He was just 18, a restless kid raised on John Wayne movies who signed on with Uncle Sam, saw a real war, then came home carrying a single image that haunted him like a ghost.
For Richard Luttrell, it all began the day he was trekking up a mountainous trail in a place called Chu Lai. That’s when he spotted him, the first enemy soldier he’d seen eye to eye. He was only 30 feet away, bent over in dense brush, pointing his AK-47 at Luttrell from above.
The two soldiers locked eyes. Neither spoke. Seconds passed. Luttrell’s feet seemed forever frozen in that one spot.
Then he made the first move. He emptied the clip of his M-16, the staccato sputtering of bullets shattering the silent stalemate.
Afterward, some guys in Luttrell’s platoon rifled through the belongings of the three Vietnamese soldiers killed in the firefight. No, the young private told his buddies, he did not want the shiny gold belt buckle of the man he had shot. Nor the wallet, which was tossed on the ground.
But then he saw a photo that had partially fallen out. He picked it up and stared: It was a color portrait of the soldier in a khaki uniform next to a girl, maybe 7 or 8, with long, thin braids, her head slightly tilted toward him, both looking ever so somber.
Both had narrow jaws. Both had round noses. It seemed clear they were related, perhaps father and daughter.
For reasons he can’t explain, even to himself, Luttrell decided to keep the photo. He stuck it in the back of his wallet and he carried it with him.
For 22 years.
Finally, one day, with a new generation already reading about Vietnam in history books, Luttrell decided it was time to move on, to say goodbye to the haunting memento no bigger than a few postage stamps but still somehow an albatross to him. So he left it at the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, confident he had seen it for the last time.
But last year, he saw the very same photo he had given up in a book. And a mission was born: These three decades later, Luttrell has set out to find the girl in the picture.
So much has changed since then: The United States and Vietnam are friends now. A former prisoner of war is now America’s top diplomat in Hanoi. And Richard Luttrell, the boy who went to war, is a grandfather--a grandfather with some unfinished business.
“It’s hard to put into words,” he says, “but deep down, somehow, I’m looking for some forgiveness somewhere.”
If Richard Luttrell’s wartime experiences were a book, his search for the girl would be the epilogue. The final chapter came on a gloomy November day nearly eight years ago in Washington.
Luttrell had traveled to the black granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to pay tribute to his comrades. And he had come, too, to make a special delivery: He was ready to part with the tattered, faded photo buried in his wallet.
Over the years, Luttrell had glanced at it now and then, dutifully transferring it every time he bought a new wallet, separating it from family photos, far enough to be out of sight, but not far enough to be out of mind.
His wife, Carole, had urged him to get rid of it.
“I said it kept looking at him,” she says. “Every time he would look at it, he’d get upset.”
But Luttrell couldn’t discard it. The soldier in him had in some way forged a bond with this stranger, who, like him, was a patriot, fighting for his country. “It would have been disrespectful,” he says, “to have thrown it away.”
For years, Luttrell couldn’t even talk about the war.
That began changing in the 1980s, when he started going to counseling to deal with post-traumatic stress and began working on a fund-raising project for a war memorial at a local cemetery here in central Illinois.
But even as his curly brown hair turned to talcum-powder white and his scrawny frame filled out, as his first daughter and his second were born, he found it harder to face the photo.
“You’ve got a wonderful life, you have two children, you look at this picture and she doesn’t have a father,” he explains. “As my children grew, I kind of always wondered what the fate of this young lady was, or what his fate could have been. It could have been the other way around.”
Luttrell always suspected that it was a father-daughter in the picture, but there was no way to know. And he never knew what was said in writing scrawled on the back; he never had it translated.
The fall night in 1989 before his pilgrimage to the wall, Luttrell sat in his hotel room in Fairfax, Va., pen and pad in hand, and wrote an impromptu “Dear Sir” note, as if he were talking with the man he had killed decades ago.
He explained why he was about to relinquish the photo he had carried since 1967. It was part eulogy, part confession, part apology.
“Forgive me for taking your life,” he wrote. “I was reacting just the way I was trained to kill V.C. [Viet Cong]. So many times over the years I have stared at your picture and your daughter, I suspect. Each time my heart and guts would burn with the pain of guilt.”
“I perceive you as a brave soldier defending his homeland. . . . [But] It is time for me to continue the life process.”
At the wall, Luttrell pored over the names etched in the granite, searching for fellow members of the 327th Infantry. He found no one he knew.
Then he carried a plastic sandwich bag containing the note and photo, put it down at the base of the wall, placed a rock on top, had his wife shoot some pictures of him, and walked away.
“It was like a heavy burden had been lifted,” he says. “I just thought that was where it belonged. That was going to be the final resting place. I never thought I would see it again.”
Last fall, a Vietnam veteran who is a friend walked into Luttrell’s office in the state Capitol in Springfield, where he writes grant applications for the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, and handed him a book, “Offerings at the Wall.”
“Turn to page 52,” he said.
The past was there, bigger than ever: a copy of his letter and an enlarged copy of the photo on the following page.
Luttrell had known his photo had become part of a permanent archive, but had no idea it would surface in a book.
He already has his own private collection of Vietnam history: His medals (including two Purple Hearts) are framed on his dining room wall. And his scrapbooks are filled with memorabilia--the telegram his mother received after he was shot in the shoulder in 1968, an “Uncle Sam Wants You” pocket-size calendar he stashed in his helmet, photos of him as a skinny private and more current ones, beaming, standing next to one of his heroes, Gen. William Westmoreland, when he visited the area in 1994.
Several years ago, Luttrell also wrote and published his own book, “All Her Boys,” named after his mother’s penchant for writing letters and sending care packages to his Army buddies.
But some memories are too much to bear. Even now, at age 49, Luttrell won’t watch Vietnam movies--he shudders at the bloody images of heads being blown to bits. And, even now, he doesn’t sleep through the night, a holdover, he suspects of all-night vigils in the blackness of the jungle, clutching an M-16.
So when the photo came back into his life, it was like poking at scar tissue still tender to touch.
Still, he says, this is the only way he can heal. So he is eager to find the little girl, who would now be approaching middle age.
Last fall, Luttrell wrote a letter to Le Van Bang, the Vietnamese ambassador in Washington, seeking his help.
“For years I have carried the guilt of taking his life,” he wrote. “It is always with me; like a cancer, it eats away at my heart and my mind. I realize that with only a picture it may be impossible to locate this soldier’s identity or his family, but I could not live with myself any longer if I did not try to resolve this matter.”
The ambassador, who served in the war at the very same time, responded by telling him that he was moved by the request and would pass it on to the Vietnam Veterans Assn.
“The dead had fulfilled their duties, the living have yet to do theirs,” he wrote Luttrell.
The photo already has popped up in a newspaper in Vietnam, prompting one veteran to write Luttrell this spring and compose a song about his quest.
Luttrell hopes that publicity will lead him to the girl, or at least the soldier’s family. He wants to put a name with the face. He wants to explain how he died--and that it was an honorable end.
But if any of the soldier’s relatives reject his entreaties to meet or speak with him, he will understand.
“Whatever it is, I can live with it,” he says. “I’ll know in my heart that I’ve done all that I can.”
Already, he feels calmer, knowing he has gone this far.
“I still feel some guilt,” he says. “Somehow, we all want to be forgiven. It’s amazing we can forgive all kinds of people in our life, people who’ve done us wrong. But try and forgive yourself--that is the hardest damn thing to do.”