Thanking Vietnam veterans
This is an unsent letter…
Our boys reflected in the Vietnam Memorial wall.
Dear Vietnam Veteran,
I would like to thank you for faithfully serving our country in a difficult time when no one appreciated you. You might even have been a friend of mine from high school with no college plans, who suddenly found that you were wading through the swamps of Southeast Asia with an M14 rifle in your hands. At that time, I did not yet understand what physical and mental hardships you endured.
All your good deeds were discounted in the tragedy of civilian deaths at My Lai. It mattered little after that how many lives you saved; no one saw them. They only saw the lives you took. Your orders to clear the vegetation, to flush out the enemy, backfired and poisoned you as well. Agent Orange wears a black ribbon. The war returned evil for all.
Don’t misunderstand me… I was no war protestor or flower child. Perhaps I was something worse; I was apathetic. I knew, even back then, that I didn’t care enough… but you were very far away, and I didn’t know you personally. I apologize. Although I still have ambivalent feelings about that war, and I know you do too, now I will not forget your sacrifice.
As it turns out, I owe you much more than overdue respect; I owe you my family. While I was busy being a carefree college student, a baby boy was born to a family high in the mountains in western Vietnam. When the war reached the village, a few years later, terrible things happened. That is the nature of war. I do not know whose guns and bombs caused the devastation that day, but the small boy saw his family die before his eyes. His skin was pierced and wounded by the bursting shrapnel. We don’t know the date or year this occurred, or even where the village was. People who know, who saw the boy, said that he was Cham- a remnant people from the Kingdom of Champa— whose descendents now lived in or near Cambodia.
I cannot speak to the morality of what took place that day, but I know what happened next, and for that I will be forever grateful. You landed your helicopter and looked for survivors. You found a small frightened boy and took him to Saigon. There he joined the ranks of street children. I really don’t understand how you could have done this— just left a child, a toddler, in the streets of a large, unfamiliar city. He didn’t even speak the language they used there. What I do understand is that I was not there with you, don’t know what the circumstances were, and I have to believe that you did the best you could. You saved his life.
We don’t know where that small one slept, or who watched over him for the next few years. He quickly became a man-child, wise in the ways of survival.
Here, in your homeland, protests against the war reached a fever pitch, and President Nixon brought home 25,000, and then 70,000 more of your buddies. By 1972, you were holding back the Communists with only 133,000 other American service men. The South Vietnamese were hard pressed to defend their land, and their army swelled to a million soldiers.
Soldiers! Yes, but many were mere children. The toddler from the hills, the waif who became a street child, was finally coaxed into an orphanage in Saigon. He was wary, untrusting, but hungry… very hungry. His protruding ribs, malnourished distended belly, and rotting teeth spoke of the cruel life he had led. They took pictures to show his sad condition. They also gave him an official identity. How young could they pretend to make him? This was important! While you needed allies, more fighters from the native peoples to aid you, General Nguyen Van Thieu’s recruitment plan was dastardly. He sent armed men to the orphanages, and any boy who was nine years old was immediately drafted into the army. The caretakers of the children fought back with the pen. Whenever a child was brought in who was small and undernourished, they would play a game of words and figures: “He is small. We don’t know how old he is. How young could he be? We will give him this birthday, and make him four years old.” Carefully they filled out the paperwork, and saved the boy from life as a soldier.
I am sorry that you did not have enough help from the South Vietnamese people to save their country, but I am not sorry that children did not have to learn to kill that day.
A cease-fire was declared in 1973, and you came home to a nation that did not want to see you, would not recognize that you had fought with honor when you could, against an enemy who had no scruples.
Meanwhile, a woman of Chinese ancestry traveled slowly towards Saigon in the fall of 1974. When she reached Gia Dinh, just outside the capital city, she knew that it was time. She checked herself into a hospital and gave birth to a tiny baby, also a boy. He weighed just 4 pounds, and was already afflicted with syphilis. In two days she vanished back into the city or the forest— forever unknown. We can only surmise that she knew, ironically, that the child would die unless she abandoned it. The plight of this half-Chinese infant was better than that of the Cham child. When no relatives arrived to claim him after ten days, he was transferred to the care of an orphanage. He received medicine to halt the syphilis which could have taken his mental abilities and then his life. He was given nourishing milk, clothed, and cuddled as any baby should be.
