COLUMN ONE : Veterans Find Peace in Vietnam : Revisiting battlefields, they receive the welcome they missed at home. But U.S. law bars such trips and the veterans say that policy impedes the healing of psychic wounds.
According to Ed Greene’s tally, he shot more than 20 Vietnamese children about the time of the 1968 Tet offensive. He was afraid that the Viet Cong had strapped explosives to their bodies.
He came home to Ohio, but so did the war. He flew into rages, he had nightmares, he became withdrawn, he tried to kill himself.
Then, in January, the 41-year-old ex-Marine and 24 fellow veterans went back to Vietnam on a three-week trip organized by a Vietnam Veterans of America group. The experience was a revelation.
Greene had expected to find that the Vietnamese hated him for the killing, the napalm, the Agent Orange and the B-52 strikes. Instead, he and his companions were treated with the kind of warmth and dignity he had missed from his fellow Americans when he returned to a bitterly divided nation 22 years earlier.
For the first time since his tour of duty, Greene said, he felt his emotions welling up. He realized that he had suppressed his feelings to survive Vietnam and its long aftermath. Day by day, he found that the open arms and smiling faces of the Vietnamese were restoring his sense of self-worth.
“If they could forgive,” he said, “then we could forgive ourselves.”
Yet for all the benefits for Greene and others like him, such trips have become entangled in conflict and controversy, reflecting continued tensions between the United States and Vietnam and the bitterness over the war that lingers in this country even now. Indeed, 15 years after the last Marines boarded helicopters on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, trips such as the one Greene took are illegal.
Refusing to restore normal diplomatic and commercial relations with the Communist government of Hanoi, the United States has maintained a trade embargo against Vietnam. Despite their small scale, the organized return trips are forbidden because they ostensibly could provide Vietnam with a tourism windfall.
Critics of U.S. policy, including veterans who have returned to Vietnam, assert that America’s determination to wage diplomatic and economic war against Hanoi is impeding the healing of psychic wounds at home.
“Twenty years ago our government sent these men to fight in Vietnam,” declared Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City). “Today, it denies them the emotional comfort to return to the battlefields where their friends and comrades died.”
Greene is one of more than 160 veterans who have made similar journeys since 1987 under the auspices of the Return Trip Committee of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Others, too, say that they found something akin to a separate peace.
Under the Trading with the Enemy Act, however, while an individual can visit Vietnam on his own, anyone who engages in “arranging, promoting or facilitating” such a trip faces a maximum $50,000 fine and 10 years in prison. The Department of the Treasury warned the VVA’s Return Trip Committee last year “to immediately terminate performing any activities involving travel tours to Vietnam” or face possible prosecution.
Three presidential administrations have insisted that Vietnam meet specific conditions before relations between the two countries can become normal. These include permanently withdrawing all troops from Cambodia, allowing Amerasian children to leave Vietnam, releasing all political prisoners and accounting for Americans missing in action or held captive.
Vietnam maintains that it has met these demands. But, despite documented progress, the Bush Administration has remained unsatisfied.
Would Lift Ban
Berman is sponsoring legislation that would lift the travel ban, a possible first step toward normal relations. Veterans around the country have written to support the proposal, expected to be considered by the House Foreign Affairs Committee this summer.
Berman wants to remove the President’s authority to impose travel bans on embargoed nations unless American lives would be at risk. The new policy would affect travel to Cuba, Cambodia and North Korea in addition to Vietnam.
Advocates of the change have called attention to the role that exposure to Americans and Western democratic ideas played in the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. If Washington truly wants to export democracy, they argue, it should encourage rather than prohibit such contacts.
But the Administration strongly opposes the proposal, emphasizing its potential benefits to Cuba.
“The purpose of travel restrictions is simple: to deny the target country the hard currency revenues that travel would produce,” Christopher G. Hankin, deputy assistant secretary of state, testified at a congressional hearing earlier this year. Berman’s bill, he said, would undermine an “economic embargo on an unfriendly nation.”
