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At last, back from Vietnam

Times Staff Writer

Soldiers have come home from war since Ulysses’ turbulent return to Ithaca -- to tearful wives and cranky babies, to brass bands playing John Philip Sousa marches and to potlucks of casseroles and coleslaw laid out by neighbors.

For men like Larry Criteser, though, there were no trombones or baked beans. Not in 1969, when he got off a flight from Saigon at the massive Army terminal in Oakland and spent a fitful night alone at San Francisco International Airport, unaware that the sight of his carefully pressed uniform would draw so much fire.

“I spent the night getting heckled,” recalled Criteser, 60, a retired welder from Eugene, Ore. “One of the favorite expressions was ‘baby killer.’ I have consciously tried to forget most of it. It wasn’t my job to go over there and kill babies.”

Criteser waited 39 years for his official welcome home. It came recently one chilly morning at this Army post south of Tacoma, right where it should have been -- on a military parade ground with a marching band, bleachers of waving families and rows of soldiers in neat formation on a wide green lawn.

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Officially, it was the homecoming ceremony for the 600-plus members of the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry “Manchu” Regiment, returned from their 14-month deployment as the northern arm of the “surge” in Iraq. But nine older men standing uncertainly to one side, in cotton shirts and summer suits, had been told it was their welcome home too.

“It’s been a long time . . . but your service is no less appreciated in this nation than that of the men who stand before you,” said Lt. Col. William Prior, who commands the current incarnation of the Manchus brigade, the same unit in which the older men served as young infantry recruits in Vietnam.

“Keep up the fire,” responded Larry James, 62, who commanded a platoon of Manchus near Cu Chi, Vietnam, until 1969.

The two most unpopular American wars of the last century have found an intersection of sorts here in Washington, where an unusual friendship has taken hold between veterans of a war that ended in Southeast Asia 33 years ago and newly battle-honed soldiers with the “4/9" brigade, who shipped out for Iraq in March 2007.

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Over the last 14 months, as the soldiers spread out through the date palm groves and dusty villages north of Baghdad, battling insurgents and building alliances with local leaders, they have been in constant communication with 4/9 veterans of the Vietnam era. They have exchanged photographs, e-mails and packages, and -- unit commanders hope -- established friendships that will help guide the returning servicemen through the newly difficult terrain called home.

“They always compare this war to their war,” said Cpl. John Joss, 25, who lost a leg to a roadside bomb near Tarmiya, Iraq. “The enemy’s the same, almost. It’s not fighting like it should be. They just blow our stuff up and run off. I always knew when we went over that the Vietnam guys would be behind us, because they know what it’s like to fight an enemy that doesn’t fight right.”

The Vietnam veterans say they feel a sense of kinship to their old fighting unit.

“As soon as I heard they were coming home, I told my wife, I said, ‘I’m going. You coming?’ She said, ‘Yeah,’ ” said Johnny Guidry, 60, who flew in from Raceland, La. “They needed closure, just like I did. They needed a response from their people; they needed a response from their older brothers, like we are, and yes, a welcome home.”

Much has happened between the fall of Saigon in 1975, after America had been paralyzed with demonstrations opposing the war, and 2008, which comes after the Sept. 11 attacks and a war on terrorism many see as vital to the nation’s survival.

“I think the American people have realized they blamed the wrong people in Vietnam,” said Doug Richardson, mayor of the nearby city of Lakewood, who attended the ceremony. “There’s been a realization that if you are unhappy with the war, the fact is the military guys go because they were told to go.”

Criteser is less convinced. He found himself wondering why no one but family members and Vietnam vets showed up at the July 1 welcome home. The answer, for him, was that things hadn’t changed all that much.

“People today are extremely selfish,” he said. “Why couldn’t anybody from the community have shown up? You don’t need a son or a dad or a husband coming home to come out and welcome them home.”

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The 4/9 traces its history to the 9th Infantry Regiment in 1799, and has fought in every major U.S. conflict of the last two centuries. It was the Boxer Rebellion in early 20th century China that gave birth to its Manchu nickname, and the long mustaches the soldiers adopted for many years.

Its soldiers distinguished themselves in the War of 1812 and the Civil War. The 9th’s commander was killed during the bloody battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican-American War while leading an assault on the citadel, after which the “Fighting 9th” nonetheless marched to the outskirts of Mexico City. The 9th fought in the famous Little Big Horn campaign during the Indian wars, and was part of the assault force on Omaha Beach the day after the main “D-Day” landings in 1945.

The unit, as is often the case, was inactivated periodically but reformed in 2006, with a complement of infantrymen and officers assigned from all over the Army. The new commanders sought out Vietnam War veterans to provide a bridge to the Manchus’ past.

Vietnam had proved one of the darkest chapters in its history. On March 2, 1968, 92 Manchus from C Company were patrolling near the Saigon River when Viet Cong guerrillas trapped them in a withering hail of gunfire, killing 49 and wounding 28 in eight minutes. It was among the most devastating losses of the war.

