Phaeacians were the mythic people who listened to the war veteran Odysseus on his way home from war. After 10 years of war and 10 years of thwarted homecoming it was the Phaeacians who finally helped Odysseus return home. This blog records notes from my ongoing study of modern day Phaeacians - civilians who make a point of listening deeply to the narratives of war veterans. It explores an old idea - that there is an important and necessary relationship between warriors and the communities of people that send them to war. The project asks, what happens or how are we changed (if at all) by listening to military and war veterans? It includes my observations and interviews with modern day Phaeacians and my own experience of listening to war veterans.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Spirituality in community

Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt, the founders of Soldier’s Heart and leaders of this journey, believe the suffering from war is best healed within the context of spirituality in community. For them, spirituality is not religion. It is about one’s connection to a larger reality that provides context, meaning and the transformation for life’s inevitable suffering. Both community and spirituality have been important parts of this journey.

This trip itself has been an experience in community life with the group spending large amounts of time together. As one fellow traveler observed, “Nothing helps you get to know each other better than traveling together.” Not only have we lived in close proximity to each other, learning intimate details about each other, every few days the group has
dedicated time to communalizing our thoughts, feelings and concerns within the context of seeking meaning beyond our own private struggles. These meetings have been rich and moving experiences in which we have discovered together that listening to war is not just about veteran healing, PTSD, nor just about addressing something that happened more than 40 years ago – it is about our lives today.

Along with building our own traveling community we have also plunged into the spirituality and community of Vietnam. Our difficult and often long journeys into the wounding of war were broken up by refreshing visits to Vietnamese spiritual leaders and communities.

Early in the journey the group met with an aging Vietnam veteran named Mr. Tiger who had fought against the Japanese, the French and the Americans. In his nineties, Mr. Tiger has no PTSD, does not resent the many sacrifices he made as a soldier and claims to sleep well every night. Mr. Tiger explained that, from a western perspective we make the mistake of assuming that the wounding of war is in the head, when in reality, the wounding of war is in the heart.

Mr. Tiger’s metaphor is difficult for those of us convinced that science is the most valid explanation for any mystery. But as the journey progressed veterans continued to hear from the Vietnamese that suffering from war has a spiritual component.

Mr. Tiger

Just outside of Hoi An veterans had an audience with Thich Hue Vinh, the leading Buddhist monk at the Chua Quan The Am Pagoda. Thich Hue Vinh considered questions from the veterans, but his message to the veterans and everyone suffering from war trauma was simple: stop digging around in the old war wound. Continuing to dig around in the past only intensives the wound. Instead, take some positive action to address the suffering of others. For those who feel responsible or guilty about their actions during the war he suggested a three fold approach: recognize and admit the mistakes that were made, ask forgiveness and apologize (if possible) and promise not to repeat the mistakes; return to a purity of heart by practicing a detachment from the past; and finally, find something or someone you can deeply believe in or follow. His emphasis was on today. We are here now and the most important question, he advised, is, “what will we do with ourselves here and now?”

Thich Hue Vinh advising vets to plant flowers in the soil of the war wound.

In the middle of visiting battlefields we visited the Kim Dong elementary school in the small rural community of Tam Thai. While Soldier’s Heart has provided financial support for the school, and veterans brought gifts of school supplies, books and treats for the students, the real experience of visiting this school was one of being again welcomed as friends and family into a small community.

"Hey you big tall Americans with funny beards come hang out with us."

After singing and playing with the students we were invited to the schoolteacher’s humble home for lunch. The experience had a powerful impact on some of the veterans. “When I was a solider in Vietnam I would have been shot in a place like this,” one of the veterans commented. And rightly so. The schoolteacher’s aging father explained that he had been a farmer by day and a secret VietCong warrior by night, doing whatever he could to fight the Americans. But, once again, the old man emphasized a message the veterans have heard over and over on this trip. The war is over. Whatever you did in the war you did as an agent of your government. We do not blame you nor are we angry at you. You are no longer our enemy. You are here now and we are here now and we welcome you as family. Sit down. Eat some food. Tell me your story and we will tell you ours. This ongoing sense of community and welcome expressed by the Vietnamese people has continued to surprise most of us on this trip.

Secret VC warrior welcomes us into his home

Simple food

Old enemies become new friends

After a long exhausting day of visiting battlefields last week we hiked up a dark path to the 400-year-old Dong Thuyen Pagoda – a Buddhist convent where we were welcomed into a peaceful comfortable dining room and fed a wonderful dinner served by an older nun and her assistants. As the food was brought out, the nun, Dieu Dat, who heads the convent, invited us to observe 15 minutes of silence as we ate. With the sound of women chanting in a distant room we slowly began to eat without talking. It was a simple act but everyone in our group was suddenly amazed at how good the food tasted and how enjoyable it was to just be together without words. The women serving us continue to quietly bring food and when the 15 minutes was up we began a conversation with the old nun about healing from war suffering.