Nevertheless, reluctant to press the issue with Vietnam veterans, the Treasury Department has indicated to the VVA Return Trip Committee that it would consider licensing the trips under a provision of the law that allows educational researchers, filmmakers, journalists and relatives of residents to undertake organized travel to embargoed countries.
The committee leaders, however, have rejected such an arrangement, which would require additional paper work and documentation. They note that earlier veterans were allowed to return to the battlefields of World War I and World War II without licenses.
The organizers say that they intend to continue arranging the trips--groups are scheduled to go in August and November--in defiance of the Administration.
These veterans are, in effect, engaging in civil disobedience.
“At first, I just wanted them to leave me alone,” said Don Mills, the intense, gray-bearded Return Committee chairman. “Now, I say, ‘Change the law.’ . . . .It irritates me to have them accuse me of aiding the enemy. I don’t look at the Vietnamese as the enemy. The war’s over.”
Mills, 47, a United Auto Workers activist from Akron, Ohio, first returned to Vietnam in 1984 as part of a VVA delegation that discussed repatriating Amerasian children, accounting for MIAs and POWs and studying the effects of Agent Orange. The VVA, which has 37,000 members, has called for re-establishing low-level diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam.
Mills and another veteran from Akron started the trips in 1987 after Mills was struck by the interest others expressed in post-war Vietnam. Various groups nationwide have sent veterans back to Vietnam, but none as regularly as the Return Trip Committee, which has arranged eight trips. About 40 Vietnamese-Americans, journalists and others have joined the veterans on the twice-yearly trips.
Simply seeing Vietnamese going about the routines of daily life--farmers in lush green rice fields, peasant women at the market, youths riding water buffaloes, city residents scurrying about on bicycles--has been reassuring to some guilt-ridden veterans. Some say they find it invigorating just to be back in Vietnam, impoverished but bustling with 65 million people, without being shot at.
The most profound discovery for many veterans has been the apparent lack of resentment by the Vietnamese for the destruction inflicted by the United States. Given the deep divisions the war caused in America, veterans have been impressed by how quickly the Vietnamese seem to have put it behind them.
“They couldn’t believe our preoccupation with it,” said Mike Cerre, a San Francisco television producer and former Marine air reconnaissance officer. “They said: ‘It’s over, it’s history. Get on with your lives. We are.’ ”
“Everywhere we went, as soon as they knew we were Vietnam vets, people wanted to come up and talk to us and shake our hands,” said Greene, who borrowed money to make the trip after hearing other veterans discuss the solace they found on such journeys. “These people had the greatest respect for us. Their attitude was that we were soldiers. We just happened to be on the other side.”
Some of the veterans gained new perspective about the decade-long U.S. involvement in Indochina during a visit to the war museum in Hanoi. There they learned, for the first time, about Vietnam’s 4,000 years of conflict with the Chinese and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
“We were very firmly impressed with the fact that we will probably barely rate a footnote in Vietnamese history even though (the war) was such a profound thing in our lives,” Cerre said. “We were amazed by how quickly they had almost already forgotten us.”
That realization was all the more striking given the war’s casualty figures. Overall, 220,357 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed and at least 499,000 wounded; North Vietnamese and Viet Cong battlefield fatalities were estimated at 440,000. Hundreds of thousands of civilians also died. That compares with 58,153 American dead and 303,700 wounded.
The casualty figures, however, do not reflect the psychological toll that the conflict continues to exact among U.S. veterans. This still-raging war within motivates many to return.
“Mostly they feel they can fill a void by going back there to get some answers,” said John P. Myers Sr., the fellow veteran who organizes the return trips with Mills. “There’s something missing: ‘I have to go back there to find what’s missing here. I have to go back to find something I left there.’ ”
Whatever the motivation, Myers said that the most valuable thing many veterans take home is “replacement images” of Vietnam to supplant those of fire fights, mortar fire and foxholes.
“They don’t forget the previous experience, but it’s not the first thing that comes to their minds,” he said. Or, as one participant observed, returning veterans can “write their own final chapter on the war.”
