A Native American Vietnam Era Veteran, Robert, who lost his brother in Vietnam, saw a piece I wrote and gave me a call. He wanted to know if I was able to meet and he would drive from about an hour away to meet me that same day. I said sure assuming that it was pertaining to an upcoming Vietnam Veteran’s Day event for Wisconsin that I was organizing.
We met at a coffee shop and come to find out it had nothing to do with our event, although he and Veterans from his tribe did attend the event as well. There was another Native American Vietnam Veteran named Ralph, also a former marine, who was close to Robert like a brother. Ralph had been in battle when an NVA soldier was killed. He brought back parts of the NVA Soldier’s helmet. He kept it all these years until one day he had a dream. In this dream this former NVA Soldier appeared to him and stated he wanted to get back home to Vietnam.
The Native Americans believe in a spirit world as do many of the Vietnamese. Both also believe in ancestral ceremonies and respect. The Native Americans also believe strongly in the power and meaning of dreams. This Native American Veteran believed the NVA Soldier’s spirit actually visited him in his dream and asked to be sent back to Vietnam.
I am only summarizing the details here, but before this tribe even met me, they were already planning this ceremony on behalf of this NVA Soldier not only as an act of respect, but to help release the man’s spirit back to Vietnam as he had wished. After Robert read the piece I wrote, he said he knew he was supposed to talk to me and I was to be a part of this.
There was no doubt that I needed to honor this request. This ceremony went on for a few weeks with different clans taking turns conducting the ceremony a week at a time. There was a feast and dancing all throughout the night and then different times of the day. There was also singing done in a prayerful manner. Their longs hours of dancing were an act of sacrifice and prayer in releasing the man’s spirit back home.
I was asked to help prepare Vietnamese food for the whole clan, but also so we can set some out for the spirit of the Vietnamese man. My husband was also a part of this and together we cooked the meal. I wore an Ao Dai (Vietnamese traditional dress) and burned incense and said a prayer on behalf of this NVA Soldier.
After several weeks of completing this ceremony, they feel the man’s spirit was released back home and the parts of the helmet were buried.
I participated in this ceremony out of respect for this group’s act of humanity in trying to honor a former enemy, and to honor this NVA soldier and his family.
Below is a the story from a son of a former Viet Cong Soldier. He came across something I wrote about and made contact with me. He expressed how he appreciated what I had shared and asked how we could connect further and continue to bridge the gap between all who experienced and were affected by the war. I asked him to start by sharing some of his story.
My name is Phu, I am son of former Vietcong during the Vietnam War. I was born and grew up after the fighting ended in 1975. I am a history lover especially that of my homeland, Quang Tri Province, Vietnam.
I was lucky to meet Thuy Smith, and we found out that there were some common points that we could learn and cooperate from one another. She encouraged me to write out my father’s account as a former combatant, and how my family members became involved and affected. With this short article, I hope that you, the American Vietnam veterans, daughters, sons and grand-kids of Nam vets could have another experience about this conflict. The war has been over for nearly forty years now; it seems to be long enough to put painful memory behind. It is, however, a part of history of the two nations, so we should not forget. One thing we can do is to try to forgive for one another.
Located at just south of former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) divided Vietnam into north and south after Geneva Accords in 1954, my home village in Cam Lo District, Quang Tri Province was one of the infamous corners of Leatherneck Square including Dong Ha, Cam Lo, Con Thien and Doc Mieu and home to the fiercest battlefields witnessed in the history of mankind. This place also was home to the most heavily bombarded ever seen in the history of mankind.
Born in a family as the oldest son with 4 brothers and a younger sister, my father joined in liberation forces in 1968 soon after General Tet Offensive took place. He was later captured in a Search and Destroy operation by US Marines not very far away from his hometown. He was then transported to Danang via helicopter and held there for several days before removed to Phu Quoc Island in the southernmost of South Vietnam. Phu Quoc was a very big prison used by the US to hold captured soldiers during the war that is said to be home to some about 45,000 prisoners of war (my name was named after the name of this place as a reminder of my father’s days there). There, he suffered for almost 5 years, and it was surely the unhappy experience for him. Fortunately, he was set free as the result of prisoner exchange followed by the Paris Agreement in 1973 that officially ending American’s involvement in Vietnam. Loc Ninh District, Binh Phuoc Province in south west of Vietnam was the former headquarters of National Liberation Front (NLF) where he served as a combatant again with other fellows. In 1975, following the Ho Chi Minh campaign designated to unify the country, he joined in the battle of Hue, on March, 1975. About 3 months after the capture of my father, his younger brother who had just came of age was drafted to be soldier of Army of Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). He then served in various places in central South Vietnam including provinces of Quang Nam (Quang Tin), Quang Ngai until the collapse of Saigon in April, 1975.