The South Vietnamese fought on, attempting to hold back the ranks of Communist troops. They did not succeed. In April of 1975 the city of Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. In the final weeks of panic many children left Saigon for new homes in the United States. One of these, the baby born the previous September, was on his way to my home. His path was smooth, his paperwork in order. He has no memory of his life in Vietnam.
Another boy flew away from Saigon that week. His way was not smooth and he was not happy. With hastily drawn documents, some instruction in another new language (English), and no emotional preparation, he landed in this country. “My name is Skye,” he said. “I came out of the sky.” His problems were just beginning.
His brain had been injured in that attack on his village. He had learned how to stay alive and protect himself from death, but he did not have the ability to reason out meaning or principles from the events which happened around him. Whether from the brain damage, or a desire to forget, he could recall very few events of his life in Vietnam. His physical problems filled a single-spaced typewritten page. He could not relate to people— on the contrary, mistrust had helped keep him alive. Over the next two years he lived with two families; he could not adjust to them, nor they to him. Both placements ended in angry accusations, broken promises and a small boy finding himself, yet again, without a home. Then someone heard of us.
This damaged child might fit into our family, they said. We had another Vietnamese son, and he might relate to this new brother if we agreed. We accepted the boy who came from the sky, and he joined our family in 1977.
Over the next few years we struggled to live together, to love and trust each other a bit. His young body healed as much as it ever would. His mind was a tangle of confused pathways, but we learned to follow some of them. His younger brother surpassed him quickly in mental abilities. But by 1982 both boys were wise enough to understand what it meant to belong to a particular country, and they were sworn in as citizens of the United States. I had all but forgotten about you in the press of the cares and chores of motherhood, especially of mothering a child with so many special needs.
In 1983, our family took a trip. We took our sons to Washington, DC, to show them the capital of their newly claimed land. We visited the tall Washington Monument, and the Capitol building. At the Smithsonian, the older son was overwhelmed. The displays of military memorabilia were clearly distressing. Simulated dark skies with smoke and streaks of light on the horizon make him cling to me and cringe. He pointed at the Huey and declared in the tones that we had come to recognize as truthful memories, “There’s my helicopter!”
Our final destination for that trip was the Vietnam Memorial Wall. As we entered the park, there you were, standing guard. Your uniform was spotless, your ribbons and medals worn proudly. The boy from the sky, so recently reminded of the traumatic entry to his present life, ran to you and saluted. “Thank you,” he said. “I know you. Thank you. You flew my helicopter.” Then he reached up and hugged you, dissolving in tears. I realize that you probably were not supposed to break your stance, but your humanity won out, and you held the boy close. I saw a tear on your cheek too, that day.
For both my sons, I thank you. Your sacrifices brought me a boy from the sky. Your protection kept a hospital safe where a mother could find medical care for an unwanted, half-breed baby. You and I, we had no voice in why such a war had to happen. We might all wish that birth families were never torn apart, and people might not die from gruesome wounds and diseases. Yet, these things do happen.
Your country owes you great honor for doing your duty in the face of overwhelming disapproval. I owe you so much more.
With deep respect,
Their mother- not in body, but in heart
Joan Young has enjoyed the out-of-doors her entire life. Highlights of her outdoor adventures include Girl Scouting, which provided yearly training in camp skills, the opportunity to engage in a 10-day canoe trip, and numerous short backpacking excursions. She was selected to attend the 1965 Senior Scout Roundup in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, an international event to which 10,000 girls were invited. She has ridden a bicycle from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean in 1986, and on August 3, 2010 became the first woman to complete the North Country National Scenic Trail on foot. Her mileage totaled 4395 miles.
More recently, she has begun writing fiction- primarily cozy mysteries. She also writes a monthly column for the Ludington Daily News called "Get Off the Couch."
author site booksleavingfootprints.com