Helps Relieve Stress
Dr. Matthew J. Friedman, executive director of the Veterans Affairs Department’s National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, said that the concept of image replacement is important in the treatment of all post-dramatic stress patients.
“One goal in treatment is to revisit that trauma in the safety of the therapeutic environment and begin to integrate that experience and go on with life,” Friedman said. “The ultimate way of facilitating that process is to return to the scene of the trauma and to have new images of the place. The image isn’t just of seeing a peaceful Vietnamese village where there was a terrible battle 20 years ago, but also seeing themselves as different and their own response to that situation as having changed over 20 years.”
A congressionally mandated study by North Carolina’s Research Triangle Institute found that about 479,000 of the 3.1 million Americans who served in Vietnam are afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is characterized by persistent nightmares, anger, self-destructiveness, drug and alcohol abuse, shame and violent behavior.
Not all of those who make return trips suffer from the disorder, but many who have been plagued by such symptoms say that nothing has been as therapeutic as going back.
Joseph La Fatch, 42, a former paratrooper from Akron who was twice wounded, recalled his guide’s reaction when he learned that La Fatch served in an airborne division.
“American airborne throw hand grenades at my squad,” the ex-Viet Cong soldier said. “Kill five of my men and wound me. Maybe you?” Then he broke into a big smile. “The war is over. We talk. Have dialogue. It’s better than hand grenade, no?”
Then, La Fatch said, the guide told him: “If all Americans were like you, we would not have won.”
“You know how nice it was to hear that after not hearing it from Americans? You have to go over there 23 years later and have one of them say that to you. That was the most moving thing that happened,” La Fatch said.
During a 1987 trip, the veterans found themselves on a Russian-built commuter plane with Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary Vietnamese Communist commander who had surmounted both the superior French and American forces. As Beatles music played over the intercom (“I believe in yesterday . . . "), the elderly Giap made his way through the cabin. He shook hands with each of his former foes, including Bill Fero, a wheelchair-bound Wisconsin veteran of the 173rd Airborne Brigade who lost both legs in the war. Fero began to cry.
“Everyone was holding back tears,” Cerre recalled. “This guy really was the enemy.”
One leading advocate of abandoning the group travel ban is Greg Kleven, a former Marine from Concord, Calif., who was known as “Sweet Pea” because of his round, boyish face when he first went to Vietnam as a gung-ho 18-year-old.
Kleven was seriously wounded and partly disabled by a bullet that lodged in his back during a reconnaissance mission in 1967. He went home to Oakland, where he suffered combat flashbacks during the day and horrifying war-related dreams at night. He drifted through his job as a postal clerk, never discussing Vietnam, even though it was constantly on his mind.
As a Marine, he said, “the only contact I had with Vietnamese, other than shooting them, was when they came in to cut our hair and do our laundry.”
Kleven, now 41, made his first return trip in 1988. As he flew into Danang, he was able to see Vietnam in a way that was impossible during the war.
“The sharp blue of the water, the white, white beach, the green peninsula sticking out--it all seemed to fit so perfect,” he said. “The impression I got was that this was going to be a country in total shambles. But Vietnam was alive and well. It was moving.”
Kleven befriended villagers near China Beach, exchanging toasts and music. He carried gifts and videotapes between a Vietnamese woman in Concord and the family she had left behind.
He has been back twice since then and plans to go on each future VVA trip. He and a friend have started a veterans newsletter, “Vietnam Echos.” After 20 years of going through the motions, he said he finally has taken control of his life again.
In an open letter he wrote earlier this year, Kleven said that the real value of the return trips is the opportunity they provide for veterans to go back together. That experience would be lost if they went individually, as authorized under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
“The idea of going to Vietnam is intimidating; the idea of going alone is worse. During the war we stuck together and helped each other survive. The Return Trip Committee gives you hands to hold and shoulders to lean on,” Kleven wrote.
“If we are trading with the enemy, then what are we getting in exchange? For my own hard-earned dollar, I am getting a new lease on life. A return trip to Vietnam can be like finding the missing piece of the puzzle. . . . For some, a return trip could be a last resort.”