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Return to Vietnam lifts veteran's spirits

Aug. 5, 2013 - 12:03PM   |  

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BRENTWOOD, TENN. — The Vietnam that Kurt Seraphine remembered was filled with drab colors: grays, browns and blacks.

As a soldier, he’d never eaten in a restaurant or stayed in a hotel there or gotten to know any Vietnamese people personally.

From 1965 to 1966, when he served as a rifleman in the First Infantry Division in combat operations in the jungle north of Saigon, Seraphine said he “was always hot, thirsty, slept on the ground. And it was very dangerous.”

After being honorably discharged, his transition back into civilian life wasn’t easy, especially after many of his own college peers shunned him, calling him a “baby killer” and worse.

Since then he’s built a comfortable life with Vicki, his bride of the past 37 years and “the light of my life,” their three children and five grandchildren. At 68, he’s lived in Brentwood for 22 years and is a business broker for Crye-Leike.

Seraphine has visited all the major Civil War battle sites. But even as a military historian, he never could imagine returning to the battlefields of his youth. He thought he wanted to leave behind, as best he could, those harsh memories from his tour of duty.

But then he and his wife saw a television program where “Gunny” R. Lee Ermey, an actor best known for his role as Sgt. Hartman in the Vietnam War movie “Full Metal Jacket” and the television show “Mail Call,” encouraged veterans to revisit these sites as tourists through Military Historical Tours Inc., a travel group serving American veterans from World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam War since 1987.

Now his images of Vietnam have been replaced by brighter colors: all shades of greens and blues. He slept at five-star hotels and dined in excellent restaurants. And the Vietnamese people were happy — smiling even — and greeted the American visitors with warmness.

“I went back over there for my soul. It was a huge experience for me. It took the sadness out of my heart to see the country doing so well. I would really recommend this to any Vietnam vet. It took a burden off of my life,” he said after returning from his recent trip, which took him to Khe Sanh, the Rockpile, Dong Ha, the city of Hue and more.

Combat stress

Seraphine grew up hunting and fishing in Gunnison, Colo., so he was a pretty sure shot to begin with. As the war escalated, he volunteered for service, as did some of his friends, whose fathers served in World War II.

As a 19-year-old, the plane trip to Vietnam was so long and arduous that it felt as if they were traveling to the moon, Seraphine said. And it was just as disconcerting to the Colorado native when the plane doors opened and heat and humidity flooded the air around him. He first stopped in a tent city where the only soldiers around were “walking wounded,” while those who were healthy enough were out patrolling the jungle.

From there, he was sent out to the field. A gregarious young man, Seraphine didn’t understand why his fellow company members wouldn’t return his greetings, want to sit and talk or learn about his personality and history in any way. It wasn’t until later that Seraphine realized this was a coping mechanism that the men employed to emotionally deal with the harsh realities of war. No one wanted to be the friend of “the new guy” because newcomers, with little to no combat experience, died at much higher rates.

“They had already seen some terrible events and were totally unprepared for that and how deadly it was. They calculated the odds and the law of averages. You didn’t want to know the new guy,” he said.

Sometimes it rained for two weeks straight and the soldiers never felt dry. Then they would go out for a night ambush and dodge bullets, wet and tired. In all, Seraphine spent about 90 days straight out in the jungle.

He saw many deaths during that time and escaped some pretty close calls.

“They loved America. They loved American girls. They loved rock ‘n’ roll. They loved American cars. And all they could talk about was getting home. And all these guys missed the joys of middle age,” said Seraphine, with tears welling in his eyes.

He was luckier than most. Two other boys from his hometown were sent to Vietnam, but Seraphine was the only one to return home alive.

Once back stateside, Seraphine went to college, a dream that kept him going all through the horrors he experienced in Vietnam. But even then, the nightmare continued as he quickly became aware that, because of his service, “half the population didn’t like you.”

“It was a situation where you won every battle but still lost the war,” he said.

Back to Da Nang

Earlier this year, the Seraphines met other members of their tour group in Los Angeles before the flight to Korea and then Da Nang, Vietnam. Like Kurt Seraphine, many were Vietnam vets. Before the trip, many were perhaps feeling a little apprehensive of what they were about to experience. But that all changed.

At one point, he couldn’t wait to get out of Vietnam. But now, Seraphine can’t wait to go back as a tourist.

During his tour of duty, Seraphine remembers that the Vietnamese people seemed sad and frightened. But now, he found they were happy, hardworking, raising families and had a quick sense of humor. About 70 percent of the population is younger than 30 and has no memory of what they call the American War, he said.

“From the first day, I could feel the pressure coming off of me, the relief, the anger, the sadness leaving,” Seraphine said. “I did not realize it, but a lot of what I carried with me through the years was the terrible things I saw the (Vietnamese) people go through during the war. To see them happy and smiling was something we all commented on. All the guys were saying how glad they were that they made the trip.”

Many of the battlefields were empty, with the jungle re-establishing its dominance. Their tour guide’s father was a provincial chief who joined the Viet Cong to serve his county. But now there was no animosity between these former enemies. And Seraphine was struck by the beauty of the countryside and the rice fields.

One thing that kept returning to his mind was the soldiers who couldn’t make it back and how they are being forgotten. Many of these fallen men’s fathers and mothers are dying. Eventually, brothers and sisters will be gone, too.

“The fellows and I talked about the young men we knew that died with us during the war. They are now gone for close to 50 years. Very few people remember them today,” he said.

Although he can’t change the past, Seraphine said the return trip to Vietnam had given him hope for the future.

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