Like others in Vietnam her advice was simple: War is always the responsibility of the community – not the individual; Start transforming your pain by taking action and doing something for someone else; Begin each day with a smile; and always, always do more smiling than thinking. All of this, she reminded us, is easy to say but much harder to do.

As we left the nuns with full stomachs and peaceful hearts it was hard to deny the importance of spirituality and community. But questions have lingered for some of the veterans. While they appreciate the encouragement to leave the past and look toward the future – they still feel a strong need to tell the story of what happened 40 years go in the company of listening witnesses. One of the veteran said, “We didn’t tell the story when we came home from war – because no one wanted to hear it. So we need to tell in now.”

View from the Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Listening in the places they served

Listening to war takes more than ears. It requires eyes, feet, hearts and a willingness to go imaginatively and literally to the places where stories reside. During the last several days we have been visiting war sites throughout central Vietnam including Da Nang, Chu Lia, Marble Mountain, the Citidel in Hue, Phu Bai, the Rock Pile, Firebase Tomahawk, Highway 1, Camp Carroll, Khe Sanh, Gio Linh and the DMZ.

“I have places where all my stories begin,” confesses writer Barbara Kingsolver, and so do veterans. Place, memory and story are intertwined and part of this journey is about returning to places of significance for the American veterans on this trip. These are the veterans’ AOs – military speak for “areas of operation.” Forty years later these places have changed. Some are overgrown. Others have limited accessibility as current military installations. A few have been preserved as historic sites.

On a wall surrounding the abandoned Da Nang Airbase we found this interesting graffiti.

As we drove to places and walked the land the stories poured out - stories about military jobs, lost sleep, soggy bunkers, C-rations, military equipment and getting stoned. But there were also stories about battles, boredom, hot landing zones, lost innocence, killing, fallen comrades and wounded souls. For the veterans, these places are sacred ground. And in many of the places our group sought to ceremonially honor the memories of these places and those who served.

At Chu Lia Airbase, the home of the Americal Division, we could not get to the actual ground but on a hill overlooking the base held a brief ritual in the rain.

During that ritual a veteran recited a portion of St. Crispin’s Day Speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V that includes the following lines:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, 

Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd, 

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age . . .
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars, 

And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. . .
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother . . .

Hue City was the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. Fought during and following the 1968 Tet Offensive, the battle resulted in thousands of military and civilian casualties and became a turning point in the war. We walked somberly through the ruins of the Citadel (the old Vietnamese Imperial City) where much of the fighting took place.

The Citadel in Hue.

Heading north from Hue, Highway 1 winds through the Hai Van pass, a strategic high ground and the place where 34 Americans died in a helicopter crash in 1971.

Hai Van Pass

Further north a strategic lookout point for Americans in the war was known as The Rock Pile (Thon Khe Tri to the Vietnamese). The only way up was by way of helicopter but the Vietnamese found ways to continually attack the Americans there.

The Rock Pile

Continuing along the beautiful South China Sea I found it difficult, as a civilian, to imagine helicopters, bombs and tanks in this stunning landscape. But it was in this area that both the Vietnamese and Americans experienced the highest casualties of the war.

Peaceful fishing village of Lang Co

The impact of the war along Highway 1 soon became apparent as we passed bombed and bullet ridden buildings and numerous war cemeteries. S
ong, our guide, explained that this section of Highway 1 has become known to the Vietnamese as "the road without joy" because of the fierce fighting and thousands of war casualties along the route. The numerous
cemeteries we saw only represented the North Vietnamese Army and VietCong. The fallen South Vietnamese troops are not honored in war cemeteries.

War cemetery

We conducted another ritual to remember the fallen at the site of Firebase Tomahawk where four men from the town of Bardstown, Kentucky were killed in one battle in 1969.
Remembering at Firebase Tomahawk

Turning off of Highway 1 and heading west on Highway 9 we made our way to Khe Sanh where U.S. Marines underwent 77 days of continuous attack in 1968. This site had a powerful attraction to all the veterans and after walking the site we held another ritual of remembrance.

Veterans walking into the old Khe Sanh base

Looking across the old landing strip at Khe Sanh

Cattle grazing where fighting occurred.

A rusted piece of military hardware and an overgrown field is all that is left of the northern most Allied position at Gio Linh. But that did not stop veterans from wading into the bush and conducting another ritual.

Veteran reads a poem written for the occasion.

Small altar created in the bush to remember a friend who died here.

We ended this portion of the journey by walking across the Ben Hai River, the dividing line between North and South Vietnam during the war. There were no gates, no guards and no sounds of battle. Children on the north side of the river were laughing and lazily kicking a soccer ball, and on the south side a water buffalo contentedly grazed.

