It echoes from the past
“Why are we here?”
I was 21 years old when I began to ask myself that question, “Why are we here?” It was September 1968 and I was riding in a truck from the US Airbase at Da Nang to the helicopter base at Marble Mountain to pick up an aircraft part. I saw some kids playing on a dirt pile and everything I had been trained to believe suddenly made no sense. Those kids were doing what I use to do. They were me and every kid who ever just played on a pile of dirt everywhere in the world. These thoughts did not fit with my training and they would not go away.
I was trained to be a good Marine, to obey commands not ask questions. However when I saw myself reflected in the face of a child playing in the dirt the questions made more sense than the commands. The idea that I did not fit in with the people around me was not new to me but now there seemed to be more to it. Did other Soldiers and Marines see what I saw, think what I thought? “Of course not, I’m the only one and I must be crazy” was my inner reply. So I locked those thoughts up and put them in a place where no one but me could find them, and they would not go away.
Then 42 years later I was in college, sitting in a US history class. There was a young Asian girl sitting next to me and one day I asked her where she was from. “Ha Noi, Vietnam” was her reply. My mind raced with thoughts and the loudest one said “Oh my god I use to fuel the aircraft that dropped bombs on your grandparents.” Aloud I stammered something about nice to meet her and that I had many questions about Vietnam, and they would not go away.
This brilliant young lady’s name is Thao and I constantly asked her questions about Vietnam. The food, the culture, the history, the people were all things I never learned about Vietnam and Thao had the answers. One day she asked me if I was going to transfer to SUNY Brockport and of course I said yes. Then she said “You know Brockport has a study abroad program in Vietnam right?” I was stunned. No I did not know that. She said “You can go there and study and get answers to your questions.” Once again this young lady triggered my mind to racing. This time with thoughts of going back to Vietnam, and they would not go away.
In America veterans often greet each other with the words “Welcome home.” How unique it is to feel a sense of “Welcome home” here in Vietnam. I sense that some kind of cycle is completing itself. As I write this I am literally sitting about 2 miles from where I served in 1968. The US Airbase at Da Nang is now an updated facility called The Da Nang International Airport where I was welcomed as a guest of the Vietnamese people. I am being taught by professors, some of whom were my enemy 44 years ago. The thoughts and the questions continue to race. I wonder; am I here to give the thoughts peace and lay them to rest? Is that how they will go away?