THE PAINFUL ART OF RECONCILIATION

THE DIRT ROAD TO PHO VINH was narrow and rutted and, in the monsoons, all but impassable. It jutted off Highway i, south of Danang, and headed toward the hills, through lowland rice paddies and past little villages whose occupants had not seen a foreigner in nearly thirty years. People here moved by bicycle and on foot. They worked their crops by hand. Occasionally we would see a water buffalo in the fields, but that was rare. The sun was hard and steady and sweat came quickly. We humped, eleven out-of-shape, middle-aged former GIs and me. My companions were men on the mend. Behind me was Steve Lemire, and it had been seven years since he had slept with a loaded .44 on one side of the pillow and a bottle of whiskey on the other. Next to him was Buck Anderson. He was on his eighth marriage, and this one was working. Chuck Owens was in the pack, and he was no percent sober. Walt Bacak hadn’t thought of suicide in a long time.
“I feel like I’ve been walking guard duty for thirty years,” Mike Far- quhar said to me, his eyes sweeping the road ahead. I knew we both had the same irrational thought: Did Charley plant any mines last night? “Up at night every two hours, smoke a couple of cigarettes, then try to sleep. Can’t. If I get anything out of this trip, if there’s something I’d pray for, it’d be to go home and get some sleep. The funny thing is, being back in ’Nam, I’ve slept really good every night.”
Except for Bacak, this was the first time the men had set foot in Viet¬nam since the war, and returning had been very unnerving. Now they were headed toward a meeting with their former Viet Cong enemies— the very men some of the GIs had fought in this very spot—and what they hoped was that somewhere out here among the jungle-covered hills—or perhaps in the meeting itself—they would find the secret to fi¬nally come to grips with one simple fact: The war was over.
Bacak was nearly sixty, a three-tour, once-wounded vet. He was Air¬borne, an army lifer. He had first returned, alone, in 1997, bogged down in drugs, and he found the trip such a healthy antidote that he set up a non¬profit organization, A Quest for Healing, back home in Lakewood, Washington, and ran two trips a year for former veterans who wanted to return to Vietnam and lay the past to rest.
“I’ve never brought anyone back that didn’t find the trip positive,” said Bacak, who had spent a year fighting in the hills and paddies around Pho Vinh. “It doesn’t eradicate all the problems, but it allows the vets to change the mental black-and-white photos. It lets them put a face on the men they fought. Over weeks, maybe months, they go home and find the nightmares diminish. They start sleeping better. They don’t get angry so easily. Before my first trip back I was seriously into drugs. The only rea¬son I didn’t try suicide was because I’d spent so much time in ’Nam trying to stay alive. When I got back to Washington my wife, Joyce, says to me, ‘Walter, this is like having a new husband come home.’”
This was Bacak’s eighth trip to postwar Vietnam, and he had mastered the protocol. So at lunch in Quang Ngai earlier that day, he had tried to ease the Americans’ apprehension about the meeting. “When you meet them,” he said, “just keep it light at first. They won’t speak English, but we’ve got a good translator. Be polite. Ask about their families. Don’t ask, ‘How many people did you kill?’ or any shit like that. Then play it by ear. If they want to talk about the war, OK. Let them bring it up. You’re going to find they’re very gracious.”
Pho Vinh wasn’t much more than a cluster of shops and bamboo homes strung out on a dusty stretch of the road. In the small one-room building used by the Communist Party, three former Viet Cong guerrillas waited. The Americans entered warily, wearing baseball caps emblazoned with the words “Vietnam: I Came Back.” An electric fan groaned over¬head. A portrait of Ho Chi Minh hung on the blue wall. Outside, by the open door, villagers stood ten deep, trying to get a good look at these broad-shouldered strangers who towered over their hosts. The crowd kept growing until an old man in a frayed security guard’s shirt arrived to shoo everyone away.
Doan Vinh Quay, who was sixty-two, spoke first. He wore a fedora, and over his best shirt he had pinned a black medal commemorating his parents, killed just up the road by U.S. artillery in 1967. He said he was honored to welcome the Americans as friends. He showed them scars where a bullet had shattered his hand. He asked what unit each had fought with and when each had served. A chorus came back: “First Mar Div, ’65 … 1970, Eleventh Cav. … 101st Airborne, Second Brigade, ’66. . . .”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Categories

Meta