During the war time, people were not the decision makers to some extents. One has to decide to be with this side or that one. For many times, parents of my father and my uncle were in the deep sea and devils as they had a son who was a Vietcong and other was a fighter of ARVN. It was a relief that they who were on different sides did not have to face to face shoot at one another.
Since the fighting became escalated to climax, especially during the Eastern Offensive in 1972 when Quang Tri was the “hotspot” of the world attention, our family and most of the other residents fled to Danang.
After Saigon was overran by Northern Vietnamese Army in April, 1975, family members began to come back for resettlement. The first thing needed to do was to rebuild the houses from almost zero level condition. Out of about 3,500 villages in Quang Tri Province, only for 11 were unhurt during this period.
It was a greatest pleasure that my father, uncle and other members in the family gathered again in hometown. As time goes by, they are gradually open to speak out their own experience and get on well with one another, but none of them, as far as I know, want to mention about the political view. It is my experience that not many of former soldiers in my region would like to share the war memory with a stranger unless they are sure to know that person. After all, it is hard for those who have been the affected by the conflict to forget those evil days. The war has left a lifetime scar somewhere in a corner of their hearts.
Burning incense in remembering all who were lost during the war at our first official Vietnam Veteran’s Day for WI (2010) organized by TSIO. Learn more here.Click image below for some of Thuy’s personal reflections of her and her family’s experience.
Today was quite an emotional morning for me. I met with a Vietnamese newspaper reporter to share about an item I had brought to Vietnam with me. Before I could even utter a word, the emotions came flooding through and I could not stop it although I tried. I too was surprised as to how much emotion was there.
Before I left the United States to come on this trip an American Vietnam Veteran called me up because he had heard I was going to Vietnam. He actually wanted to return with me, but his health did not permit such a trip, at least not now. He asked me if I could do a favor for him. I thought it might have been to bring him back a picture of where he was stationed before or some other type of souvenir. Instead, he begins to tell me a story.
When he was in Vietnam during the war, Larry was a medic. He was stationed around the area of Danang. The troop he was assigned to was ambushed. Through this incident an NVA ( North Vietnamese Army) soldier had been injured quite severely. Larry, also goes by Doc, tried to save his life. He was unable too. Larry had taken the belt buckle of this NVA and brought it back to the United States with him.
Many years later he then asks me if I would return it for him. His wish would be that ultimately it could go back to a family member of this NVA soldier, but that does not appear possible. If he could at least return it to Vietnam and Danang in particular, he would feel satisfied with that.
I asked him why it was important for me to do this for him. He told me that when he took the buckle back to the U.S. with him he was young and naive. It was his was of having a “story”, a souvenir. However, as time goes on and a person matures and the older you get, you do a lot of reflecting back. The buckle began to weigh heavy on him and he could not get release from it. He felt the buckle does not belong to him; it belongs to Vietnam. He knew not only about my humanitarian work to Vietnam, the healing and advocacy on behalf of American Vietnam Veterans and their families, but also about my work on bridging the gap and finding healing and common ground between all who have been affected by the war in Vietnam.
When he heard I was returning again to Vietnam, he knew it was timing for it to be returned. I also asked him to write something for me that can be left with the buckle in which he did. He also wants me to say a prayer and burn incense on behalf of this NVA Soldier.
He stated this would be a full circle moment for him and help bring release to him of the heavy burden he had carried regarding this item. It was the right thing to do and should go back to Vietnam where it belongs.
Let me tell you about Larry. I’ve been calling Vietnam Veterans the Number One GIS- familiar term in Vietnam used by some during the war. Many are returning or would like to return to Vietnam today. Many have either helped me or another NGO with humanitarian efforts to Vietnam. There are other testimonies of the acts of humanity such as this one by other former American GIS. Larry (Doc) said although he was an American soldier during the war, he was a doctor first. It did not matter to him that the man whose life he was trying to save was an NVA Soldier. He was a DOC first and foremost and he loved his “patients”. With this, I call him not only the Number one GI, but I also add in his title Bac Si which in Vietnamese means Doctor. Larry stated that title was an honor for him especially coming from someone who was from Vietnam.
