A Tribute to My Vietnam Vet Father

Ho Chi Minh City.

I can’t say that I was exactly nervous in the days before I met my father in Vietnam. He has come a long way since my childhood, when his world suddenly darkened, and he would lose days on end to haunted memories of his war. I remember him from those times, sitting all night in his sadness and a flickering light, drinking the green-label Sierra Nevadas and wearing out our VHS copy of Platoon. But his family and friends know that he has aged well, mellowing with the passing of time.

So, then, not nervous; but I was curious how he would find himself in this country, what it would mean to him to return for the first time after nearly forty years. Our home is the Mattole Valley on northern California’s Lost Coast, where my father runs a modest cattle operation. My mom works in the schools there and also co-founded the Lost Coast Camp with her friend Ellen, which runs every summer in Petrolia.

I arrived in Vietnam a few days before my parents, after a year of living in steaming, teeming Bangkok. I’ve been teaching English in a public school there, as well as studying Thai. The first night that I arrived here in what is officially called Ho Chi Minh City but to locals is still Saigon, I sat in a bar in the backpacker area known as Pham Ngu Lao. As I looked around at the staff-a bunch of smiling, friendly Vietnamese kids in their twenties-I experienced something that might be called a vicarious flashback. I felt myself as my father, and saw these young men as theirs before them: its ’68 and we kill each other. But it lasted only for a moment; a slight, pretty waitress broke through my somber reverie, clinking the scotch in my hand with her Tiger, and shouted what has to be one of the best words for ‘cheers’ in any language: “Yo!”

For most of his time in ‘Nam, my father served in the Iron Triangle, an area to the north of Saigon that buffered the capital from the Cambodian border and a terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He also saw time in the Mekong Delta. He fought in an infantry recon platoon through the Tet Offensive, and survived countless firefights, mortar attacks and ambushes. Many of his brothers were not so lucky. In the twelve months of 1968, his infantry company of ninety young men took 100% casualties, including more than a dozen flag-draped coffins. His war ended when he was shot in the arm after his platoon was ambushed west of the village of Rach Kien, on the eastern edge of the Plain of Reeds, on November 22, 1968.

My folks hired a Vietnamese guide through a friend in the US. Mr. Khanh is maybe five foot eight and strong, with a round face and copper skin. He packs a few extra pounds around his waist, the dividends of a man who enjoys an occasional rich meal and a cold beer. On first impression, he was quiet and polite, with a bright gleam in his eyes. Over the next ten days, we would come to appreciate both the scope of his historical knowledge and his easy friendship. He is the son of a Catholic family originally from the northern city of Hue that fled south after the communist takeover of the North, where Catholics were quite violently persecuted. After 1975 and the fall of Saigon, several of his family members were sent to ‘re-education’ prisons, and he himself fled to a Hong Kong refugee camp as a ‘boat-person.’ He finally returned in 1996, just in time for the economic collapse of the following year. Despite all of this, he remains remarkably upbeat about the future of his country and refuses to dwell on the past. I believe that his presence and this perspective did much to welcome my father and put him at ease.

Mr. Khanh took us on a trip up Highway 13, leading north out of the capital through what was the Iron Triangle. In the war, this was known as “Thunder Road” for the constant rocket attacks on American truck convoys. My father remembered scattered, thatch-roof villages surrounded by rice paddy. Now we saw attractive three story houses, sprawling industrial parks and growing prosperity. Indeed, many of the places he fought in seem to have been swallowed up by the Saigon sprawl. As we drove on, he whistled low or muttered incredulously at all the change swirling around him. He tried over and over to impress upon my mother and I what it used to look like. It wasn’t until close to Lai Khe that the city thinned, and something of what he remembered returned.

Lai Khe was a major air base supporting the First Infantry Division. He told me of a massive camp centered on a paved airstrip and surrounded by concertina wire. During the war, it would have been a flurry of activity. Bombers, attack helicopters, tanks and APC’s, artillery batteries and bunkers; thousands of fighting men, and thousands more of the ever-clean officers pejoratively called REMF’s by the front-line GI’s. Poor southern white boys, urban blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics and Hawaian islanders, thrown together into units that became closer than family. There were mess halls and a hospital, and the men and women to run them. There were USO shows and banks of diesel generators and nightly mortar attacks. And there was the inevitable Vietnamese town that sprung up on its edge, full of the laundries, bars, whorehouses, hawkers and peddlers of all kinds that such camps draw.

