THE PAINFUL ART OF RECONCILIATION 2

“Ah, the 101st. They were good, very tough,” Quay replied. He smiled when someone asked how long a tour of duty had been for the Viet Cong. For the duration, he replied. Quay had fought for fifteen years, some of his friends much longer.
Conversation did not come easily at first. What do you say when you meet a man whom thirty years ago you would have shot dead on the spot? But some of the men on both sides had brought scrapbooks and photos. Everyone laughed that the Americans had grown hefty and the Viet¬namese were still skinny. “That was your wife?” an American asked, pointing to one of the album photos. “Wow. Very beautiful. You lucky man.” Tea was served, and the Vietnamese stood willingly among the Americans for group pictures. Before long, amid jokes and banter, the ice melted, the anxiety faded, and it was apparent to both sides that this was not a gathering of enemies. “I just want to say that, during the war, we had a lot of respect for the VC,” Steve Lemire said. “You were good soldiers.”
VC, or Viet Cong, was a contraction of Viet Nam Cong San, Viet¬namese communists, used derogatorily by the Saigon regime but never by the insurgents themselves. They preferred National Liberation Front. Still, Quay nodded in appreciation, and one could hear him thinking, “I know.”
Later, with Bacak walking point, the fourteen men—eleven Americans and three Vietnamese—set off for the old headquarters of the ioist’s First Brigade, in the hills a mile away. It was, in a manner of speaking, a joint GI-VC patrol, a sight I never thought I’d live to see. During the war, I’d been just about everywhere in South Vietnam that U.S. units were based, including all three of the joist’s brigade camps. So I must have been in Pho Vinh before. But after a while the camps and fire support bases all looked pretty much alike, and any memory I might once have had of this place had faded with time. We reached the long, high empty plateau. Crumbling asphalt covered the chopper landing pads. Jungle scrub had reclaimed most of the hill. Not a trace remained of the sandbagged bar¬racks where a thousand Americans once lived. One GI pointed to a head- high rock overlooking the valley and said a soldier nicknamed Wolfman used to howl at the moon there after coming back from long-range patrols.
“That’s where we slept, right over there,” one former grunt said. For¬mer VC guerrilla Nguyen Minh Duc replied, “I know. And your com¬mand bunker was just over by the tree.” He went on to recall exactly how many choppers were at the camp, where the mess hall was, what time pa¬trols were likely to go out. “We were never far away,” Duc said. He re-called how GIs used to search the villagers hired to do menial chores when they passed through the barbed-wire perimeter at the end of every workday. But what they stole wasn’t some commodity hidden under skirts and shirts. It was intelligence.
So with darkness settling in on the abandoned hilltop base, the GIs and VC pulled up shirts and rolled up pant legs to show one another their wounds. They roasted seven chickens and drank beer. They shared more photographs and joked about building a veterans meeting hall for Ameri¬cans and Vietnamese over by the old command post. One GI asked how much an acre of land would cost because this looked like a beautiful place for a retirement home, and the VC answered that in exchange for a visa to the United States he could provide an acre very reasonably. Everyone laughed.
“When I heard about this trip,” Bob Garrison said, “I said, ‘Man, I’d like to go, but we can’t afford it.’ And my wife says, ‘Like hell we can’t. You’re going if I have to eat beans for a month.’ She paid for me and Mike to come over. And you know, I’m feeling a little softer inside already.”
One American swapped his sneakers for a Vietnamese’s sandals. Two vets gave Due their unit medals. He fingered them with interest and slipped them into his breast pocket. “Boom-boom,” he laughed, his fore¬finger extended like a gun barrel. “I shoot you. You shoot me.”
The Americans grew quiet after a while. When night came, they made a circle of rocks by the edge of the plateau, and one by one they entered it, sitting alone in the silent, peaceful darkness. The Americans had come of age as teenagers on hills like this. They remembered the adrenaline rush of combat, the dreamy calm of postbattle fatigue. Never had life been so terrible—or so exhilarating. Never had they known such camaraderie or had so much authority and responsibility. For many, all that lay ahead would be a mere footnote.
Don Harris left the rock circle. At first, until he drew close to the group by the flaming barbecue, he appeared as only a shadow, making its way out of the darkness. He had a rare heart disease, and his doctor in Tennessee had told him it was too risky to make the trip to Vietnam. But he had insisted on going, choosing to spend “some of my last days” with the people he truly cared about—Vietnam vets.
“Vietnam,” he mused. “This is the one place I really felt like somebody.”

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