Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
Teacher Mark

30 Years Later: Are We Still Warring Over Vietnam?

1 post in this topic

Recommended Posts

By Steven Komarow, USA TODAY

The thump-thump of the last helicopter taking off from a rooftop in Saigon marked the end of America's time in Vietnam in April 1975. The U.S. death toll was about 58,000, almost 40 times the number so far in Iraq. In interviews to mark the anniversary, U.S. servicemembers, civilians and South Vietnamese allies tell about their experiences.

Richard Vogel, AP

Now it's 30 years since South Vietnam fell to Communist forces, and by coincidence, 60 years since the end of World War II. That means the entire Vietnam War took place closer to WWII than to today, a symbolic threshold that puts the Vietnam War firmly in the province of historians. (Graphic: Fall of Saigon)

Even a generation later, controversy over the war has the power to summon passion and bitterness, as evidenced by last year's disputes over Democratic Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam duty and President Bush's time in the National Guard. (Related story: Search for MIAs continues)

In interviews to mark the anniversary, U.S. servicemembers, civilians and South Vietnamese allies tell USA TODAY that the Vietnam experience is the headwaters for attitudes and the template for decisions that flow through society today.

Richard Holbrooke

Holbrooke, 64, a New York investment banker, was United Nations ambassador in the Clinton administration. He began his foreign service career in Vietnam's Mekong Delta before most Americans had heard of war in Vietnam, and later served as an aide at the Paris peace talks aimed at ending it.

"For those of us who were there as young men, it is the originating event of our political and foreign policy education. (Yet) people of course came out of it with diametrically opposed lessons," he says, as evidenced by today's divisions over Iraq.

"I was in Vietnam the day that (President) Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown and killed. I was 22 years old and a very young foreign service officer. That was Nov. 1, 1963 ... I was trying to (fly) to Saigon to visit my friend Tony Lake (later President Clinton's national security adviser). I called him and he said, 'We're hiding in the closet of our house. The tanks are shooting all around us!' I said, 'I've got to see this. I've never seen a coup before.' "

With flights canceled, Holbrooke drove from the Mekong Delta to Saigon.

"Tanks were everywhere, the girls were putting flowers in the barrels of the guns. Everybody was celebrating. It was very exciting," he says. "What nobody could have known ... is that that would begin (a pattern of) revolving-door governments ... and that we would be dragged deeply in." It's a worry that echoes in Iraq today.

"My roommate in Saigon was John Negroponte (now national intelligence director), and we have talked about this endlessly now for 40 years as friends," he says. "I have this image that 20 years from now the Today show will stage a 50th anniversary debate of the end of the war and they will (roll in) the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the hawks, and they'll start screaming at each other from their wheelchairs."

Catherine Leroy

Photographer Leroy, 60, a French native living in Los Angeles, remembers Vietnam as a magnet pulling her toward her dream.

She was 21 in 1966 when "I went there on a one-way ticket," she says. "I was absolutely obsessed about becoming a photojournalist. My heroes were photojournalists."

She succeeded, covering the war for major publications in the USA and Europe, and her work is the centerpiece for her new book, Under Fire, that matches the best photos and writing on the war. She was there in April 1975 to witness the final Communist victory, then returned two years later. She saw that the spoils of war could be few.

"It was a very bad year," she recalls. "It was a time when there were lots of Russian (Soviet) advisers. The Vietnamese were calling them 'Americans without money.' The Russians would go into the antique shop ... (with) a Russian flag and they would say, 'You give me this ugly porcelain and I'll give you this beautiful Russian flag.' And of course, the Vietnamese had to do it."

Now, she says, "The Vietnamese have moved on, and you have this new generation. And (the war) to them, it's so far away. ... All they want is to have a better life, make money and be like everybody else. Of course, it's OK. Of course."

Nguyen Phong

Phong, 70, was a South Vietnamese diplomat involved in peace talks from 1968 until the end of the war. He returned to Saigon five days before the surrender and was imprisoned. Today, he's a scholar with the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University.

The Vietnamese "still do not understand very well why the calamity of war fell on our heads," he says. "We hoped very much that foreign rule (Vietnam was a French colony) would end, and we would ... have our country back."

Now, he says, "I don't feel that it was a civil war at all. It was a conflict clearly between the so-called free world and the Communist bloc. ... For the first time the United States, a superpower, was forced to deal with a new kind of warfare (where) you don't have any demarcation line between the civilian and the military."

Col. Regina Aune

Col. Aune, 60, an Air Force officer now assigned to Brooks City-Base in San Antonio, was a flight nurse aboard a C-5 cargo jet that would be evacuating orphans from South Vietnam in early April 1975.

Aune, then a 1st lieutenant flying out of Clark Air Base, the Philippines, remembers that when she arrived in Saigon to pick up the children on April 4, there was a sense of desperation as North Vietnamese forces closed in. Her mission was the maiden flight of "Operation Babylift," a humanitarian effort to relocate hundreds of war orphans to the USA. It was to be one of the good things that came out of a divisive and ugly war, she recalls.

But shortly after takeoff, something went horribly wrong. Aune remembers a loud explosion. An investigation later determined that a lock on the cargo doors had failed, leading to a rapid decompression.

"There was a big hole in the back of the plane," Aune says. In a matter of minutes, the aircraft crash-landed near Saigon and broke into pieces.

In all, more than 150 of the 328 aboard were killed. Most who survived — including Aune — were seated in the passenger compartment of the cavernous C-5, located above the cargo bay. The cargo deck was crushed on impact and all but a handful of passengers there were killed.

"I think of this every five years, when there is an anniversary story about Vietnam," says Aune, who broke her back and every bone in her right foot. Aune and others who survived the crash helped to carry 149 children to safety, under the most difficult of circumstances.

