Friday evening I showed up at San Francisco International airport and met my traveling companions - five Vietnam War veterans, several family members and Ed and Kate (our group leaders and guides). Collectively the vets represented service in Vietnam from 1961 through 1971.
While navigating the obstacles of check in, security and customs we slowly got to know each other. I often feel uneasy presenting myself to vets as having not served. But I was quickly welcomed. One vet pulled me aside and said, "I very much appreciate your presence on this journey. Having been in combat, I have the burden of knowing the beast and am stained. Removing, accepting or healing from the the stain of knowing the beast requires help from men who have not known combat . . . Men willing to hear my truth and carry the burden can recall me to a state of grace - a bandaged state - but whole again."
It was dark as we finally boarded the plane for the first leg of the journey to Manila, Philippines. As we flew west into the advancing night we remained in the dark for more than fourteen hours, losing a day, landing in Guam for fuel. During the long flight and long night I listened as several vets talked about their departures for Vietnam as young soldiers. We arrived in Manila at dawn.
We had hoped to use our 6 hour layover in Manila for a quick trip to see the city but were advised against it because of unpredictable traffic delays.
Finally, the next stop was Vietnam. As the plane descended toward the place of old battles some of the vets were clearly uneasy. Upon arrival we had to go through immigration and customs where the officers wore a green military uniform with the red star similar to the uniform of the vets old enemy and scrutinized our passports and visas with stoic efficiency. But as we cleared customs and headed out into the hot humid Saigon afternoon and into a sea of people and honking horns the vets were enthusiastically welcomed with hugs and warm Vietnamese greetings by a group of old enemies and allies who had shown up at the airport, some in their old uniforms and metals, to ensure the vets were properly welcomed back to Vietnam. It is difficult to describe the scene of aging U.S. Vietnam veterans being welcomed back to Vietnam with such warmth and unexpected acceptance. It was all deeply moving and such a marked contrast to the welcome (or lack of welcome) many Vietnam veterans had experienced upon their return to the United States after service in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese welcoming committee