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Commentary: Trip To Vietnam Was Its Own Memorial

American vets place incense in respect for the fallen enemy. Tony Shaw, second from the right, is in the black T shirt.
Cathy Primm

For a small group of veterans, Memorial Day was a long month this year. We began our observance in Vietnam where we volunteered to build schools.

I was the only veteran on the trip sponsored by the Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project who still lives in Missouri. But Tony Shaw grew up in suburban St. Louis, went to Mizzou and graduated in 1968 as an ROTC second lieutenant. He is now a board member of VVRP and lives in Prescott, Ariz., where he practices law.

Shaw, other vets and their partners, one daughter, my wife, Cathy, and I all went to two cemeteries to pay respects to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers buried there.

We walked from memorial stone to stone, placing a tiny smoking sliver of incense into a small sand-filled vase alone with our own thoughts.

Both visits quieted us as reminders of at least our mortality and of American soldiers we had known who died in Vietnam or later.

Vets and spouses worked together hand-to-hand moving bricks to support skilled Vietnamese masons building a new elementary school.
Credit Cathy Primm
Vets and spouses worked together hand-to-hand moving bricks to support skilled Vietnamese masons building a new elementary school.

But when we went to schools to lend a hand with construction we were brought back to the present. At an end-of-work get together with Vietnamese, the common language of music brought us together with new hopes to celebrate life, luck and spring in the full moon.

Vietnam is booming, with the war seen as ancient history because most everything has been rebuilt and the population is young.

Shaw said he spends “a lot of time going to schools, service clubs and vets groups showing slides and giving talks about what we’ve done in VVRP. Some guys just don’t get it at all. They think we’re crazy to want to go back to Vietnam.”

One of the schools VVRP helped build in the past and worked on doing minor painting this spring.
Credit Cathy Primm
One of the schools VVRP helped build in the past and worked on doing minor painting this spring.

The Vietnamese at first were reluctant to allow American veterans to begin the volunteer program. But each year, for 25 years, VVRP has sent one or two small vet teams to volunteer on construction projects at schools, clinics and other facilities. One of the main purposes is to help vets deal with personal anger, guilt or their own post-traumatic stress.

This trip, Shaw said, was bittersweet “because this is the last one. The Vietnam vets are getting too old to do this kind of thing.”

So Shaw extended his trip and went by motorcycle to old battlefields he had known as a platoon leader.

“I visited a woman who runs a restaurant in Tay Ninh City near where the 25th Division had its base,” he said. “She’s a highly decorated Viet Cong veteran whom I’d met on two previous trips. She was probably one of those VCs who popped out of their tunnel system to fire rocket-propelled grenades at my APC.

“Now those tunnels are part of a museum, and she has one of the best restaurants in town. When I came in for lunch, she remembered me right away and gave me a big hug. She wouldn’t let me pay for anything.”

Tony recalls his former enemy saying in effect, “You’re a good guy; you come to help us.”

Wayne Purinton, president of the VVRP board and a retired Kansas farmer, said some guys in his hometown don’t agree with his volunteering overseas.

“It’s sort of sad,” Wayne said. “They’re still fighting the war, still angry. My best friend died in a rice paddy. I lost part of my soul in that firefight. I came back to Vietnam to try to do something positive, as I did when volunteering for the draft in 1966. We’ve helped build several schools. My life has come a full circle mainly because I have been able to come back to Vietnam.”

After 25 years of farming, Wayne wrote a book about his Vietnam experiences, “Journey Back from Vietnam – One soldier’s Long Road Home from War”  published by Langdon Street Press in 2011. Based on letters home he had forgotten writing and found in 2000, the story follows official records, staff journals and officers’ logs from his unit. A variety of other documentation make his book both personal and inspiring.

As for me, this little bit of volunteering seems worthwhile because at the very least I learned to appreciate how hard Vietnamese work. When I was in the Army four decades ago I had a perhaps common misperception that the Vietnamese were lazy and ignorant, mainly wanting to steal stuff from us wealthy Americans rather than work. Cultural miscommunication is common, to put it mildly, in war.

The longer I was in Vietnam this spring, the more I realized it was a totally different country than most of us might imagine a communist state to be. While intellectual and political freedoms apparently remain limited, religions of all kinds seem to flourish. From what I heard and saw, the main religion is making money. Reportedly it helps to have connections with the party in power, which runs most public services while private enterprise, both small and giant, flourish.

The quiet perseverance of a few apparently destitute people I noticed in urban areas leaves almost as strong an impression as do the hopeful appearances of new schools we toured that VVRP helped build over the years. Local and national government has done much to help the people, I think most visitors would agree. You don’t see many really poor folks in Vietnam. The Ozarks might be actually more needy in some ways. We didn’t see any grass-roofed hootches, which were common back when we were on active duty.

We veterans may have all felt blessed in various ways with incredible luck and grace to be there, still alive, still able to maneuver ourselves, to see places we knew personally or by reputation from long ago, now peaceful. Everywhere gardens filled nooks and crannies. Everyone seemed to have a motorcycle or scooter. Even the kids, though most rode an astounding array of new and old bikes.

May those children who use the schools we helped build have at least all the choices we have now and in all our days.

The vets got to spend time with the children, as well as work on the school.
Credit Cathy Primm
The vets got to spend time with the children, as well as work on the school.