of it is green and beautiful, recovered from the deforestation by Agent Orange.

As he traced his path through what was known during the war as ll Corps — from what was then South Vietnam and Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) north toward Kon Tom — it took him through the Central Highlands and Ban Don, the area where he spent those awful nights all those decades ago.

An old mountain man directed them to where the airstrip used to be.

When Close crashed there, it was jungle. Now, it's 20,000 acres of tapioca fields. Only the shell of one bunker remained, covered in scrub. Close ran his hands along the concrete, remembering for a moment a different time. They paused, and Chris Close snapped a photo of her husband.

He explored a bit. Unrealistic, he knew, but he had hoped maybe to come across something tactile. A piece of steel from his plane, a broken instrument, a sign that he'd been there.


So next came a trip to Dak To.

"If the war ever ended for me in my mind, it ended there," he said. "The last time I saw that city, it had been bombed to the Dark Ages. Nothing left. But when we went back, it was rebuilt, vibrant.

"You go to see what you remember, and it's all gone. Changed. For us, we can't go back again because Vietnam is not as we left it. That's a good thing."

Remaking memories

Sometimes, a trip isn't just a trip for you. Sometimes, a trip is for everyone else.

And so it was in 1998 when Dispatch columnist Mike Harden and photojournalist Tim Revell, both former Navy corpsmen in the war, returned for a 16-day trip.

"We went as journalists. I went to show people that country through a camera," said Revell, now 71 and retired from the Dispatch since 2007. Harden died in 2010. "We wanted people to understand."

Personally, though, the trip unearthed feelings he long thought buried.

Revell had never made landfall in Vietnam; he served his stint in 1968 aboard the USS Annapolis, a communications ship patrolling the waters of the region. There were tense moments, certainly, and fear. But largely, from the decks of the ship, the fighting on land was a fireworks show.

Yet so many men were lost. Names he recognized, faces he knew.

Revell's musty-smelling, hand-size journal chronicling his time aboard the ship carries an entry from January 1969 after he received word that a friend and former roommate at the Naval Academy, where he had worked in the hospital before deployment, had been killed in battle.

"This was a shock for me," he wrote. "You both leave for a war. And now one is coming back. Which one could have been the better person and the more enterprising ... and the one with the potential."

Seeing Vietnam for the first time, photographing the maimed former soldiers, the poverty, visiting the children in too many orphanages, Revell said it got to him more than he expected. It reminded him too much of old friends, of the sailors and soldiers and Marines who came back less than when they left, those who never returned home at all.

He felt like he and Harden made that trip for them. For everyone. He felt like he could maybe replace in this country's collective mind's eyes some of those old images, the horrific ones.

"The guys I knew who were lost. I felt like they were looking down saying, 'Take some great pictures, Tim,'" he said. "We felt that we had to cover this story, veterans knew what it was like then. We wanted them to see it now."


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