by Jeff Nguyen
Every year a huge celebration for Vietnamese veterans is held in Orange County, California. My grandfather, a veteran of the Vietnam War and proud member of the Vietnamese community, watches it religiously, staring intensely at the TV set. The pride on his face is evident as the color guard marches on stage carrying a bright yellow flag emblazoned with three red stripes.
He changes the channel to watch news about Vietnam’s state of affairs. Today it’s a mix between President Barack Obama’s recent visit to eat Pho with Anthony Bourdain and the arrests of more native journalists and bloggers, their faces forming a mosaic as the network illustrates the scale of the crackdown.
In a sense, he is still home and war hasn’t ended.
The Vietnamese-American community throughout Seattle and the Northwest is extensive, due in part to the Vietnam War. Through governmental and humanitarian channels, desperate and perilous escape routes, or a combination of both, many Vietnamese refugees managed to settle in the Northwest.
They included teachers, doctors, business people, and former soldiers, loyal to South Vietnam or fearing the advent of a brutal postwar occupation. Many of these former refugees, especially war veterans, are still alive today, and have interesting and powerful stories to be told.
As a person of Vietnamese descent, I was able to speak with them about their experiences during and after the war. They requested to remain anonymous because of concerns about how their stories could affect their families back in Vietnam.
Some of the veterans I interviewed were more quiet and reserved. Some were very open with their answers. All of them held one thing in common. They were all waiting for change and revolution back home. They form a part of a complex system, a Vietnam that is trying to find some identity as old regimes, capitalism, socialism and the advent of a grassroots human rights protest all collide in a bid to outline the next steps of a nation’s history.
First of all, what made you decide to join the army?
Infantry Officer: “I just wanted to protect my country. It was simple. They called for volunteers as the violence began to escalate. We loved the country. We were happy to serve with so many who served alongside us. We trained together from basic, to when some of us went to officer school. There was just a lot of positivity surrounding our patriotism back then. They taught us how to fight, how to survive in the country.”
Vietnamese Marine: “I immediately volunteered. The Vietcong were committing numerous atrocities in their guerilla war in the south. They were an obvious threat to our communities. The marines were based on commitment and sacrifice for our community in South Vietnam. We all hated them. Soldiers in the unit hated the Vietcong with a passion. You needed to hold that hate in your heart to fight them. It was not easy.”
What was the war like for you? Anxious, scared, hopeful?
Infantry Officer: “If we were scared it didn’t matter. We still just had to hold on. We had to strive on. We fought alongside each other and we became brothers. We couldn’t be scared. You would not be able to fulfill your job when you’re scared. We saw a lot of people die. We saw it daily. I, with another soldier, carried back the bodies of the dead frequently. It was horrible but we shared our grief at least. We honored them and we respected them as they passed on. That was life out there. The feeling of how you could live or die each day ate at you.”
Intelligence Officer: “I remember the whole division was put on holiday for Tet. We all came back to Hoc Mon and had a good time just taking a break from it all. Both sides agreed to a ceasefire during the holiday. We spent time with our families, ate and drank well, and had a breather. That did not last long. My unit holed up and prepared to defend as the Tet Offensive swept South Vietnam in ‘68. I remember I moved to duck behind a wall and a sniper round struck the wall just above my helmet. I cheated death. If I was simply an inch taller I would have been killed. We drove them out in a week as the American troops arrived. But what I remember most is how the other side so easily broke their promise on our sacred holiday. Despicable.
There was another instance. My unit was huddled in a trench. They started firing at us from the trees. I was directing one of my men to call in an air strike and a round hit him in the chest. He died in my arms. In the beginning the blood and death is terrifying. But at some point you become numb to it. I don’t know if that’s good or not. You learn to live with the grief. Raids on tunnels, uncovering weapons, I’ve seen Vietcong who’ve died to gunfire, they were maybe not even 15 years old.”
Vietnamese Marine: “My unit was patrolling when we were hit with artillery. It was especially fierce. And I was unfortunately hit. The shrapnel scarred my whole torso. And it had me down for a month. But I got back. And when I did, I was hit again in the exact same way. This time it hospitalized me for much longer. And I remember the commander brought me into his office. He said please have a seat. And he said, “Frankly we can’t keep you out on the field in this condition, you have to accept an office job. You’ve been hit two times and you’re still alive.”
Did you take the job?
Vietnamese Marine: “I just said no. I felt that I couldn’t just sit there in an office job. I was hit two times and I still came back. Our unit was trained for fighting,we hated the enemy with a passion. I was no different. I would not sit. “
“I came back into action shortly after. From that, there are some memories that are buried in my mind forever. Our unit was patrolling along a dense tree copse. When we started taking fire we found the sniper who had somehow climbed to the top of a tree, and forced him to surrender. There was something about him though. He refused to put down his gun. Even after we gave him until three. I shot him in the head. He spun and fell to the ground. He died without a sound. I will never forget that single moment, for as long as I live.”
II. April 30th, 1975
What was the day of surrender like?
Reserve Officer: My division surrendered on the 29th. We heard the call and we had to put down our weapons. We were just afraid for our future from then on. Where was the country was heading and what would it be like for people on the losing side? How would we be treated? Would we be incorporated back into society or would we be pariahs?”