Bridge across the Ben Hai River

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hospitality and friends

As we continue our trip north the American veterans continue to comment about the welcome they are receiving. In contrast to old memories and imaginations of how the Vietnamese might want to treat them they continue to be surprised by hospitality, warmth and friendship. I too continue to be amazed at the kindness and friendship shown by the Vietnamese. I've only been here a week and already have many new Vietnamese friends.

Currently we are in Hoi An, a beautiful coastal city south of Da Nang near China Beach.
Making friends, finding connection and demonstrating hospitality is clearly a priority here. When I hired a motor scooter driver to show me around I expected a hustle, but instead he stayed with me for hours and then invited me to his home to meet his family.

Hoi An, an ancient port located on the South China Sea, has a long history of hospitality.

Following the donation of cows (mentioned in the previous blog) we were invited to lunch at the home of a cousin of Song, our guide. The cousin lives in a rural hamlet and is a farmer as well as government worker. As we walked the lane to the cousin's house Song explained that the hamlet and farm had been the site of fierce fighting during the war. As we neared the house he pointed out a bomb crater that is now a duck pond and then pointed out the spot where the cousin's father, a VietCong soldier, had been crushed to death by a U.S. tank.

Bomb crater made into duck pond

But the cousin had not invited the American veterans to his home to tell about his loss or get sympathy. He wanted to befriend us. This all came out during lunch when we offered an apology to the cousin for the loss of his father and took responsibility for the actions of our government. While the apology was clearly meaningful to the man and his family he wanted us to know that he saw us as friends and part of his family and encouraged us to let go of the war and be happy that we are no longer enemies. He was not looking for reparations or for anything from us. He simply wanted to show us that everything is okay - that there are ducks in the bomb craters, that his sow has just had a large litter of piglets and that his family members are all doing well and happy. The Vietnamese have this amazing ability to see beyond themselves and individual struggles to the larger collective.

Song's cousin and family

Yesterday, Song, invited us to his home in Da Nang to celebrate the eve of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. On New Year's eve the Vietnamese family ancestors are invited back home for the celebration. Inviting a dozen Americans into a small Vietnamese house is no small thing, yet Song graciously opened his home and explained his family alter, the rituals involved and then invited us to participate in the ritual. After welcoming the ancestors we were fed another great Vietnamese meal and experienced more wonderful hospitality.

Song conducts a ritual at an altar just outside the doorway that welcomes the souls of his ancestors back home and also provides food for wandering souls that may come by.

Last evening Ed Tick (our group leader) and I went to a Buddhist temple at midnight for the big ritual and celebration welcoming the New Year. As midnight struck a cacophony of sounds filled the night -- monks chanting, drums, cymbals and fireworks. Once again we were welcomed and befriend. People showed us where to stand and when to kneel. And when the ritual was over they talked with us and invited us to visit them in their homes. Our jaded western perspective doesn't know what to do with such hospitality. We're always looking for the catch.

On one of our free days, while sightseeing, I stumbled into a Vietnamese funeral. Suddenly I found people explaining that this was a funeral for a old woman and grandmother and that I was welcome to honor her with them. They took my hand and pulled me into the crowd and quickly made me part of what seemed like more festival then sad funeral. There were costumed officiants, loud music, shouting, singing and an elaborate teak and gold casket. With great ritual the casket was loaded into a wildly decorated hearse and then surrounded by family members who piled in around the casket. The whole time I was pulled along, included and encouraged to take pictures.

Officiant at funeral

Loading the casket

Vietnamese hearse carries casket and family members to burial

Today some of us were invited to the home of Son, a local sculpturer and Ed's friend. Son is a brilliant artist and brilliant scholar. He has taught himself english and has read deeply in history, philosophy and literature. His knowledge of geography and American history is stunning. When we visited his house, he too invited us to honor his ancestors at the family altar and then wanted to show us his humble study. As we left Son's house one of the veterans and I wondered if we have lost an important connection to each other in our pursuit of individual rights in America. In Vietnam people don't seem obsessed with what is theirs. While the streets are crowded no one is raging for their spot on the road and people clearly love being with each other. It seems that the Vietnamese could teach us all something about living better.

Son's study and books are located on the second floor
of his humble home because the first floor often floods.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Acts of Service and Restitution

The destruction and suffering caused by a war that ended 40 years ago can still be seen all over Vietnam in the bomb craters, war cemeteries, deforested landscapes and agent orange birth defects. Soldier’s Heart, the organization sponsoring this trip, believes acts of restituion are important in healing the wounds of war between peoples and the wounds in the hearts of veterans. So far, we have engaged in several acts of restitution

In an impoverished area of the Mekong Delta we brought financial support and practical gifts of clothes, toys and school supplies to a small preschool and kindergarten. The school was built several years ago with finances provided by American veterans from Soldier’s Heart and each year American veterans continue to provide financial support. The school is the only opportunity many of the children have to begin an education. We visited the school, brought our financial support and gifts and played with the children – all in hopes that this generation of kids will grow old without knowing war.

