"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Vietnam, The Return, by Jesse Gump

Jesse Gump
What are the chances of finding a Vietnamese friend after 45 years have passed?

After two heart attacks related to Agent Orange, I began saving my money for a return trip to where I was stationed in Vietnam.  I wasn't sure why I wanted to return, but it was a feeling I couldn't put aside. 

I finally made my return to the small village of Ninh Hoa, Vietnam, where I spent more than a year with the Korean 9th ROK Infantry. 

One of my goals was to see if I could find a couple of Vietnamese people who I considered friends. I thought the odds of finding them were nearly zero, but I made the effort anyway. I was surprised when I did locate them and they remembered me after all these years. I thought they would be dead or had moved from the village. 

It was an awkward but happy reunion. What little Vietnamese I once knew had evaporated over the years, and what little English they once knew no longer existed. Our meeting involved a lot of smiles and pointing at old photos I had with me. It was healing, in a way, to know my old friends had survived the conflict and that they were well. 

Now that I've made my return, I'm writing about my personal experiences on this venture. 

Jesse Gump

Vietnam: Forty-five Years Later

What Are The Odds?
(Part 1 of 3 Parts)

Location: Ninh Hòa, a district-level town of Khanh Hoa Province in the South Central Coastal region of Vietnam, 1968.

Situation: American GI’s working liaison for the Korean 9th ROK Infantry (which was charged with maintaining security for that specific area). I was one of those GI’s. I was stationed with the Korean Infantry from January 1968 until February 1969.

During my time in Ninh Hoa with the Koreans, my job was part of the night-time perimeter security team. That meant I worked at night and slept during the day. Well, sometimes I slept but as often as not I only slept for short periods of time due to the light, heat, artillery firing, and general activity around my cot.

As a result, I came to know the Vietnamese “hooch maids” we hired to help us with things such as laundry and general clean-up of our quarters. We all chipped in to pay for their services and the women did a good job. One’s name was Tay and the other was Bah.

In reality, these (back then) women were actually girls in their late teens, not much younger than most of us GI’s.

Because daytime sleeping was difficult at best, I spent some of my waking time interacting with our “house-keepers”. They had questions about GI habits and preferences, and I had the same questions about the Vietnamese.

I taught them English words and they taught me Vietnamese words. In time, we became friends.

Before I rotated back to the real world, I told them I would return someday. I didn’t believe it and neither did they, but I did return -- forty-five years later.

What are the chances I could meet up with those two girls/women, unplanned, unannounced, and on a date and time even I couldn’t predict? In my personal opinion the odds were about one in a million, if not worse. Still, I promised myself that if I ever went back to Vietnam I would try to fulfill my promise to my friends.

Fast forward to 2013. For years I had toyed with the idea of making a return visit to Vietnam. It was on my bucket-list. Unfortunately life has a bad habit of getting in the way of personal wants and desires. Eventually I retired and had actually saved enough money to make the trip back to Vietnam. 

I bit the bullet and made my travel plans. Pittsburgh to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Three nights in Saigon to recover from the trip (it’s brutal) and then onward to Nha Trang with a side trip to Ninh Hoa to find my old base and my old friends. 

For anyone who hasn’t been to Vietnam recently, I can assure you it is nothing like you may remember from the war years. Yes, the people still look the same, but their clothes are more western than the silk pants, cone-shaped hats, and “áo dài” that we all remember.

Automobiles and motorbikes have proliferated beyond belief and vehicle traffic jams have followed suit. The older buildings in towns and cities look much the same but many have had face-lifts over the years. New buildings give the Saigon skyline a modern look. It’s a scene you have to see to understand.

One thing that hasn’t changed in Saigon is the heat. To me, early June in Saigon feels just like an August heat wave in the US – with 90% humidity. By the end of my second day in Saigon, I was ready to move on.

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

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