“The day we surrendered, we were just assigned back to the province on guard duty. In that time, everyone was just worried. Everyone. We just were so worried. We knew were going to lose. But personally, I knew first from American intelligence sources. They told me about a month before capitulation. In that time I just wanted to go away. I could take a ship and go, but I couldn’t go. I knew, but I couldn’t go. I had to stay to the end. Going would betray every single value that I learned during that decade of service. So I stayed to the bitter end. And then I was sent to the camp.
Intelligence Officer: “I felt like a man who fell out of an airplane without a parachute on the 30th. Pure panic and fear. I remember that very well. I was scared. We fought to the furthest extent but in the end we lost. They sent assassins after me, I dug into the deepest tunnels, I interrogated the worst prisoners. But by far I remember that day the most. About a week before the surrender, I stole a jeep and took the back roads, picked up my family, and drove to Saigon, staying there until the 30th and the official surrender order. That day I had to toss my weapons into the river.”
III. The Camps
Can you describe the reeducation camps?
Reserve Officer: “The first thing I remembered was that I was hungry. Always. There never was enough. They gave us the worst rotten rice. They cut potatoes into thin slices and dried it in the sun. We ate one cup of soup a day. We had one small bowl of rice a day. We had to work a lot. They followed us as we labored cutting down trees, clearing forests, draining wetlands, all on one bowl of rice. I was there for 6 long years.
Intelligence Officer: “They marked me out as a high priority threat even when I put down my weapons and basically surrendered over my lands. When I was taking my family out to the zoo, they arrested me and sent me into processing for the labor camps. Right there and then. My family was utterly shocked as I was hauled away without any warning. Over 11 years I was sent to 7 camps up and down the country. There I saw cattle and dogs getting better treatment than the prisoners. We lived on a bowl of maggoty rice a day, and labored in the hot sun to clear fields and do construction. To put it in numbers I lost about 20 kilos (about 44 pounds) in those 11 years. If it stretched on for another year I would have certainly died.”
Intelligence Officer’s Daughter: “When my father was taken away, we were left standing there in the middle of the zoo. We were never given any prior notice, trial, or charges. Those next 11 years were a nightmare. We never received any official notice where he was going or whether he was alive or dead. He would have to write letters in secret and toss them outside the fence, where family friends would take them back to us. Mostly they said “I’m alive, please take care of yourselves.” Our family would spend a whole month’s salary to go to the north camps and visit him. It was a miracle how he came back to us alive after more than a decade in the camps.
Do you think we need to know and learn about this conflict? What do you think about the state of the country after the war?
Infantry Officer: “We really need to know. We need to understand what we were and how we got there. How the new regime there got to be and how they run the country. How they neglect and abuse the people. We have a role [to] reveal it for its abuses. It has lied to the point where it’s not stable; people start suspecting things. The Vietnam war is an essential part of that, and of our history.”
Reserve Officer: “I have hope. At some point the people will know and understand the true nature of the regime’s abuses. You can see now that there are so many political prisoners in Vietnam. They all were journalists or bloggers or just people speaking out about the incessant corruption that the people are subject to. It’s only a matter of time before the country changes.”
Intelligence Officer: “The anxiety and the madness in the post-war regime, for me, cannot be described. They followed me constantly after I was finally released. They followed me 24/7 and I was required to report each and every activity. Groceries, taking my kids out to the park, getting coffee. I was held to a civilian trial, which I passed and I was able to come here. To this day I still am haunted by the day of surrender. I look forward to the day when it changes hands for the better, because I don’t want anyone to suffer more in what that government has to offer, as I’ve seen too much of it during and after the war. I hope I will still be alive by then.”
Vietnamese College Student During the War: I was a student during the war. My graduation was around the time that we surrendered. I felt that I became part of this lost generation. We drifted in between our old regime before the war, and the radicalization and political purge that came after. It was strange. We didn’t participate in the war and didn’t know what to do in the wake of all the political and social changes, although pledging allegiance to the new regime was what they told us to do. But I knew that they lied to us. They were corrupt. They delivered almost nothing they promised. Seeing Vietnamese citizens becoming more aware of the government crimes and of current events ensures that this regime will eventually fall. It’s unstable, and pressures inside and outside will force a change.
Does our generation, especially young Vietnamese-Americans, have a role?
Infantry officer: “You cannot forget the Vietnamese language. Language is an essential part of our culture. Right now I keep seeing Vietnam as constantly changing. It’s undergoing a shift, or it will be. Just look at China, almost the complete opposite of communist values. Vietnam is like that. It’s looking for an identity. It’ll take dedicated young people that want to come back and steer the country in the right direction.
Intelligence Officer: “Vietnamese Americans need to come back. The young people cannot ignore our country. We cannot neglect it. It will take so many people to enact a change in the country. So please don’t forget your history. It is so important to know how we came about and how we ended up in this mess. Ultimately our generation will die. I want to be alive for the change, I hope that I am. But in the end it’s on you to to come back and remember where you come from. Because for Vietnamese Americans, you have to know this is your 2nd country. This isn’t truly where you come from. That could be in the language, the culture, and understanding the history. Never forget about your country.”
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