American veterans’ comeback trip to Vietnam: Regret, Repentance and Reconciliation

Attending the first meeting with Vietnamese veterans in Hanoi on Sep 16, Daniel Gilman (Dan), who now serves as Board President of Peace Trees Vietnam, an NGO working on addressing war legacies, could not hold back his tears. 

Repentance, sorrow, guilty were what have filled the heavy hearts of many American veterans coming back from the Vietnam War. To these former soldiers, a trip back to Vietnam to promote peace and reconciliation is a way to partly free their heart from the burden of guilty feeling that still linger on after half a century.

American veterans’ comeback trip to Vietnam: Regret, Repentance and Reconciliation

At the event

Dan first came to Vietnam in 1969 to serve in the army medical corps in Long Binh (near Ho Chi Minh City). Although his task did not involve with gunfire, he was still haunted by what he had exposed to during the war.

American veterans’ comeback trip to Vietnam: Regret, Repentance and Reconciliation

Daniel Gilman and Tran Ngoc Dan, representative of Vietnam Veterans Association

Coming back to US after completing his service, Dan determined to forget many of his experiences in Vietnam and the war in general. However, since becoming aware of the ugly truth behind the Vietnam war and the traumatic effects it leaves on the country, Dan found himself drawn to reengage in issues related to Vietnam. He has become member of peace advocating organizations including Peace Trees and Veterans for Peace.

American veterans’ comeback trip to Vietnam: Regret, Repentance and Reconciliation

Daniel Gilman spends all his time for promoting peace

According to Dan, his participation in peace promoting groups gives him “opportunities to work on reversing the terrible legacies of war that created all the bombs and mines left over in Vietnam”.

As a member of Peace Trees Vietnam, besides addressing unexploded ordnances, Dan has contributed to various meaningful projects, such as community development, school building in Quang Tri, the central region province which was harshly devastated by war.

In 2014, Gilman visited Quang Tri together with his daughter, who joined with ayoung staff of Peace Trees Vietnam to plant a tree, the symbol of peace on the land that was used to be the fiercest battlefield.

Another delegate of Peace Trees’ citizen diplomacy tour to Vietnam this September, Dale Ellison Rector, frankly talked about his regret of the “stupid decision” he had made more than 50 years ago.

American veterans’ comeback trip to Vietnam: Regret, Repentance and Reconciliation

'Veteran' of anti - war movement, Bruce Nicolas Occena

Leaving college at the age of 19, Dale took part in the war because “I would love to have my father’s experience as a World War I soldiers.” In 1967, he came to Vietnam and was based in the Mekong Delta. In Dale’s memory, the village he had seen in Vietnam was like a “paradise on earth”, with magnificent and peaceful landscape. Sadly, Dale and US soldiers like him were destroying these beautiful things. The willing to fight like a hero in the country soon faded away…

Dale was wounded during the war, an incident that put an early end for his tenure in Vietnam.

“I was shot and jumping out of a helicopter near Can Tho. I thought I would die that day but they came to take me away. I was so happy and vowed to myself that I would spend the rest of my life to resolve everything without having war”, he said.

Dale has done its best to commit to promoting peace and stopping war since then, by nurturing the anti-war sense in his five children as well as spread it to thousands of students in the highschool he had taught.

In addition to that, Dale and his wife, for half a century, has been part of a musical band in Seattle, together travel to many places to sing to promote peace. Speaking in the dialogue with Vietnamese veterans, Dale said: “Here we are sitting together, doing exactly the right thing, and we will carry this idea forward as long as we live.”

Some of Peace Trees’ delegations used to be members of anti-war movement such as Bruce Nicolas Occena. As a Fillipino American born in a poor working – class family, Bruce was forced to enlist. However, he had bravely taken a reversal choice by participating in the anti – war movement in the US despite being arrested by police for many time and strong opposition from his family.

Looking back to the memories of 50 years ago, Occena said

“In Vietnam, I often receive question like: Are you veteran? My answer is: Yes, I am a veteran of the anti- war war. Though the struggle was different from my friends here, (Vietnamese people’s fight against the US), but was not less difficult.”

The meeting between American and Vietnamese veterans and Peace Trees Vietnam’s citizen diplomat delegation was held in Hanoi on September 16. Vice Chairman of The Vietnam Peace Committee Nguyen Van Huynh, Executive Director of Peace Trees Vietnam Claire Yunker along with members of Peace Trees Vietnam’s citizen diplomat delegation attended this event.

At the meeting, delegations from two sides shared their experiences in the war, the thoughts on the relations between Vietnam and USA at present and in the future as well as discussing plans to strengthen people-to-people ties.

The meeting between American and Vietnamese veterans was also an occasion for post-war touching stories to be shared, such as the friendship between the Vietnamese pilot Vu Dinh Rang and his ex – rival who was on the B52 aircraft which was shot by Rang in 1971…

Furthermore, the meeting also brought hopes for two countries’ veterans regarding reconciliation prospect. Five decades after the end of the war, the search for the remains of 200 comrades losing their lives in a fierce battle in Binh Phuoc of major – general Nguyen Cao Cu still continues. Meanwhile other Vietnamese are struggling to look for their lost loved one, like Mr.Khuat Quang Cu,with the unwavering search for his fallen brother, Khuat Quang Phiet in Quang Nam battle.

Vietnamese veterans like Major General Cu or non-veteran like Mr.Cu hope to receive the supports of American veterans to fulfill their wishes.

Like many meetings of two countries’ veterans which have taken place, the meeting on September 16 was filled with both smiles and tears. War memories were recalled not to re-evoke hatred, but to help them overcome the past and step toward a brighter future, together.

( translated by Van Nguyen )

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