My Father’s Notebook: Christmas in Vietnam

Me & DadMy Father’s Notebook:  Christmas in Vietnam

The holiday season has always been my favorite time of year.  Growing up in a Christian family, I have such fond memories of Sunday school programs, family gatherings with lots of food and treats, candlelight service on Christmas Eve, and a long vacation from school to play with all those new toys.  Some of my best memories of the holidays are the ones that took place in our home:  putting up the tree, helping my Mom, Sally, to bake cookies and other traditional Norwegian goodies like krumkakes and rosettes, wrapping presents, and watching Christmas specials together.  My parents, Glen and Sally Johnson, worked so hard to make these holiday memories and traditions for us.

On some of those cherished days off from school, Dad would come home from work and with a twinkle in his eye call us “school skippers” and ask why we weren’t in school.  Because it was winter, and Dad’s off-season, he wasn’t working nearly as much.  So the holidays also meant more time with Dad.  Mom, my sisters, and I would spend entire days baking up Christmas goodies.  Mom had to remind us all from time to time to keep our “snitching” to a minimum, as we needed to save the cookies for later.   Dad was wise and could get around this rule by milling around the kitchen, watching and waiting for one to turn out not-quite-right.  “Let me get this one out of the way, for you,” he’d say.

But like all aspects of life, the burden of his service in Vietnam was ever-present.  We loved the twinkling of the Christmas lights, and Mom would pack as many sets onto the tree as it would hold.    Dad was a very easy-going person, and could tolerate more than any other person I know.  But one thing he could not tolerate was blinking lights.  In fact, he preferred they be off altogether, and if he was in the room alone, he’d unplug the tree.

I had always assumed he simply found the lights distracting or perhaps wanted to conserve energy.  Mom knew the truth, though.  Flashing lights triggered memories of the war.   The vast majority of fighting at Tay Ninh Base Camp and at Buell Fire Support Base occurred under cover of darkness.  Both sides of the fight utilized tracer rounds, colored rounds interspersed with the regular rounds to help determine if the rounds were hitting their intended targets and to adjust their aim if they were not.  The night sky was streaked with red and green lights as the bombs fell around them.  So the flashing lights of 4th of July fireworks and even simple Christmas lights can be unbearable.

Christmas in Vietnam, 1968

It was early December of 1968 that 19-year-old Glen Johnson arrived in Vietnam.  Within a couple of weeks, Dad was settling in to Tay Ninh Base Camp in Southeast Vietnam.  It was his first Christmas away from his family.  The memories of that Christmas was so vivid that three decades later, as he recorded his memories of Vietnam in his simple notebook, his account of that Christmas.  It reads as if he had written it while he was in Vietnam.  This is what he wrote:

“Well, maybe cause of lack of snow and 1 day no different than the next, Christmas has gone by.  Repairs during the day and watch for Charlie at night.  They do have a chapel type building in camp here but we forget its even Sunday and a little busy to get there anyway.  So every once in a while the Chaplin gets to this end of the base camp and we have church on whatever day it is when he gets here.  Being that it’s still close to Christmas he wants to sing Christmas songs.  I have seen before on TV, Bob Hope shows and the guys crying.  Now I know why.  I can’t sing anyway, but when they sang Silent Night, no words come out and I see the guys here in church have tears in their eyes “too.”  It’s good to hear from home and the brownies and cookies from Sal.”

Right now, servicemen and women are stationed away from their families this holiday season.  Please remember them and all veterans.  For information on ways to let them know you care during the holidays, you can go to the Red Cross website to learn more about the Holiday Mail for Heroes program at

And a great resource for finding ways to help military personnel and their families any time of year is the White House’s Joining Forces program:  It provides information on how to send messages to servicemen and women, a directory of organizations that help military personnel and their families on both national and local levels, and information and guidance to help citizens to start their own volunteer project.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, or any other holiday, I wish you all great joy, peace, and love this season.

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War as a Prayer

2012 Vietnam War Symposium- TSIO All Rights Reserved

“War as a prayer” as a way in which I reconciled my own experiences.

Among the things I “lost” in Vietnam were any sense of meaning for the phrases “right” and “wrong” and a sense of “connection” between my community and myself. I gained some knowledge however; I found I could survive in evil circumstances and that I was capable of doing some pretty terrible things. I discovered that I could survive by assuming I was dead anyway, and focusing in the present and the “mission.” I learned a lot about compassion, love, and sacrifice. I came “home” fragmented – incomplete – a part person. Over the years on my own journey towards wholeness I have learned the importance of connection and community. The sense of connection was renewed with the VET Center program and the veterans group of clergy to which I belong (as well as within my own family structure).

Trauma, to be validated, demands community, achieved through sharing stories. Trauma is personal. One of the communities I wanted was God and me; and if we are going to have community we are going to listen to each other’s stories. We are going to have a conversation, a personal connection through sacred conversation, or prayer. What is the personal conversation, the prayer, like – it is Scary, Honest, Intense,and Tough. Instead of the one-way of ACTS it is the journey of SHIT, calling forth the recognition that all shit is not bad, but can be life-giving as well. Thus my statement that my healing has taken place when I began to regard war as a prayer or perhaps a context for prayer.

Alan was in the US Navy from 1969 to 1975, 5 years on active duty – as an enlisted man in the Naval Security group, then as an officer – first as an advisor in VN then as a teacher at the Naval Academy prep School.