I did have Larry over to record an interview with him. That too was an emotional meeting. We both exchanged some heart to heart sharing and some tears. (Link) Not all is included in this video. I left out some of our more personal emotional exchange.
This was not the first time I’ve had the opportunity to experience something like this. Another former American Marine, who is a Native American, has a similar story and there was a Native American Ceremony to help send the NVS’s spirit home. (Link )
Yesterday, December 12, 2010 I told this same story to the Vietnamese newspaper reporter. They are going to try and get Larry’s story published and get me connected to the right sources in Danang to do a proper ceremony. We will also be contacting another bigger newspaper in Vietnam to get this story told. One of many Articles written in Vietnam
Thank you Larry for the honor and opportunity to be a part of this journey with you. Thank you for listening to your heart and spirit and following through. This is another continual testimony of the American GIS that I’ve come to know. This is also another testimony of the bridging the gap, finding common ground, and forging new relations today.
Soldier to soldier, Veteran to Veteran, and people to people – we are all the same and there are parallels to our stories. I and Larry share this with you today as our way to pay tribute to all who have been affected by the war in Vietnam; and our hope and prayer is healing for all.
Proud Amerasian and Daughter of an American Vietnam Veteran
*Thuy will be taking return trip to Vietnam in February 2014. You can follow her posts through this blog and the World Outreach Blog.
Larry looking at the buckle he wants to have returned
(L) Larry when he served as a medic in Vietnam, Thuy with the buckle
Larry Hoffmann…..HM3 -Aka “Doc” “bush doc” “mother doc”
Enlisted July 1967, Served with: 2nd Bn. 1st Mar. 1st Mar Div.
Echo Company 1st, Platoon. 1969 – Hon. Dis. July 1971
Buckle came from wounded NVA soldier…..early summer of 1969…..the place and time where I treated this man is a little fuzzy….but it was during a Marine Operation called “Pipestone Canyon”…….it was to the west of Danang and perhaps a little to the South. If I remember correctly, it was called “Go Noi Island”…whether this was a real name or Marine Speaklesh I have no idea.
I am returning the buckle to Vietnam because it belongs to Vietnam…I have been the care-taker of this buckle for the past 42 years……I am sorry that I could not do more for this soldier…..he died in my arms, with peace and dignity.
Thuy, as I have shared with you in the video, you know most of this story…It is my hope you can explain to those you encounter, how the time spent, caring for this man, is so much the part of who I am today as a human being.
Wishing you many satori on your journey home…. Namaste’ ~ Doc Larry
Related Posts to this story, Part two and three below:
Both Le Ly and I had been invited by UM Marquette to speak about Vietnam years ago. She is one of many who have inspired us with our work- healing for all.
For those who many not be familiar, Le Ly is a famous author and humanitarian. She had fought during the war in Vietnam. There were many families such as hers who were split during the war, and many of the people were simply caught in between. Choices are made based on survival. For all this woman has come through and to be able to forgive all her “enemies” as she has is amazing.
Her first book – When Heaven and Earth Changed Places
Some of you may have even seen the movie based on her book.
The next day we had a discussion with the staff of the University about Vietnamese and American relations. The night before Le Ly and I hung out in her room until about 2am talking about our stories and sharing our work and vision for the future.
Stories are powerful and I have seen new relations develop today between the people from both countries. There are more similarities than differences and we can come together to form a common bond and work toward healing for everyone. I have been able to witness this myself.
Excerpt From Book: “The least you did- the least any of us did- was our duty. For that we must be proud. The most that any of us did- or saw- was another face of destiny or luck or God. Children and soldiers have always known it to be terrible. If you have not yet found peace at the end of your war, I hope you will find it here (book). We have new important roles to play”.
“Some people suffer in peace the way others suffer in war. The special gift of that suffering, I have learned, is how to be strong while we are weak, how to be brave when we are afraid, how to be wise in the midst of confusion, and how to let go of that which we can no longer hold. In this way, anger can teach forgiveness, hate can teach us love, and war can teach us peace. ~Le Ly Hayslip