Mourning a Man of Vision

Q.X. Pham grew up in Oxnard after leaving Vietnam at age 10 and graduated from Oxnard High School in 1982. A Gulf War veteran, he now works in sales for a biotech firm and serves as a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He can be reached at

The night I learned of Walter Capps’ death, I thought of his warm smile. The tall, lanky, balding professor with a sympathetic heart gave my sister and me the love and support and strength to talk about our forgotten past.

When Rep. Walter Capps (D-Santa Barbara) died on Oct. 28, our country lost a visionary educator, a kind leader and compassionate humanitarian. For Walter touched the lives of many long before he was elected to Congress last fall.

Four years after the collapse of Saigon, Walter began teaching a controversial course about Vietnam and the war’s aftermath at UC Santa Barbara. While thousands of desperate boat people packed like sardines bobbed on the South China Sea and scarred Vietnam veterans readjusted--or didn’t--to society, Walter invited guest speakers and challenged his students to learn about Vietnam.


His was a class beyond the body count and the protests. At a time when school textbooks merely touched upon Vietnam as a conflict in Southeast Asia, Walter had the courage, conviction and vision to teach his students about the war as a tragedy, from all perspectives.

Over the years, the class, “The Impact of the Vietnam War on American Culture,” has reached more students than any other course in the UC system and countless more via educational television courses. It remains one of UCSB’s proudest and longest traditions and annually boasts the largest enrollment on campus. Highlighted on “60 Minutes” in 1986, the course has served as a model for others taught around the country.


Each year, people from all walks of life touched by Vietnam took the Campbell Hall stage in front of nearly 1,000 students: a veteran in a wheelchair, the mother of a pilot missing in action, a Medal of Honor recipient, a conscientious objector, a politician and children of veterans.

At first, all were Americans. After all, more than 3 million Americans served in Vietnam and 58,000 names are engraved on a black granite wall on the Washington Mall.

To most Americans, the Vietnam War was about America and American politics and American perspectives. But Walter was a true scholar. He reached out for more. He wanted his students to hear many voices--not just those of Americans.

In 1993, Walter invited me to be a guest speaker in his class. As I waited for my turn to talk, several students took turns sharing their feelings and experiences. One had escaped from Vietnam via boat; another was born in a Malaysian refugee camp. Two had no memory of their exodus but vaguely recalled their first years in America.


Suddenly, my own memory jolted me back to a life-changing day in April 1975. On that dark and cloudy springtime morning, my own departure at age 11 took me out of hell. Afterward, like the other kids, I had nothing more to do with the Vietnam War or its outcome.

For myself and most of the Vietnamese American students in Walter’s class that day, it was the first time we had spoken in public about our experiences.

For nearly 20 years after the war, no one had talked about Vietnam at the dinner table. The way we left Vietnam and arrived in America remained a faint memory until we sat in a crowded theater and saw “Platoon” or “Miss Saigon.” Neither offered the Vietnam that we had briefly known or the Vietnam that we would like to know again.

It was also the first time I had spoken to my youngest sister about our past. (Thu was a student in Walter’s class that year and later served as his executive assistant on Capitol Hill.)

But while the pain was buried, so was our identity. We were born in a place that was no longer recognized. We were neither Vietnamese nor true Americans; both places seemed foreign, opposites on more than the alphabetic spectrum. We had never come to terms with our past and never learned about our heritage.

Our families were too sad, too poor, too hurt and too busy to recover our suppressed memories of Vietnam and our exodus. We all saw ourselves in the video clips of sobbing children running to board the last choppers out of Saigon, in pictures of American Marines feeding babies in a refugee camp and in classes full of American kids--isolated because we hadn’t yet learned English.


On that day in 1993, Walter’s forum allowed us--the children of Vietnam who were uprooted amid a war in our own backyard, who had grown up burying the war deep in our souls--to come to terms with our own past. For the first time, we were expressing to our American peers how Vietnam affected us, the children of war.

We exorcised our own demons and we met the Americans and the families who were touched by the same war. We shook their hands, hugged them and thanked them for their service.

With their graying hair and wrinkled eyes, with their sad smiles, these veterans didn’t resemble those movie GIs who raped and tortured villagers.

Walter never donned a uniform nor fired a round in Vietnam. He didn’t use GI slang. He hadn’t avoided the draft. He simply taught.

He taught well by allowing the exchange and the sharing from all those affected by Vietnam. He knew, felt and understood the people and the pain.

Walter will be remembered for his service and accomplishments in Santa Barbara and in Congress. And he will never be forgotten by all those who took his bridge back to Vietnam and to America.