Try to imagine what it was like…

It’s 8 o’clock on Friday night. It’s raining and blowing so hard I can barely see across the street and there’s no interval between the lightning flashes and the earth shaking thunder. I’m safe inside my apartment but trying to imagine what it might have been like for a 19 year old grunt 50 miles south of Danang in 1968?

This isn’t a creative writing exercise – I met that 19 year old boy today. He dropped out of school at 16 and his father put him right to work on the family farm, but he saw the writing on the wall and volunteered for the draft. Less than a year later he was on the ground near My Tam with an M-16 in his hands. That was 41 years ago.

He’s 60 years old now and the first returning Vietnam vet I’ve met since I took this job in Saigon. It’s not his first trip back; that was in 1998 and he’s been back 4 times since then. At first he came with a group called Vietnam Veterans Restoration Project. He signed on with a group of vets like himself to revisit the place that had interrupted their lives and changed them forever. And the VVRP project put them to work building homes and doing other manual labor projects in order to help heal the wounds of war – their own and those of the Vietnamese people they were working with. But after a couple of visits with the VVRP group he found his own project – helping fund and build a simple boarding facility for orphans at a Catholic school near My Tam.

He told me the story of attending Mass, during the war, in a parish church near where he was posted. He and his buddy were the only non-Vietnamese in the congregation. The only thing he remembers clearly is that the Vietnamese worshipers were staring at the barrel of the .45 showing under his fatigue jacket. It was his precaution that morning – just in case there was a VC sniper in the rafters of the church. He hasn’t forgotten.

He talked non-stop for 2 hours about how he left Vietnam on a stretcher after a landmine exploded under his vehicle, and how he left the farm to take a factory job because the family didn’t have enough money to modernize the dairy operation, and how he couldn’t understand why his wife left him when he was never unfaithful to her and took extra jobs on the weekend to provide for her and their three kids. That was 20 years ago, but he’s still confused about it and tells the story as if it happened yesterday.

His name is Jim. He’s just an ordinary guy, a truck driver and factory worker from Iowa. But, since 1998 he has donated $10,000 to his school project. Tonight he’s sleeping in a $20 hotel in Saigon waiting to get up to Danang tomorrow to see if he can move his project along. I hope he can. I’m not judging him, but he doesn’t seem to have much else going on in his life and this is a really good thing to do. I’m not sure if he’ll be successful. There have been some legal and land use problems plaguing his project for the last couple of years. When I left him after lunch he was trying to figure out the Vietnamese money he had in his pocket. He was having trouble with the conversion – dropping the last three zeros and dividing by 18. When I put him in a cab I crossed my fingers that the cab driver wouldn’t take advantage of him. He’s a really sweet guy who’s doing everything he can to make things right for some wrongs that happened 40 years ago.

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