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My wife and I have just returned from a trip to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. As a Vietnam vet I have been wanting to get back to the region where I served as a military advisor to a South Vietnamese coastal patrol group in the Mekong Delta in 1970. We were with an alumni group from Northwestern University, and the group’s itinerary didn’t permit my visiting the exact location where I served (near the village of Tiem Tom in Kien Hoa Province). I did hear from a Vietnamese guide who knows that area that the village is flourishing, thanks to the establishment of a shrimp farm by one of the villagers. And the place where I and the other advisors used to go for Army PX supplies, the town of Ba Tri, now boasts a bird sanctuary. So, I’m pleased that much better times have come to that region, and to Vietnam in general.
Before leaving Vietnam my wife and I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). As a photographer I was very interested in the third floor Requiem exhibit of photographs made by 134 photo journalists from 11 nations who died in the course of their work. The photo of the old Leica camera with a bullet hole through it symbolizes their fate, although the owner, a Japanese photographer, managed to survive the ambush which did in his camera.
Unlike other exhibits in the museum, the Requiem exhibit honors the sacrifice of people on both sides of the long conflict, from the time of the French colonial occupation to the end of “the American War” in 1975. Much of the rest of the museum concentrates on “American aggression and war atrocities,” but the Requiem exhibit honors all who suffered, even us, the former enemy. It also features piteous photos of congenitally deformed children whose parents, both Vietnamese and American, were exposed to Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the U.S. to remove jungle. These “Agent Orange children” and thousands more killed or wounded by buried and unexploded ordinance remind us that even after truces are signed and the shooting stops, the harm of war often continues.
I recommend a trip to Vietnam for veterans. Other vets who have returned have also found it a healing journey, and some have become involved in volunteer projects to help the country. In this post’s picture gallery you’ll find a painting by a Vietnamese child showing people of various races and places holding hands. Notice that one boy is wearing a T-shirt that says “USA.” Yes, the Vietnamese are friendly to Americans, despite the damage we inflicted. I don’t know whether it’s accurate to say that they have forgiven us, but they certainly are focusing on the future, rather than the past. Veterans of the conflict and their loved ones would be blessed to do likewise.