The beautiful children of Vietnam

“If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a
real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.” -Gandhi

Veterans playing with kids

American veteran unpacking gifts

School building built by veterans from Soldier's Heart

The Vietnam War destroyed the livelihood of countless rural farmers. Near Da Nang, the site of the busiest air operations of the war, veterans on this trip donated two cows and money to a poor widowed farm-woman. The woman and her mentally disabled son live in a dirt-floored hut and subsist on less than $300 per year from rice farming.

The cows (actually calves) will significantly increase the woman’s earning potential over a long period of time. While Vietnam is a communist country poor people, like this woman, receive little help from the government. According to our guide there is no broad welfare programs for the poor and no socialized medicine.

While the woman and her son live in a hut no larger than 12 feet square she invited us into her home and showed us how she lives. For the Vietnamese, a home is not just a house, it is also their main place of religious worship.

One of our group asked about cooking and the woman quickly demonstrated.

Through our translator the woman thanked us saying she was a woman without education and many words and did not know how to express herself. Her eyes and tears said it all.

As we visited with the woman neighbors showed up and crowded around her door to see what all the activity was about. One of the neighbors was carrying her agent orange deformed child and one of the American veterans took the child in his arms and held him. Being in the homes of those who have suffered and holding their children creates an inescapable connection. As we walked the narrow path along the woman's rice paddy back to our bus one of the veterans comment, "You just can't do this and go home the same."

Friday, January 20, 2012

Mekong Delta

Following a night in a simple hotel in Tay Ninh we headed southeast. The spartan accommodations of the night and several days on the road have brought us closer together. We have four Vietnamese vets traveling with us and on the long drive we sang war songs. The Vietnamese have red and blue war songs. Red war songs are upbeat and marshal, encouraging people to stay with the struggle. Blue songs are those filled with emotion and reflection on family, love and sacrifice. Americans have protest songs. The Americans sang “Last Stop Vietnam,” “I Gotta Get Out of this Place” (The Animals), and “Where Have all the Flowers Gone.” Poems were read by both Americans and Vietnamese and an American veteran told a moving story about warrior homecoming and love. The hours of riding flew by.

Vietnamese veterans singing a red song

As we bounced down narrow roads, past rice paddies and water buffalo and through small hamlets, the landscape slowly began change. Every few kilometers we crossed small rivers and canals.

At Vinh Long City we left the bus and boarded a water taxi and headed to VietCong veterans’ Tam and Madame Tien’s home on Green Island. Crossing one of the many broad fingers of the Mekong River we entered a new realm and conversations quieted as the rolling grey waters filled with floating hyacinths provided a cool break from the tropical humidity and suggested something long ago, far away and mythic.

Mekong Riverboat

Boat woman

Veteran looks across the water

Tam and Madame Tien’s home is a simple Vietnamese Delta home compound designed for guests to come and experience the delta from a Vietnamese perspective. Built on the water and surrounded by water, fruit trees and jungle, the compound is filled with the sights and sounds of simple life – people talking, children running and laughing, dogs barking, and chickens cackling.

Simple digs for American vets at Tiens

Dining room

The more time I spend with veterans the more I know there are certain things I will never know about war. After the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call it the American War) American veterans would often say to civilians, “If you haven’t been there, shut up.” The rightness of that saying came home as I walked a jungle trail with an American infantry veteran and listen to him reflect on his time patrolling the jungles when the enemy could be behind every tree.

Veteran returns to the jungle trail

Dinner of elephant ear fish

Our evening at Tam Tien’s is filled with music, theater, stories and discussions. More Vietnamese veterans show up to welcome the Americans. A local musical group demonstrated Vietnamese Delta music and an American vet preformed an excerpt from his one act play about combat and the aftermath of war. Discussion about the aftermath of war and veteran suffering was passionate. The Vietnamese appear to suffer very little long-term psychological trauma and expect little from their government in terms of long term care. Their reliance is on a local community and family that honors their service and continues to honor them and make meaning of their sacrifice.

Vietnamese delta music

Vietnamese and American veteran discussion group

I slept well in a small shelter on stilts over the Delta water surrounded by a serenade of jungle sounds. A rooster crowing at 3:30 am awakened me and I walked along the river under the stars finally feeling rested and peaceful. As the sun came up and the river life began to stir I felt very far away from my home and yet, oddly at home.

Morning on the delta

Morning breakfast serenade from veterans Tran and Tam.