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Four decades later, former soldier returns to Vietnam

Jun. 7, 2013 - 06:27AM   |  
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About the author

Tim Coder served as an infantry squad leader with the 101st Airborne Division and later as a battalion and brigade correspondent in Vietnam in 1969-70. The retired journalist from Corrales, N.M., is the author of the novel “War Without End, Amen: A Vietnam Story.”

HANOI — My mind is adrift in search of old enemies as the bus crosses Victory Bridge over the Red River. It maneuvers in the riot of trucks, horns and motor scooters toward the stilled heartbeat of Ho Chi Minh and the charming decay of colonial Hanoi.

Forty-three years have passed, and I am in Vietnam again, this time minus jungle fatigues, M16, rucksack, C-rations and machete, no longer young and sturdy and drafted, a grunt in the 101st Airborne Division.

Our cruise group is old, part of a tour of mostly seniors.

A color guard stands watch over Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, which is a must-stop for the many organized tours that visit Hanoi. The North Vietnamese leader died in 1969. (Courtesy of Tim Coder)

I drift back to the dot on the grid map where my six-man team made itself small on the DMZ’s high hills. It was in October 1969. Our officers told us we would be farther north than any American infantrymen had been in the war. Our mission was to be on the lookout for North Vietnamese Army units, to watch and report, not to engage the NVA, a distinction we happily noted.

In the long days and sleepy nights sliced short by watch duty, I envisioned what might be behind that line of hills marching toward Hanoi in a north-south valley of 8-foot-high elephant grass that looked from our hilltops like a Kansas wheat field. I wondered about the North Vietnamese plying hardscrabble livings in cities, villages and rice paddies.

I pictured Hanoi behind those hills. Did people there embrace the inevitable and often-terminal sacrifices of a too-long war waged by Uncle Ho, Charles de Gaulle, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon? Certainly, they embraced it more than we did.

Looking for answers

Now, maybe I’ll get some answers. I am searching for old enemies.

I don’t remember all the names of my team, except for No Horse, a tree trunk of a stoic Sioux from the reservation in South Dakota. There was a kid from Houston named McClain, and a goofy sort from West Texas oil fields, and Doc, our medic from Tennessee. We carried the radio call-sign of my home-state Nebraska.

I came home a little damaged, but unbroken, and she, the prettiest girl I’d ever seen, accepted my proposal of marriage. Surely, I’d been no hero, my lasting scar being a residue of jungle toe fungus, and the Army awards no Purple Heart for that.

Our tour guide, Son, says cheerfully in accented but school-polished English that the North Vietnamese are “an optimistic people who look not to the past but the future and have no ill will for Americans, not even the Vietnamese people who fled on boats, if they bring back their U.S. dollars to spend.” He likes that last line and laughs. The war, he says, is called the Indochina II War - coming after the French were routed in Dien Bien Phu in 1954 - or more commonly, just the American War.

Different attitude

The Hoa Lò Prison was used by French colonists in Vietnam to incarcerate political prisoners, and later by the North Vietnamese to hold prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. The Americans sarcastically dubbed it the Hanoi Hilton. The images carved in stone on one of the prison’s walls depict Vietnamese tortured by the French. Far less attention is given to the North Vietnamese torture of American prisoners. (Courtesy of Tim Coder)

It’s different in the south of Vietnam, we would learn later while traveling into Saigon. People call it simply the Vietnam War. They acknowledge North-South reunification marked by Saigon’s collapse in 1975 only because they have no choice. Our now-Ho Chi Minh City guide, whom we will identify as Hien, drops his voice when he asks: “Would you not be bitter if you were sent to a re-education camp and strangers came down from the North to take all the good jobs?”

Did Saigon fall to the North “because the fighters in the South were stupid, unwilling to fight?” No, he says, President Nixon had cut off funding, and there was no more money to wage the war. In Hien’s view, that was the Vietnam tragedy.

Left unasked from the back of the tour bus is whether he thought America had any business there in the first place and whether Vietnam’s civil war could have been shortened and less bloody without American involvement - involvement that was, by the way, the American tragedy.

In Hanoi, Son amiably prepares us for what we’ll see, the highlights being Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, where an army color guard in pressed dress-white uniforms stands watch and even mugs for tourist cameras, the humble house where Ho lived and died in 1969 just weeks before my stay on the DMZ, and, of course, the Hanoi Hilton where the ruling French committed atrocities and where the North Vietnamese confined and often tortured American prisoners of war for years.

Red tape

Leaving the bus for a walking tour, I think it is worth a shot and ask Son whether he might be willing to point out an NVA veteran I could talk to. Perhaps Son could do a little interpreting? When he questions why, I explain I was a veteran of the American War. His good cheer turns cold - he had told us American bombs had killed his grandfather - and he explains that “such a meeting would have to be arranged and could take many weeks.”

Oh, well. What would I have asked an old veteran anyway, other than where he had served, when and with what unit. Do you feel like you won the war? Was it good for you?

Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem District is named after the lovely Lake of the Returned Sword in the middle of the city. The buff and beautiful jog around it in shorts and halter tops, frumpy women in conical hats chat on benches, and brides and grooms in flowing white gowns and tuxes pose for professional photographers. The air is thick with smoggy moisture, the incessant zoom of motor scooters and the head-numbing beeps of horns. Streets are lined forever with a rat’s-nest tangle of utility wires that must be a lineman’s hell. Steaming humanity is everywhere. Vendors hawk wares on sidewalks - T-shirts bearing the Good Morning, Vietnam greeting, hats embroidered with the gold star on red flag, eel-like fish wiggling in water tubs, a slab of red meat on a cutting board where flies buzz and a woman sits with cleaver in hand ready to sell by the slice.

Still, I can’t help seeking an old enemy.

Old men missing

Time is running out. I trail well behind our guide, who is near the corner stop where we will board the bus again. My problem is that I don’t see old men like me — only old and young women who seem to be doing much of the hawking, and loitering young men who smoke cigarettes.

Where have all the old men gone?

As I scan the sidewalk markets, my thoughts turn to more than 58,000 American dead - a handful of them my good friends - and the millions of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians from both the North and South. Was that kind of carnage worth it? Already, I know the answer. I knew it before my draft call.

Then, I spot him.

Bent and somber, he hobbles outside a storefront, wearing a bland beige shirt, dark trousers and more hair on his head than I. Instinctively, I reach out and touch his shoulder, and he looks at me through a frown of yellowed teeth. To get past the language barrier, I do the only thing I know. I point an imaginary rifle at him then I shake my head up and down, pointing to him and then to me as if to say, “You did it and so did I.” He understands. Slowly his frown spreads into a smile.

A woman I assume is his wife comes out to the sidewalk to check out the unlikely encounter, and he nudges her with his elbow. He motions to me as they talk. Of course, I don’t understand a word.

He pulls the imaginary trigger of his imaginary rifle and says, “Boom! Boom!” In the wondrous insanity of a free-fire zone, four decades past, he would have shot me dead in a Ho Chi minute. And I’d have done the same to him.

We laugh, at first a little nervously, then shake hands, give each other an impulsive hug and a parting thumbs-up. Within probably 30 seconds — time for the burst of a few magazines of an M16 or AK47 on automatic — it is over. We have made a connection, bridged a divide.

I hurry to catch up with the tour group.

Two old enemies from worlds apart, both of us have won our war.

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