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A friend called me. He said he was going to return to Vietnam to walk the ground where he once fought. I told him that was well worth doing.
I had no idea about issues in his life that compelled him to return to that part of the world where hell had truly been in session. He had always impressed me as a tough-minded, hardworking businessman who had been successful and was admired in his community.
It was my impression he wanted to return to the scene of the most surreal event in his life to try to see it again through eyes that could now take all of it in and know things were alright this time. His deepest self would know those bygone firefights were over and that no one was trying to kill him or his buddies.
He wanted to return to Vietnam to find the tank of which he was commander. He said it was in a ditch the last time he saw it and was curious to see if it was still there.
I’d seen a photo of him in that war that had been published many times over. I was happy to know that he’d returned to his small town after he’d done his duty and carried on. I told him I’d been interested in military people, events and implements since I was a young boy. I questioned him about being in command of a tank and asked for particulars about the times between battles and how this would bear on one’s mind.
He was gracious in his recounting of those days and months. He said his tank had been hit, and he managed to get the crew out and away from it should it explode. They stayed undercover as enemy troops scoured the area looking for them. He said none of the crew wanted to be taken prisoner since they knew what would happen.
They stayed undercover, avoided the enemy and managed to slip away after night fell. The wounded members of his crew required much help since they were almost totally incapacitated. He told me that being inside a tank when it takes a hit from some anti-tank weapon is an experience any tank crewman fervently hopes will never be repeated. If they survive, they will relive it many times over.
He went to Vietnam and came back with the news that his old tank was gone. He said it had probably been made into hundreds of pots, pans and other untold parts and pieces of the Vietnamese economy. The locals, he said, were adept at recycling and this was too good a huge piece of steel to ignore.
He looked for the spot where it had come to its end as a fighting weapon. The landscape was different with the passage of the decades. He had left that ditch as a young man and now returned as a grandfather, reliving this one event that was part of his personal odyssey.
I admired his courage then and now. Those decades ago, it was a time of much turmoil there in the jungle and back home. He and his buddies spent their free time thinking about how to live another day, how long it would be until they could go home, about how to defend each other if it came to that.
His trek back to that place is one of many as men and women who went over there return to see what it looks like now. They find trees that have grown in places where bombs fell and firefights took place that killed friend and foe. They see where souvenirs are hawked to those willing to buy fakes. It can be many things to them as pilgrims, but it is mostly a healing process.
We won the battles but left the war. We left it and our fighting force came home two full years before North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops could finally take over. Many who have never served in any military branch are journalists who crank out news stories about the war in Vietnam. They seem to have a permanent fixation on the U.S. as the loser. They are ignorant of the history of such military matters and are apparently unwilling to learn much more about it at all.
As any student of military history knows, those who fight the wars want them ended quickly and with as little loss of life as possible. They want to know they have the support and confidence of their government. They want to be free to fight it without outside tinkering by bureaucrats and desk-bound strategists. They would like to think daily bombing targets are chosen by commanders who are there “in country,” not halfway around the globe in a Washington office as happened during Vietnam. They would also like to think they are allowed to try to win the war quickly, not just the battles.
If doubt remains as to the result of such laissez faire tactics as letting ground commanders command, a quick review of the Gulf War is recommended. The Washington big shots kept out of it and let the onsite generals carry out the orders.
The Gulf War ended, how quickly? Compare it with Vietnam. As to whether we should have been there in Southeast Asia to begin with is another question altogether. There were many reasons set forth pro and con as we escalated our involvement. Many pointed to what was known as the “domino theory,” which held that if one Southeast Asian nation fell to the communists, others would follow. A reported attack on some American destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf by enemy boats prompted passage of the resolution that escalated the war in earnest.
Those days have passed and with them the tense hours around conference tables planning war, then peace. The anniversary of the final American exit has come and gone as former fighting men and women return to find some of what they left behind.
One who went cannot return. He was my next door neighbor. I watched him grow from the age of 12. As an army captain, he was the highest-ranking GI from our part of my home state to die there. Another young boy who lived a few blocks away went to the Air Force Academy, became a pilot and lost his life when his plane blew up over the Pacific on its way to bomb the enemy. Nothing was ever found. His plane and all aboard it were vaporized as the entire bomb load went up in a fireball. No one could ever figure out why.
Heroes were made daily and not all carried weapons to kill. A friend was a combat photographer and is now a journalist. His work won him deserved accolades from his government. He also made the trip to see those places again.
Memorial Day is upon us. Next time you see those who fought in any of the nation’s wars, thank them for what they did. Tell them you appreciate their sacrifice. It will only take a minute or two. Let them know that their days of fear and agony of spirit are worth the world to you.
Because they are.
To listen to David Goodnow’s recorded feature, “Daily Journal,” go to