|Vietnam Veterans of America|
BY GREGORY McNAMEE
Michael Gormalley had just graduated from community college in his western Massachusetts home town intending to go on immediately to a four-year teacher’s college when he received one of those dreaded letters that begin: “Greetings.” He went to his local draft board and was told that, despite his plans to continue his education, there was nothing to be done about his impending induction.
At the time, in 1970, the Army had a two-year enlistment program that allowed prospective soldiers to pick the date they would go to Vietnam, and Gormalley signed up. He went off to Basic, then Infantry AIT at Fort Polk, and then NCO school at Fort Benning—Infantry all the way. Then came Vietnam.
“When I came in country in 1971, I was put on a truck with some helicopter mechanics and got off at the First Aviation Brigade headquarters. I went to the lieutenant and said, ‘Are you sure my MOS is being read correctly?’ He said, ‘Oh, yes, we need you.’ So I became the sergeant of a security platoon and went to various bases.
“It was a little confusing. We were in Can Tho, but I got pulled and sent to Long Binh, where there was a mixed force of Vietnamese and Americans. I had been working on a degree in Asian studies, and so they attached me to the MPs and Intelligence. I also traveled around the country checking security clearances, going in and out of Saigon all the time, getting to know the place.”
Rotated stateside in January 1972, Gormalley briefly thought about staying in the military. But, he says, “A week after I got home, I was back at my university.” He graduated in 1973 and for the next 17 years taught in schools in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, eventually becoming a principal. In 1991 he took his administrative skills to a new arena, relocating to Kansas City to become a veterans advocate.
And then came Vietnam again. In 2005 Gormalley, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, traveled with a dozen Purple Heart recipients to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. While there, he met a group of teachers, and, comparing notes, discovered that there was a pressing need for English instructors in a country that aspired to take a place in the world marketplace.
After he retired in 2007, Gormalley returned to Vietnam, visiting classrooms and teaching high school around the country. After a few years of travel back and forth across the Pacific, he decided to simplify matters and live for five months in Ho Chi Minh City, teaching English at a university there, and spend the rest of the year at his new home in Florida.
“We were there to help the Vietnamese in the first place, and that’s why I decided to go back,” says Gormalley, who volunteers his time and donates much of his pension as well. It helps that the cost of living is still relatively low in HCMC by American standards, even though, as he marvels, “It’s like New York City now, with five million people—it never stops.”
Nevertheless, it’s expensive for those dependent on the local economy. Most of the students who enroll in his courses at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities come to the city from the countryside, sharing tiny apartments with three or four roommates while working part-time to keep afloat. “If they stayed back in their home towns and communities,” he says, “they would average maybe $200-$300 a month. In Ho Chi Minh City, they can make $600-$800. The salaries are low by our standards, but so are the costs.” The differential allows him to keep an apartment in the city year-round and a house back home, a fact that makes Vietnam attractive for expats.
English As a Second Language
Michael Gormalley’s arrival in country a second time coincided with a major curriculum overhaul. In years past, English was introduced as a subject in high school. Now, in rural schools, it’s a requirement beginning in the third grade, and at the first-grade level in cities. That makes for a large audience for language learning. But since most of the students are taught by Vietnamese teachers without much command of conversational English, they don’t have much chance to practice speaking.
“I tell my students to go to the parks and places where tourists and visitors can be found and to approach them politely to ask if they might speak with them.” It’s a lesson Gormalley learned on his first visit, when he was passing through the square in front of Notre Dame Church and fell into conversation with a group of students who—thrilled to know he was from America—kept him there for two hours with excited questions, eager to learn all they could.
“They’re fascinated by American culture. They also know more about the war than our students, but they’re looking at the future,” Gormalley says. That makes good sense: Vietnam is a young country; its median age just over 30; in the U.S. it’s more than 38. The place is full of energy, exciting to be around.
‘He’s My Friend’
From time to time, Gormalley, now 72, encounters someone of his own generation who fought on the other side. He recalls a chance meeting in Dong Ha, north of Hue, early one morning with an elderly man wearing a suit and a North Vietnamese Army officer’s cap.
“I said ‘Xin chào,’ hello,” says Gormalley. “And the gentleman answered, ‘Good morning.’ That was all the English that he knew. He saluted me and I saluted him. That went on for a couple of mornings. Then, one day, he stopped me and took out some pictures of Dong Hà fifty years ago. When a picture of his family came up, I was startled to see that his granddaughter had been one of my students.
“I took out my iPhone and showed him some class photos, and there she was. We laughed, I took a selfie, and then we saluted and left. He was hard of hearing, and the next day, when he was talking loudly to me, some people came out, concerned that he was yelling at me. I said, ‘No, he’s my friend,’ and showed them the selfie. The next year, I found that he had passed away, but for a time there, he was my friend.”
Given his travels between two homes and his work teaching and working for charitable organizations in Vietnam—including donning a Santa suit and distributing toys and money at a children’s hospital at Christmas—Gormalley isn’t in Massachusetts much these days. When he travels there, though, he connects with VVA Chapter 65 in his home town of Pittsfield.
Drawing on his teaching experience, he lent a hand when the chapter went into local schools in 2010 to talk about Tim O’Brien’s short-story collection, The Things They Carried, a project that enabled every participating veteran to be a teacher. That same year, following the restoration of the Pittsfield Veterans Memorial, he was the keynote speaker at a Veterans Day commemoration, telling the audience: “In thinking of the 23 million living veterans out there, Veterans Day is not one day a year—it’s 365 days a year.”
The number of American veterans has fallen to 17.4 million in the decade since. For those who remember their time in Vietnam and want to return, there’s plenty of work to do, Gormalley says. One vehicle is the Peace Corps, which has placed many Americans in schools and other jobs in the country. He’s considering joining the Peace Corps himself, in part because of his admiration for another son of Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, its founder.
Another strategy, he adds, is checking with Vietnamese Americans close to home and asking if they have any ideas. Gormalley notes that before he first returned to the country, he went to the Vietnamese community in Kansas City and, through a relative there, located a high school teacher in Ho Chi Minh City. “Find out what you can do and set it up before you go,” he suggests.
The COVID pandemic is keeping Michael Gormalley in Florida for the moment. Vietnam has severely restricted travelers from outside the country—even Vietnamese nationals who have gone abroad. As soon as he can, he’ll return to Vietnam.
“It’s a beautiful country,” he says. “They’ve been healing a lot faster than we have, but there’s still a way to go. I know that when I’m there, I feel better. I returned to show respect for those who died. More importantly, I returned to help.”
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