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Reflecting on Returning to Vietnam
By Fred Ptucha
October 23, 2002
I served four tours of duty during the Vietnam War as a LT in the US Navy. As an intelligence officer with Top Secret Crypto Clearance I was privy to many of the "dirty secrets" of American policy and became increasingly convinced that the war was a terrible mistake and that we should never have been involved in Vietnam. I've carried a lingering sense of guilt about my participation in an immoral and unjust war since my return to civilian life in 1970 over 52 years ago.
As part of the Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project, we went to Dong Ha in Quang Tri province in 2002.The primary humanitarian aspect of the work we did was to provide the money and some token/symbolic labor to build 12 houses for disabled Vietnamese Veterans. The 12 veterans had all suffered major wounds such as the loss of an arm, a leg, an eye, etc. In addition, their homes and sometimes their entire village had been destroyed by American forces during the war. They had all lost one or more close family members in the war such as a child, a wife, parents, brothers and sisters, etc. Three vets had also suffered wounds or had family members who had been wounded, after the war was over, by landmines America left behind.
Yet, despite this, we were treated as honored guests at each home site. After an opening ceremony and a small amount of physical work they would have a big feast with the veterans' extended family and the leaders of the village with many toasts of rice wine to "Peace and Friendship between the Vietnamese and American People." I never felt any hatred, anger or resentment, from any of the Vietnamese people we met, about the terrible destruction we caused to their country and to their individual families. They were unbelievably warm, forgiving and gracious hosts.
Suppose the situation was reversed and Vietnam had invaded America, bombed my city, destroyed my home, and killed some of my immediate family and left me disabled. Then some Vietnamese Vets showed up some 30 years later and said, "We are going to pay for a new house and help you build it." I wonder if I could be so forgiving and gracious. I doubt it.
Finally I realized that if these Vietnamese Veterans who had suffered so much could forgive me then maybe it was OK for me to forgive myself. That release of guilt and forgiveness has been a wonderful gift. Now I can finally see Vietnam as a beautiful country with warm, gracious, forgiving people and not as a war.
Fred Ptucha is a peace and justice advocate in Santa Rosa, California.