Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam veteran, has a Ph.D. in psychology, and has counseled veterans for many years. He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon.
A Trip to Earth
I was asked to write about my return to Vietnam. I have been there twice, once for a war in 1970 and once for a vacation in 2004. For many years I had no desire whatsoever to return to Vietnam. And for many years it would not have been possible to return even if I had wanted to do so. In war there are good memories and bad, but mostly bad. Why would I want to return to the desolation and horror of war? When people suggested such a thing to me my usual response was that if I had some discretionary income I would spend it on a vacation to a tropical island lapped by crystal clear water and a blue horizon. But over the years my veteran clients returned from their second visits to Vietnam with glowing reports of a feeling of reconciliation and peace. Most of my clients had not been military advisors like myself, so the overwhelming number of Vietnamese that they knew were the enemy. They were very surprised by the friendliness and lack of bitterness in the Vietnamese. There were of course exceptions. As an advisor I had both friends and enemies who were Vietnamese. Wondering what might have happened to my friends after the war made thoughts of a return even more painful. But still, everyone had happy reports of their return.
I suppose too, there was that desire to overcome the sense of dissociation and unreality. Was that real? Did all those horrible things really happen? Did I even see them accurately? So yes, the thought of returning also reflected a desire to consolidate and refresh a sense of reality in one’s life, and particularly in regard to what may have been one of the most important and impactful times of one’s life.
When a friend asked me to accompany her to Vietnam I reluctantly agreed. I had some fear that my former enemies might punish me. They had been shooting at me and trying to kill me during the war. But I began to relearn some of the Vietnamese language in preparation for the trip, and it was fun. I believe that it is best to learn some of the language of a country you are visiting. It maximizes the experience. It’s fun to try to get into the psyche of the place visited. When visiting another country, one is not just visiting a place, but a culture and a people.
It was a joy and a heartache to return. It was a joy because the people are friendly, intelligent, and so very busy. It was a heartache because of the sorrow of war. How could we all have been so stupid as to fight and kill each other?
I had a difficult time finding the place where my military compound had been thirty-four years earlier. When I was there in 1970 Binh Chanh was a rural district. Enemy agents and guerillas tried to infiltrate through our district to get into Saigon. By 2004 Saigon had expanded and engulfed this rural district. It was no longer rural. It was a suburb, a city district of Ho Chi Minh City. There were a few rice paddies, but they could not be seen from the road, because the roadsides were tightly packed with shops, cafes, mechanics, and houses. To the American eye most of them were shacks. Our taxi driver had a difficult time finding the place. A new, modern chemical plant had been built over the former Binh Chanh District headquarters. At first I couldn’t recognize anything. I wasn’t sure we were in the right place. I was standing on a concrete drive beside a concrete wall. I stepped up on a curb so I could peer over the top of the wall. I saw a depression in the ground that was the same size and shape as the pond that used to be in the middle of our compound, and where the women washed clothes. Then I realized that where I was standing was the scene of one of the most horrible and sad things I have ever experienced. In 1970 I had stood beside a very good and likable man. We were looking down at the body of his daughter lying in the gravel next to our team shack. The flesh had been completely burned away from her skeleton, and juices were running out. In 2004 I thought the concrete I was standing on might crack open and let all the sorrow of the earth come spilling out.
Disclaimer: If you are needing more extensive assistance or counseling, we can supply you with a list of available agencies to assist you. No blogs are ever meant to substitute a person seeking help through professional counseling.
Mike Muller: MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970. Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971. In addition to briefing the staff he briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army. He was in Vietnam for one tour.