Vietnam Trip a 'Journey Into Unknown'

Times Staff Writer

For most of her life, 38-year-old Cindy Sanders-Rheinheimer swore she would never visit Vietnam, the place where her father was killed in the line of duty. To her, the country's name was a bad word.

Growing up, "we couldn't be proud of our dads because of the climate of the country," she said. "Soldiers were being spit on. We learned very quickly that we just didn't talk about it."

It wasn't until 10 years ago, when she joined a national support network of people who also had lost parents in the Vietnam War, called Sons and Daughters in Touch, that she began to let go of the shame and loneliness she harbored.

Now she proudly wears a black bracelet engraved with his name: Richard L. Sanders, military rank and date of death, Nov. 24, 1967. And today, she will join 59 other adults from across the country who will meet at Los Angeles International Airport and journey together to Vietnam to visit their fathers' death sites.

For 2 1/2 weeks, they will seek to trace their fathers' footsteps and find closure. They will fan out across the country, visiting Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, the Mekong Delta and China Beach. Nearly 20 Vietnam War veterans will go along to provide support.

"It's nerve-racking; I don't know what to expect," said Sanders-Rheinheimer, who lives in Milford, Ohio, and was just 3 when her father, an Army paramedic, died.

Before, "I didn't think we would be welcome. It just scared me, so I avoided it. But now I'm going," she said.

Sons and Daughters in Touch was organized 13 years ago by Tony Cordero, 41, of San Pedro. His father, William E. Cordero, died June 22, 1965, in Laos.

The group began with members keeping in touch through e-mail and occasional gatherings. At Cordero's urging on Father's Day in 2000, they decided to organize the group expedition.

"It's a journey into the unknown," Cordero said. "We will stand where our fathers took their last breaths, and look around and see what they saw."

He will visit a small village in Laos, where his father's military plane crashed during a bombing mission, leaving 4-year-old Cordero, four other siblings and a widow.

"He's my hero," Cordero said, adding that during these times, when the country is preparing for a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq, the public must support soldiers and understand that some may not come back home.

Sons and Daughters in Touch does not take a political position for or against the war, Cordero said, but "should war happen, it is inevitable that there will be casualties.... Little kids are going to find out that their moms and dads have died."

Cordero said the country must not forget the child victims of war, or the children who have lost parents to violence in other tragic events such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

For Michelle Githens-Baugh, 35, of Centralia, Ill., whose father, Rich Githens, was attacked by two Vietnamese soldiers and killed at age 19, on May 29, 1968, this will be the second trip to Vietnam. This time she is going to support others and share the "life-changing experience."

"I had always viewed Vietnam as a war. I had never looked at it as a country," she said. "I wasn't interested in touristy things. I wanted to see where my father served and was killed, and then I wanted to leave."

But after visiting the country in 1999, she realized it was rich in culture and history. She met Vietnamese, some of whom also lost parents in the war.

"It was very healing," she said.

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