The crash did not stop Babylift. By the end of April, more than 1,700 orphans had been flown out of South Vietnam. "We did a lot of good," Aune says.

Chuck Hagel

Hagel, 58, now a U.S. Republican senator from Nebraska, was an infantryman in Vietnam from December 1967 to December 1968.

"We certainly learned a lot from Vietnam," he says. "One of the lessons ... is that it's easy to get into war. But no matter how noble the purpose, (it's) not always easy to get out. You can get yourself into a lot of trouble pretty quick," says Hagel, whose tour included battle during the chaos of the Tet Offensive.

"We should not ever allow that bad experience in Vietnam to paralyze America," he says.

But those who fought there are mindful that "war is full of unintended consequences. War is a very uncertain process. The only constant of war is that there's a tremendous amount of suffering. "If we can keep this all in a certain balance and perspective as we work ... then we would have gained from that experience."

James Miles

Miles, 57, of Sioux Falls, S.D., is a chief warrant officer 4serving with the 42nd Infantry Division in Iraq since last August. He flew helicopters in Vietnam for a year starting in February 1969. He e-mailed from Iraq.

"You really can't help but compare your enemies when you get the opportunity to face more than one," he says. "The Vietnamese were much more dedicated and resilient than my current foe. They were all committed to one goal, whereas our current adversary lacks organization and true commitment. While we do see a few (enemies) who would be willing to give their life for their cause, 99% of the citizens over here really want us here and help in any way they can. They can actually see that we are really here to help them, whereas the Vietnamese never did see that."

Most of the soldiers he serves with now have no memory of his first war.

"I really don't get many questions from others over here about Vietnam. In the few conversations I have had with others, I still get the feeling that that is one situation the U.S. Army would just as soon forget about."

Quang X. Pham

Pham, a Southern California businessman, was 10 when South Vietnam collapsed around him. He, his mother and four sisters were evacuated to the USA, but his father was imprisoned for 12½ years. Pham joined the U.S. Marines and piloted helicopters in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in Somalia.

He remembers the kindness of strangers. "I didn't know that outside of the (refugee) camp public sentiment was divided on what to do with the refugees."

Now 40, he's trying to mobilize America's Vietnamese community. Pham has published a memoir, A Sense of Duty, that pleads with America to recognize the efforts of the South Vietnamese soldiers, including his father, a fighter pilot.

"There's no South Vietnamese (military) voice in writing, the movies or anything," he says. "Go ask the South Vietnamese how they felt about being abandoned by the United States. Go ask the South Vietnamese how they feel about being in a prison camps for 15 years.

"It took 20 years for American vets of the Vietnam War to get their due. So I think for the Vietnamese it takes a little longer," he says.

"Just acknowledge that 250,000 of them died in the war, like the 58,000 Americans who died. We're not just rice farmers in the background of Hollywood movies."

Ron Serafinowicz

Serafinowicz, 56, flew Army attack helicopters in Vietnam from June 1970 to June 1971 as a Chief Warrant Officer. Now a National Guardsman, he's been in Iraq since January with the aviation brigade headquarters of the 42nd Infantry Division.

"America is stronger from the experience" of Vietnam, he says. "That was proven in the Gulf War, the way things were done to assure a rapid victory."

Now, he says, "being in a combat zone again makes you feel the same way as you felt 35 years ago, and it revives the memories of things you did back then. You remember little details and the missions you flew ... the present situation in Iraq is a lot like the Vietnam War was. There are no front lines. Anyone can be your enemy. You can't roam the countryside without a lot of firepower with you. You can't have a rapid victory because the process of rebuilding Iraq is going to be slow and there are many trying to stop it."

John Miska

The war was winding down when Miska, 51, of Greene County, Va., had a low draft lottery number and enlisted in 1973. "I spoke to my Uncle Joe, who was in the Army in Guadalcanal and Okinawa. He said, 'You'll get an experience in the military that you won't get anywhere else.' "

Because he enlisted for four years instead of waiting for the draft, he was able to choose a job that kept him off the front lines. "And when I was in the Army, it was totally different than a guy who served '67 to '69. It was a different Army. There was not the esprit de corps and all. When we were leaving basic training, they told us not to travel in military uniforms."

He's resolved that returning soldiers will never be mistreated again, and he has plenty of opportunity. Miska how runs a non-profit organization called Adopt a Soldier that collects and distributes clothing and other goods to wounded soldiers returning from Iraq. He visits them in the hospital and sometimes goes to their funerals if they don't make it.

"When I'm with these kids, talking with them, having a beer with them, holding their hands, burying them ... I'm 19 again," he says.

Contributing: Dave Moniz


Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  
- Back to Top -

Important Disclaimer: Please read carefully the Visajourney.com Terms of Service. If you do not agree to the Terms of Service you should not access or view any page (including this page) on VisaJourney.com. Answers and comments provided on Visajourney.com Forums are general information, and are not intended to substitute for informed professional medical, psychiatric, psychological, tax, legal, investment, accounting, or other professional advice. Visajourney.com does not endorse, and expressly disclaims liability for any product, manufacturer, distributor, service or service provider mentioned or any opinion expressed in answers or comments. VisaJourney.com does not condone immigration fraud in any way, shape or manner. VisaJourney.com recommends that if any member or user knows directly of someone involved in fraudulent or illegal activity, that they report such activity directly to the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. You can contact ICE via email at Immigration.Reply@dhs.gov or you can telephone ICE at 1-866-347-2423. All reported threads/posts containing reference to immigration fraud or illegal activities will be removed from this board. If you feel that you have found inappropriate content, please let us know by contacting us here with a url link to that content. Thank you.