|Vietnam Veterans of America|
SENT TO WAR, RETURNING FOR PEACE
For 13 members of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Chapter 1008, 0530 may have reminded them of most days 50 years ago when they served in the military and being up before dawn was a way of life. But on June 9, 2022, at that early hour, they were excited to be returning to Vietnam, on a trip that had been postponed for almost two years because of COVID-19. The men, along with seven non-members, including a videographer, boarded a bus at Garden Spot High School and traveled two hours to Philadelphia International Airport where they began their 30-hour journey to a place most said they would never return to.
A Vietnamese woman named Lei Williams helped change their minds and opened the door for their reunion with Vietnam. The trip had three objectives: to return to the places where the men served; to visit the locations of pivotal battles; and to help Vietnamese charities. The men wore matching shirts declaring “Sent to War – Returning for Peace.”
To understand how this 2022 trip evolved, one must return to April 29, 1975. The fall of the Republic of Vietnam was imminent. On that day, encouraged by her father, an Air America pilot, the mother of a five-year-old Amerasian girl, and her younger sister were on their way to one of the buildings where helicopters were landing on rooftops to airlift Vietnamese from the country. It was a chaotic scene, with more people trying to get out than there were helicopters to fly them out. When it came their turn to board, five-year-old Lei and her sister got on the flight, but there was no room for their mother.
The two girls arrived in the United States as refugees and were adopted by a family in Nebraska. They grew up on a farm with four other children. Lei was well educated, got married, started a family, and became a teacher at Garden Spot High School in New Holland, Pennsylvania.
Years later she was reunited with her birth mother and returned to Vietnam for a visit. In 2014, Lei Williams began taking groups of high school students to Vietnam to experience its culture and history. At about the same time, Chapter 1008 was developing a school education program to share their Vietnam War experiences with students. In 2017 Lei Williams began talking with Chapter 1008 veterans about arranging a return trip for them.
She orchestrated the entire 17-day tour, making sure that each veteran would go back to a place where he had served. She even raised funds from local business and individuals to pay for the trip. “I am so grateful to the veterans. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them,” she said.
Our first city to visit was Hanoi.” said Dennis Myers, who served in I Corps with the 101st Airborne Division. “We arrived about 1:30 in the morning. After 30 hours traveling, we were exhausted and went straight to our hotel.” Many on the tour were apprehensive about going to Hanoi because it represented the enemy 50 years ago and remains the capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. However, they found the Vietnamese to be friendly and accommodating.
“The trip was very special for me because my son and daughter went with me,” Myers said. “They only knew what little I had told them and what they had learned from seeing my photographs. Now they got to feel the heat, experience the terrain, and listen to me answer their questions about my service.
“On day ten of the trip, Father’s Day, they surprised me with a side trip to the area where I served around Camp Eagle. Thanks to GPS, we found the site but everything we built had been replaced by businesses. Having them with me triggered questions from them that made the experience more meaningful for me, and for them.”
The trip included stops in big cities and battle sites including Hanoi, the DMZ, Hue, Danang, Khe Sanh, the A Shau Valley, Hamburger Hill, My Lai, Cu Chi, Saigon, and the Mekong Delta. Throughout the entire trip the group was exposed to the culture and customs of Vietnam. There also were meetings with former North Vietnamese military men.
Charlie Miller, who served with the 7th Marines, said he thought Vietnam was a beautiful country when he was there in 1969, but hadn’t had any interest in going back. In the last few years, though, he pondered what it might be like to see where he served and to discover how the country had changed. “I was hoping to find Hill 55 in Quang Nam Providence,” Miller said. “The GPS helped us locate the area, but I didn’t recognize anything. The river, tree line, and a bridge indicated that I was in the right place, but everything we built was gone and had been replaced with single-story housing and businesses.” Charlie Miller was seriously wounded with 24 days remaining in his tour and was shipped to Japan. He hadn’t been out of country more than a few days when his brother Jim received orders for Vietnam; he was killed in action ten months later.
“The trip back allowed me to achieve two goals,” Charlie Miller said. “I buried Jim’s picture under a street where my brother had walked, and I buried my own picture and a military coin near the area where I served. I put the past in the past.”
Chuck Bechtel retired from the Army as a colonel, having served with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. His wife Joan accompanied him on the trip.
“Having Joan with me was very special,” Chuck Bechtel said. “She had traveled with me during my military career, but not to Vietnam. This trip gave us and the others the opportunity to see Vietnam as a country, not a war.”
Chuck Bechtel was able to locate the Shrine of Lady of LaVang where he had a photo of himself taken in 1968 while doing a sweep through the village. “I thanked God for returning me home in one piece in 1969 and bringing me back to a war zone where we now came in peace.”
LEGACY OF WAR
The chapter members also visited the school at the Da Nang Center for Victims of Agent Orange. Many of the students had birth defects related to exposure to Agent Orange. “We met with twenty-five or thirty children, ages five to twelve, and brought them much-appreciated gifts, including pencils, coloring books, crayons, and educational games,” Zeek Ressler said.
Spending time with the children gave the group a new understanding of the health issues the country still experiences due to exposure to Agent Orange. The chapter made a five-hundred-dollar donation to the school.
The American visitors discovered a country that has transformed from the war-torn images in their minds into a modernized nation and an international tourist destination. While the country is still controlled by communism, citizens and visitors seem to enjoy the benefits of capitalism, especially in the South. Vietnamese citizens are permitted to own their own homes, but the government still owns the land they sit on.
Most younger Vietnamese don’t know much, if anything, about the war that the Americans fought in their country fifty years ago. Former enemies typically greet Americans with a handshake of friendship. On the other hand, the Chapter 1008 members noticed that many war monuments and museums told conflicting accounts of battles won or lost by the Americans. The trip ended with a cocktail party on the roof of the Rex Hotel in Saigon overlooking the bright neon lights of the city. Their flight departed at 1130 hours on June 24, and the men landed in Pennsylvania 30 hours later.
Lei Williams had secretly planned a huge welcome home party. The veterans knew nothing about it until they heard the sound of a Huey above their bus as they drew near to Garden Spot High School. Then a fleet of motorcycle riders escorted them to the high school stadium.
As the veterans’ bus pulled into the parking lot, the people there gave them the welcome home party they never received after returning home from the war.
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