I was discriminated against while job hunting in my first few years back, so I took my service off my resume for a while.
But, in 1992, I was encouraged by a co-worker to start writing about my time in Vietnam.
When I eventually started writing, the memories of a very important place were resurrected. I came home to a world in turmoil because the war had gone on for much too long.
I was working for IBM at the time and we opened an office in Sai Gon (Ho Chi Mihn City). I became friendly with several of the people in the office since I was in daily contact with them. They were aware I served during the war.
Stacy was thrilled to be able to visit another continent on her quest to visit them all and she also wanted to experience the culture of Vietnam. So we made our reservations and the wheels were in motion.
We flew from JFK airport to Hong Kong via the North Pole route and thanks to a great ticket agent, were upgraded to business class which made the 15½ hour flight more bearable. The flight from Hong Kong was relatively shorter – about 2½ hours.
We arrived in Sai Gon and were met by the happy couple and escorted to the hotel. It was difficult to go through customs seeing the uniforms that reminded me of the enemy from past times, but it was a different time and having my daughter at my side was a great help in overcoming any hatred or fear. Well, that is how I got back, but the real reason for my return was several days away.
When I was at Camp Eagle, each Sunday, someone from my company (501st Signal Battalion -- 101st Airborne Division) would take laundry to a Catholic orphanage in Hue - Kim Long.
We arrived in Hue via Vietnam Airlines at Phu Bai airport on a Sunday evening. Since it was already dark, there was nothing that I could see during the cab ride from Phu Bai that was remotely recognizable. At the hotel, I could see the Citadel (the ancient Imperial North Vietnam Army during the war).
After a night of restful sleep, we awoke to see in the daylight, the structure now visible across the Perfume River. After breakfast on the patio, (it was 85 degrees on that January morning) we hailed a cab and headed for the Citadel.
So, the time had arrived and with gifts in hand, we hailed a cab and headed to Kim Long Orphanage. We once again rode across the bridge and past the Citadel before arriving at 42 Kim Long.
When I showed a picture of me in 1970 at Camp Eagle, Sister Xavier looked at it and uttered, “Ooh La La.” We all laughed.
We went to another room to find an assistant changing the diaper of a one-year-old. Lin had come to the orphanage at the age of one day. She then handed the girl to Stacy who walked the rest of the tour with her. Lin was expressionless; it was somewhat sad to see this beautiful child and no smile.
Sister Xavier joined us on the tour, laughing at each comment any of us would make -- but as we moved on, she lagged behind and Trang and Sister Chantal did not seem to feel obligated to wait for her.
During the tour, we met the European contact for the orphanage, Christian, and his sponsored godchild who was as cute as any of the others. We would meet up with her later in the day.
We then went to the newer section of the orphanage – Son Ca II. But before we left, I was to meet two very special people. On one of my visits to Kim Long in 1970, I took a random picture of two boys playing in the garden. I had sent this picture to Christian who shared it with Sisters Chantal and Xavier.
Tu and Lân and I spoke for a few minutes with the help of Trang. I had my picture taken with them and then they were gone. I would later find out that I would meet the daughters of these two men. The teenage girls were also students at Kim Long.
With the reunion accomplished, we were off to Son Ca II. We had to traverse small alleys and narrow streets to get there. We passed many small homes and businesses and out of some came young children, anxious to say hello to the two Westerners passing by.
The new orphanage’s entrance is about a five minute walk from Son Ca I, the former orphanage. The new complex is actually built on the former cemetery of the orphanage. We had to get there via a small street perpendicular to the Perfume River. We finally arrived at Son Ca II where we saw a huge courtyard with trees and fountains. It had several buildings and was immaculate. It housed more classrooms, vegetable gardens, kitchen, and dining areas.
One classroom we visited was a special needs class. The children had all types of disabilities. There was a 22-year old girl with Down syndrome who was very high functioning, another younger Down girl and a boy with Cornelius DeLange Syndrome. There were also several others and they were all so happy to see us.
We headed back to Son Ca I; it was almost time for school to let out and the transient children would be picked up by their parents. It was snack time and Sister Chantal was distributing cookies to the children. Again, there was no chaos or ruckus of any kind as each child received their treat.
I was pushed into taking about five children on a cyclo ride. This bike with a huge seat on the front - sort of a rickshaw – held the children as I whisked around the courtyard a few times. It was a real treat for them.
Stacy had a little girl latched onto her – Mai Ahn who extremely cute. Stacy said she had a few Angelina Jolie moments that day and now understood why it is so difficult to leave any of them behind.
