Once We Were Soldiers
This one's going to be tough for me. But my wife keeps asking me to write, as many of my family and friend's are asking about, and are concerned about my much anticipated visit to Chu Lai. One important aspect of this trip for me was to revisit the base or at least whatever was left of the base camp I was stationed out of during my tour of duty in 1969-1970.
Prior to our arrival Brian, through his many contacts managed to have a close friend of his Mr. Huynh Anh (A new hero in my life), researched and located the Americal Division's base camp at Chu Lai. I was told that it was all, for the most part a shell of it's former self, and now used as a guarded military property. But I'm getting ahead of myself, I think you'll appreciate this part more.
After our arrival at Hoi An, and numerous phone calls incoming and outgoing, we advised Mike that Brian, David and I would be leaving the group and taking a side trip on the second day of our arrival, and would be gone all day, probably till the evening. Our plan would be to leave our luggage with Mike, pick up our passports and check out of the hotel at 6:00am. and meet back with the crew in Da Nang for the flight the following day to Hanoi. As a Vietnam veteran himself, I had already given Mike a heads up on our plan's, his only comment was that he wish he could have come along .
What I didn't know was that Brian and his friend had made arrangement's to have a private breakfast with a local high ranking official who wished to meet and greet us at a posh hotel close by.
Well, 6:00am we're in the parking lot and a gentleman on a motorbike pulls up, Brian exchanges a few words with him, we jump into Mr. Anh's vehicle and we're off. A 5 minute ride later, we arrive at the restaurant, a few pleasantries are exchanged, coffee is ordered, and then the bombshell!
Turns out that the official is Mr. Dang Ngoc Nam, the President of the Vietnam Fatherland Front of Hoi An City. Through close networking and the grapevine (remember where we are) Mr. Nam was informed of our Fulbright Group, our project, and wanted to meet us, as we are all considered VIP's staying in his city. During the expected small talk and pleasantries, Brian explained to Mr. Nam, my quest to visit Chu Lai, and of my service during the war, Mr. Nam asked where I was stationed and time frame, when told, his eye's opened up with an obvious excitement that was palpable to all.
Since I don't speak vietnamese, Mr. Anh and Brian looked at me with such a surprised look, I thought I had done something wrong! At that point Brian revealed to me that Mr. Nam was an officer in the North Vietnamese Army, and fought in the same area I was in at the same time I was here! There was a strong possibility that we had been first person combatant's 40 years ago! The entire experience was to say the least, surreal!
Without saying a word, we both stared at one another with a mutual respect that is difficult to put into words, unless you have walked in our shoes, after so long, and now meeting this proud and distinguished gentleman coming to the realization that once we were soldiers.
I went on to describe my official mission as a Fulbright Scholar, and my desire to study and learn the cuisine and culture of his, and that of the Cambodian people. I explained to him my sincere desire to bury the demons of the war, and replace them with a new found mutual respect and understanding as an educator.
We ended the meeting with the traditional toast of Cognac, and a mutual embrace. A wonderful beginning to a long awaited quest.
Later, "The Return"