Other Posts by Alan Cutter:

The Journey from Hell to Hope

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to Post Traumatic Spiritual Disorder

Disclaimer: If you are needing more extensive assistance or counseling, there are many available agencies to assist you. No blogs are ever meant to substitute a person seeking help through professional counseling. We are merely a platform for others to share their experiences and opinions.

Never forgotten Honor Flight

I would like to share my experience with my father on his memorable day of being honored as a WW II veteran.

It began last year when I went to Mosinee to honor those vets that have given their service for this country. It was suggested that my father would be a candidate for such an honor because of his service by those that have been involved and familiar with the Honor Flight program. I thought on this awhile and decided that this would be a great idea. My father, having seven boys and a girl, where five of the boys served in the various branches, should have recognition for his part in history.

I thought we, meaning those that would help me set up the arrangements to get him on this flight, could surprise him by not letting him know that I would be going along as his “Guardian.”

I talked to my father about the idea and at first he was reluctant because he felt that he was unworthy of such an honor. It took much convincing to get him to understand that he was entitled like all WW II veterans that served in this war regardless of his direct involvement or position. My father served in the Navy Reserve for one year on the USS New Orleans. He was, in his eyes, just a common sailor doing his job – no recognition required.

With the paper work all done and sent it, the arrangement for his travel to Wausau for meeting those that would travel with him, and preparations for the day, we began to plot the surprise of keeping from him my involvement.

We picked him up in Eau Claire, WI and drove him to Wausau to the Johnson Hotel the day before the flight were he had the pleasure of registering in and meeting his guardian, having a banquet in his honor and getting a good nights sleep.

It was during the registration period that dad began to suspect the deception that we kept from him. As explained by him later – “I knew bits and pieces by clues I was seeing.” “When you told me that you were staying over night in the hotel with me and when you had to go to this special meeting pretty much gave it away.” “I only knew the truth when I was sent into the room to meet my “Guardian” and you was standing there holding the number that was assigned to me was the surprise real.”

I have to share this bit of the story. During the registration of the veterans, of which many of the veteran’s daughters were guardians, the register without looking up heard my father’s name and going down the list asked if this was his daughter going with him, as my name is Terry. Having said that she looked up and saw me standing there – ouch!. Now, my father and I look very much alike, despite our age difference and throughout the day many persons whom saw us asked, “Are you brothers?” My father always replied, “No this is my daughter.” At the end of the affair, he informed me that he would never let me live this down. I am sure he won’t as he still tells this part of the trip to everyone that asks how it was.

To make a condensed version of this experience – We flew out of Mosinee, WI in a group to WashingtonD.C. to be greeted by a “fan-fair” of welcome home recipients. We boarded buses and went to the WWII Memorial were a group picture was taken. A short trip by bus through downtown WashingtonD.C. with a commentator explaining many of the sights out the windows was provided. The next stop was the Korean Memorial where many pictures were taken of the statues and sights. My father’s brother fought in Korea and was amazed at the Memorials that were erected for all veterans in WashingtonD.C. We walked and talked through the Nurses Monument, The Three Soldiers Monument, The Vietnam Wall, ending at the Lincoln Memorial, taking pictures as we went. Then off to the Air Force Memorial and finally the Arlington Cemetery, were we saw the changing of the guard at the Tombs of the Unknown Soldiers. As impressive as all this was, what impressed us the most was the six acres of grave markers that filled the rolling hills of Arlington Cemetery. This was the emotional sadness and reflective time we spent together, thinking of the loss for preservation of peace in the world and the American way of life. The final monument that we stopped at was the Iwo Jima Memorial, which was most impressive in Washington D.C. at sun set time.

After a full day of walking and pushing my dad in a wheelchair, it was time for the flight home. Aboard the plane, military mail-call was made and each veteran received letters from home (friends, relatives, children and organizations) giving thanks for their service. My father was surprised and confused as he didn’t know how the organization knew about his sister in Florida, which he got a letter from. I had to tell him that we requested various people to write without his knowledge.

Upon arrival back in Mosinee, the vets were met by a band, honor guards from various organizations, wives and various relatives – the community at large. My father said, “Damn, half the city is here.”  This is something he never expected or received when he returned to the States in the past.

Before leaving Reagan International Airport in Washington D.C., I said to my father, “Is there any last words you would like to say to Washington before we go?” His reply was, “Goodbye.”

In brief, his attitude and emotional state of mind was changed by this experience and he was looking forward to seeing the twenty-eight pictures that he took on his camera that was given to each vet for this specific day. He was glad that he went and his thoughts of being unworthy of such honor changed when he was that thousands of people do care.

I encourage all veterans that qualify for this “Honor Flights” take advantage of them, whether they feel worthy or not – because it is a personal experience that is once in a life time.

More pictures from Mr. Anger and his son’s Honor Flight experience, please click here

You can also see him on our Veteran Tribute page

Vietnamese soldier escaped Vietnam & immigrated to the U.S.

*We are not endorsing “sides”, politics, or promoting a religion through this post. We are simply sharing one of many stories from various “sides” of the former conflict in Vietnam. You can learn more about Chieu Dao’s story of escape and immigration to the United States here.

Chieu Dao has returned on several occasions back to Vietnam. He is a humble man & a man of forgiveness. I admire him so.

*You will have to scroll down past initial group of picture once you click on link to get to Chieu Dao’s story.