Today I leave for Vietnam. I travel with a small group of American Vietnam War veterans and some of their family members. The trip is sponsored by Soldier's Heart, an organization started by Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt to address the emotional, moral, and spiritual wounds of veterans, their families and communities. The purpose of our travel is to help the veterans and family members find some healing from the ongoing psychological and spiritual wounds of war. During the trip we will: visit places where the veterans served and fought; meet and share food and stories with Vietnamese war veterans (old enemies and allies); make acts of restitution (more on this later); and see Vietnam as a country (not just as a war memory). We will spend time in both the south and the north.
We leave tonight from San Francisco, travel to Manila and then to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
This trip has been a long time coming for me. I go along to support, observe, listen and learn. As a civilian I am curious about what this experience will bring but I also feel a deep pull to Vietnam that defies easy explanation.
As a preacher's kid and young boy in the 1960s I developed a deep fascination with Vietnam. Missionaries from Vietnam stayed at our house and told about a beautiful country and warm people who struggled for a new post-colonial life. Later some of those missionaries were killed during the 1968 Tet Offensive. I watched as one by one, the older boys in our church youth group went off to war and returned as mere shells of the excited, optimistic, laughing boys they had once been.
At age 12, an early morning paper route took me to a 24-hour gas station that had become an after-hours drinking spot for those who could not sleep. Many of the sleepless were veterans fresh from Vietnam. As I folded newspapers at 3 a.m., I heard their stories, became their friend, and saw their wounds. They laughed about not fitting into society and being vampires that disappeared when normal folks awoke, but I also sensed they possessed a wisdom I knew nothing about.
I turned 18 just as the Vietnam war was ending and have always felt uneasy about not having served. A year later when I became a paramedic many of my partners were Vietnam War veterans. Most would not talk about their experiences - and why should they? Unlike the glories and victory of WWII, the Vietnam War was an experience that defined context and spoke about loss. The societal current was one of moving on.
The Vietnam War continues to have both a personal and collective impact. As America's Vietnam veterans age many continue to suffer. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that 40 years after returning from war many veterans continue to suffer from the psychological trauma of war. In the 2005 introduction to his classic book Home From the War, Robert Jay Lifton explains that behind the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a collective psyche that still smarts from the Vietnam War and seeks some sense of redemption.
So I head to Vietnam with many thoughts and feelings. I suspect the veterans I travel with will help me see much of this with new eyes.