Later, the children – all the permanent residents - filed into the dining room where they had assigned seats. The little ones sat on lower chairs and tables, while the older ones sat on bar-height tables and chairs. The special needs children also joined in. There was no chaos, no noise, no misbehavior as Sister Chantal led them in prayer. They then sang a short Vietnamese song that we did not recognize.
The staff, both nuns and lay people, served the children a meal of rice and shredded meat. It is amazing how much energy these workers have. I learned later that their day starts at 4 AM and sometimes does not end until after 10 PM. It is truly a labor of love for them.
After dinner, the children were led back to their respective bedrooms to prepare for the show that some of them would be performing in that evening.
We then headed back to the area we first entered earlier that afternoon where we met Sister Julienne Loan. Sister Julienne took over the responsibility of the orphanage in 2007. She is supported by Sister Chantal who guides her in this tough task. Sister Julienne replaced Sister Marie Kim who is currently in charge of a school for poor children in Tuy Hoa, in the South of Vietnam. Sister Julienne thanked us for the gifts we brought and also for a previous donation in 2008.
We spoke for a long time about previous visits of the O’Neills and others who had also given large donations to Kim Long. When I mentioned the O’Neills, she smiled.
Sister Chantal then read from a script that Christian had prepared for her telling us that although this is the first time we met, we were already friends. She told us that when the good sisters returned to Kim Long in 1991, the place was surrounded by barbed wire and it was just a slum of hen houses and dirty stables.
We then were taken to the dining room where we started with a bit more homemade wine and then a can of Saigon 333 (ba ba ba) Beer. Sister Lihn then brought the first course of Pho (a great Vietnamese soup with vegetables and noodles), then a platter full of a great fried chicken (breaded with panco) and a whole fish. Everything was cooked to perfection. The company and conversation was great.
After dinner we were lead to the courtyard where the children were waiting. We sat in two padded chairs while the others all had wooden or steel chairs. We felt like royalty.
Trang read to us, again from a script that Christian had prepared. She addressed Stacy and me telling us what a great honor it was to have us at Kim Long after all of these years. She told me that because I had sent a picture of the church to Christian (called Bac Ki, by the staff and children) back in May of 2008, that verified Kim Long was the orphanage I had known, she had renamed the church as "Bob’s Church." She was happy that the church was the link in my return.
The church had been returned to Kim Long by the government just a few short weeks before. Sister Chantal continued, telling us that it will be necessary to build a wall around the church soon to bring it back to Son Ca I.
She thanked us for our previous gifts, the new gifts, and asked me to take thanks back to all who contributed. She felt we would leave a piece of our heart in Kim Long, and I know we have. She told us she and the staff would never forget us and we would always remain their best friends. She ended with another thank you and sadness that Bac Ki could not be here with us. She invited us to come back any time and we would always be welcome.
Trang then introduced the first act and each subsequent performance. There was singing and dancing and all was done rather well. All of the outfits worn by the children were made by the older girls in their seamstress class. Some were ornate and many were silk.
Our companions for the evening were Anh Xuan and Mai Anh. They sat with us through the entire show, holding our hands, snuggling, just sharing their love. When the show was over it was difficult to let them go. It was difficult to say good-bye to all the children.
We returned to the reception room where we were given gifts by the good sisters. Two bottles of homemade wine and four bags of Vietnamese coffee. A taxi was summoned and we were soon to end our visit of more than seven heart-warming hours. It all went too quickly and it was definitely not enough to spend at this great place.
Sisters Julienne, Xavier and Chantal said good-bye to us in the traditional European manner of a kiss on both cheeks. We then got into our taxi as Sister Chantal gave directions to the driver and we were off.
This day was one of the most rewarding days I have ever spent anywhere. I am, and will be, eternally grateful that I had Stacy there to share it with me. It will take something great to top it. I don’t think I have ever felt as good about anything I have ever done in a charitable way than I did that day.
I am absolutely positive that neither Stacy nor I will ever forget our day at Kim Long. We rode back to the La residence talking about all that had occurred.
It has been almost three years since that reunion and I would go back tomorrow if I could. Many Vietnam veterans will never return to this land that took so many of our fine people from us and whose names are emblazoned on The Wall in Washington.
I feel very fortunate to have been able to return to Vietnam and experience a Buddhist wedding, an orphanage in Hue, and visiting the capital that was in enemy territory during the war. Ha Noi was not on my original list of cities to visit but after going there and seeing the infamous Ha Noi Hilton where John McCain and so many others spent years in captivity, it was well worth it.
This ends the series of my story but if anyone would like to read about the other parts of my visit, feel free to comment and I will add another section at a later date. Or you can visit back2vietnam.blogspot.com
[Bob Staranowicz, born in Philadelphia, served with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam. He is a graduate of LaSalle University and has Bachelor's and Master's degrees. He lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife.]