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Former Vietnam Commander Shows a New Mettle of Honor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Army Col. Roger Donlon made his peace with the Vietnam War at an abandoned graveyard deep in the mountains of Central Vietnam, surrounded by his former enemies.

Donlon, the first soldier to win a Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam, returned three years ago to honor the graves of the South Vietnamese soldiers who served and died under his command.

He found some unlikely help in Nguyen Can Thu, the Viet Cong leader who had planned the attack that devastated Donlon’s camp three decades ago.

Working side by side with Thu and other former guerrilla soldiers to clear brush from the cemetery, Donlon found the spirit of forgiveness in himself.

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“His willingness to help was a signal to me of a new time,” Donlon said. “That was the beginning for me.” Inspired by that visit, Donlon came back to the United States and started an educational foundation a year and a half ago, named after retired Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, and his wife, Kitsy.

Dedicated to improving relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, the foundation offers college scholarships to Vietnamese and Vietnamese American youth.

Donlon and his wife, Norma, traveled from their home in Leavenworth, Kan., to drum up support on Friday for a foundation fund-raiser among Orange County’s Vietnamese community.

That fund-raiser, a dinner honoring the Westmorelands’ 50th anniversary, is planned for March 7 aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Among the guests will be the Westmorelands and entertainer Bob Hope.

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“I’ve always felt in my heart, I had a debt of honor to repay to my Vietnamese counterparts,” Donlon said. “In some ways, this is an attempt to do that.”

For 30 years, he carried around a small photo of the graveyard near the battle site where 50 of his men were interred and the memories of fight that nearly killed him.

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As a captain of the U.S. Army Special Forces, Donlon, a tall, clear-eyed, veteran of 30, was charged with training Vietnamese soldiers at the Nam Dong camp in central Vietnam.

On July 6, 1964, a force of 800 to 900 Viet Cong ambushed Donlon’s troops in the dead of night, and at the end of the five-hour battle, retreated in defeat, with 250 of its own dead.

Donlon watched 54 of his comrades die as he waited for his own rescue. He later learned from Thu that about 100 of the 300 men he had been training were actually Viet Cong.

“I was lucky. I only got hit seven times,” he said of the mortar and grenade wounds that ripped his leg, shoulder, head and stomach.

When he went back for the first time in 1993, he carried that picture from Hanoi to Hue, asking for help in locating it, only to be told it didn’t exist. But he persevered and finally found the abandoned cemetery with the help of locals, including some who had fought against him.

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During an impromptu memorial service, with incense and wildflowers, Donlon told the group that it was traditional to join together not only in prayers, but also by holding hands.

“I kept my hands extended, for what felt like an eternity. Then hands reached out to me. Coming back over the mountain, I felt the beginnings of forgiveness,” he said.

Two years later in 1995, that conviction would be solidified when Donlon worked alongside the man who had engineered the attack that killed so many of his men. The retired colonel hopes the scholarships will pave the way toward the reconciliation that he now feels is so necessary between the countries.

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Its goal is to offer college scholarships to youth who are active in the Vietnamese American community and provide summer internships for students to work and study in Vietnam. Eventually, it would also provide opportunities for Vietnamese students to study in the U.S.

Colleges participate by agreeing to provide matching funds for the students. So far, three colleges in the Midwest have signed on. Another six to eight colleges nationwide have expressed their interest, Norma Donlon said.

After hearing Donlon explain his cause, local Vietnamese veterans like Henry Do promised a supportive ear.

“I think this program is a good idea. Anything we can do to help our children is great. In my heart, I believe this is the right thing,” Do said.

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The only reservation Do and other veterans voiced was the concern that an exchange program for Vietnamese students to study in the U.S. would benefit the children of Communist officials.

Donlon said the program would screen applicants thoroughly, but he also said that educating even those Vietnamese youth would provide its own benefits.

“I firmly believe that it’s through education that we can rebuild the bridges to understanding,” Donlon said.

Tickets are $150 for the March 7 reception and dinner or $125 for dinner only. Information: (714) 540-8438.

Tini Tran can be reached at (714) 966-5635. Her e-mail address is tini.tran@latimes.com


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