Criteser was in D Company, which came up from the rear and found its comrades dead and bleeding in the road, some clutching small Bibles and photographs, some clustered in groups, as if for a last attempt at mutual salvation and comfort.

“It was one of the most horrible experiences of my entire life,” Criteser said. “I came home pretty much just a mental wreck. I would wake up sweating and fighting in the night, and my first wife didn’t know how to deal with that. To tell you the truth, I didn’t either.”

The ambush cast a shadow over the regiment’s remaining service in Vietnam. James, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and Voice of America and a longtime colleague and friend of mine, went for years without meeting any other Manchus, past or present. But as the war in Iraq was getting underway, he felt compelled to revisit the long-ago tragedy.

“I could see a lot of similarities between the two wars. There was a country split over the rightness or wrongness of the war, but . . . I wanted to really talk about the experience of these guys individually and how most all of them found themselves there not because, you know, they didn’t sign up to go fight the communists. It was the Kennedy era, the whole ‘Ask what you can do for your country’ thing. They were doing what was asked of them.”

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James tracked down Criteser and other veterans. He returned to Vietnam and found members of the Viet Cong who had carried out the ambush. Ultimately, he said, “Unfortunate Sons” became a book about “what it’s like to die for your country.”

Already, the debut of the Internet had opened the locked doors of the past to allow the Vietnam Manchus to reconnect with the men who had shared some of the most important events of their lives. A website, manchu.org, created in the mid-1990s, quickly became a lifeline for vets who had been foundering in often-troubled isolation for decades.

“I had spent from 1968 to about 1997 never having talked to another Manchu,” Criteser said. Then, in 1998, he attended the Manchus’ first reunion, in Las Vegas. “All of a sudden you had someone to talk to about the experiences, the years that had gone by, someone who you knew would understand what you were talking about.”

The importance of maintaining relationships with their brothers in arms became the main message the Vietnam-era Manchus wanted to give the Iraqi vets. The soldiers in Iraq were more than receptive: They wrote letters back and sent regular, colorful updates on their recovery operations and firefights.

Not long ago, they surprised the older vets with a video montage, juxtaposing shots of soldiers, rifles slung over their shoulders, patrolling the date groves along the Tigris River with grainier photos of a different era of Manchus, grinning bare-chested from rice paddies and tropical foliage in Vietnam. The image of James, young and reedy and clutching a cigarette, stands out against a tropical warehouse; a much younger Criteser crouches in the foliage and peruses a copy of “Car Life.”

“Old man, look at my life: I’m a lot like you were,” Neil Young sings on the soundtrack.

The going for the younger soldiers had been extraordinarily tough in the early days of their deployment in Iraq: four killed in the first two weeks, as they assumed responsibility for the area along the main highway that runs north from Baghdad to Mosul.

“It was a very, very challenging fight. Heavily entrenched insurgents, a very dangerous place; there’s just no other way to put it. We worked very hard there for about nine months, and the soldiers made a tremendous difference. It became a much safer place,” Prior said.

The bulk of the group moved up to a base near Tikrit in January. Still, by the end of the deployment, the unit would lose seven men, with 92 others wounded.

In part to record their exploits, the Vietnam vets set up a special website for the Iraqi vets, manchuwarriors.org. They hosted the young Manchus at their reunion in 2006.

Prior said he wanted to be sure the Vietnam vets would be there when his men came home. Not just to give the Vietnam guys a ceremony, but because he knew his soldiers would need them, if not now, then later.

“We know a lot of Vietnam vets suffered from [post-traumatic stress disorder], and one of the reasons they suffered so much was because when they got home people didn’t recognize what they’d done in a good way. . . . Their buddies weren’t with them, and most guys just buried it. And that’s the worst thing you can do,” Prior said. “So I’ve talked with some of these older guys, and I think they can help. . . . I know they will try.”

On the day of the homecoming, James shuffled to the podium and made a short speech; then he helped hoist the colors while the band played.

“One thing has not changed and never will -- the bond that grew out of our shared experiences. After what all of you have been through together, I am sure you feel it too. And I am sure that, 40 years from now, you will still feel it when you look back on those days,” he told the younger men.

But after, he wondered. Did they get it? Do they understand what it means to be thinking about it every day, after 40 long years? For God’s sake, hold on to each other, he wanted to tell them. In the flurry of backyard barbecues and visits to old friends now; in the years ahead when you’re building your families, figuring out how to send your kids to college, getting laid off from your job: Don’t forget these strong young men standing beside you. You will need them.

The older veterans retired to Prior’s house, where the wives set out a crock pot of barbecued beef, salads and a cake. Guidry made a beeline for the beer in the kitchen; James eased his lanky frame onto the living room sofa.

“I wanted them to know that I’m grateful for their service,” he said later, trying to explain why it had felt important, no, essential, to fly thousands of miles from London, where he recently retired, for a march around a parade ground and a beef sandwich.

“You know, we never came to a consensus that this is how we as Americans feel about the Vietnam experience. We just stopped talking about it,” he said. “But for us, it’s still there. Whatever we did, we didn’t deserve to be ignored.”

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kim.murphy@latimes.com


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