And now: virtually nothing remains. The government planted a vast rubber-tree plantation atop its ruins. Under the deep shadows those trees cast, we found a brief section of crumbling pavement that Mr. Khanh told us once was part of the airstrip. There were a few large permanent bunkers still standing, like the legs of Ozymandias, though hard-up locals had broken up the concrete in places to sell the re-bar. Beyond that: red earth, rice, mango trees, peppercorn vines and barefooted country kids.

My father volunteered. His motivations were mixed: a tradition of military service in my family extends back to the earliest years of our Republic, and he honored this as well as his blue-collar patriotism. Together with wanderlust, the GI bill, and undoubtedly some 20-year-old machismo, he went willingly while millions of his peers sought student deferrments, burned their draft cards or emigrated to Canada. But by the time he returned home his outlook had changed. He carried a Purple Heart, the gear and identity papers of a dead NVA officer he’d killed, and a lifetime’s worth of internal conflict wrought by a growing recognition that he and his brothers had been used and then abandoned.

At the start, my father was not unlike so many of my generation who have volunteered to fight this new war in Muslim lands. They mostly believe in what America is doing over there, and believe what our leaders tell them. But very few of these leaders ever saw war themselves. When my parents go to protests to stop this war, he wears his military decorations with both sadness and pride.

Together with Mr. Khanh, we visited the war museum in Saigon. Its walls are covered now with a photographic dedication to the many journalists who died during the conflict. The pictures tell tragic stories; their truths are impervious to the propaganda that at times composed their captions. They showed boys from both sides blown to pieces. They showed the mud and blood and terror that is war. War reveals humanity’s fundamental bipolarity-in the face of such unspeakable carnage and barbarism our greatest qualities surface: a picture of a blown out crater and two men down in the mud, one with most of his torso gone and dying, and the other holding his hand in comforting love. At some point on the tour, somewhere between these pictures and the display case of Soviet-made 82mm mortar tubes, my father disappeared. I found him later, sitting in the shade outside, his head down in one hand and his other holding his straw hat. All around him, tourists from a dozen countries swarmed about the tanks and artillery pieces, chattering and snapping photos, as the Vietnamese peddled over-priced bottles of water, postcards and chewing gum.

I’ve heard many people speak of a veteran’s return leading to something called ‘closure’. If there even is such a thing, I doubt that my father will ever find it. He will never forget the faces of the men around him who died, or that he killed other men. But that day in Saigon, he brought the identity papers with him. They were of a young man he always told us was a hero, though an enemy. He was an NVA officer, perhaps twenty-five like me. His unit was overrun and my dad and several other Americans pinned him down on a day in March of ’68. They shouted at him in pidgin Vietnamese to give himself up. Instead he stood and fired and killed and then died himself. He was buried along with the rest of the enemy in an unmarked grave.

At first, I think my father carried his things like trophies; I know that over time they came to hang from his neck like a karmic weight. So we sat in an air-conditioned room with the director of the museum, who works with a Vietnamese project that identifies missing soldiers. My father spoke to him gravely, through our friend Khanh, and told him his story. He spoke of the man’s courage under fire and the feeling of respect that fighting men develop for their enemies. He gave him the identity papers, including a picture of a dark strong face with a military haircut. This director said that, by the insignia on his uniform, he could tell what NVA unit he’d fought in, and thus where he came from in Vietnam. Perhaps an anonymous family in the far north will finally learn of their fallen son’s resting place, and perform the rites and rituals he was denied. We all shook hands.

We walked out again, slowly, into the Saigon inferno. My folks held each other, and I walked just behind. There was no profound change in the world, or in his face: only that he now has fresh, warmer memories of this place so long synonymous with hell to seed atop the scars in his mind. I walked feeling blessed to be a part of this journey of return, and with the sense that I’ve never been closer to understanding my father.

BEN BROWN teaches in Ho Chi Minh City. He can be reached at aminbrown@gmail.com