Letter from Son of Vietnam Vet to Daughter of Vietnam Vet

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Excerpt from letter: (Given permission to share)

Hi Thuy,

I stumbled onto your website. My dad fought in the Vietnam war as a teenager in the 70s, and I myself have been a missionary in Vietnam and China for the past 10 years, so I’m familiar with both sides of that war. I’ve been opposed to torture since first grade when I watched a classmate being tortured. But it seems useless trying to convince most people that torture is wrong because they will just argue with you for why it is justified. But I have seen the effectiveness of changing people’s views by letting them see/hear firsthand the perspective of the other side through their story of suffering. Anyway, I just wanted to congratulate you for what you are doing.

Oh, and BTW, I wanted to say sorry for the way you were treated during your childhood. I want to say that I wish I could have lived in your town so I could have stood up for you or been your friend, but I don’t know if that’s what I would have really done (but I would do it now at least), so all I can say is I’m sorry for how people treated you and that I didn’t stand up for you and that I will at least do it now.

Thank you David for sharing with me.  From a fellow child of a Vietnam Vet, that means a lot to me. Much of what you are referring to actually came from adults although some youth were taught this behavior too. Today it is many of the youth who are the ones educating other adults. It is not always wisdom comes from age, but rather out of the mouth of babes shall come forth wisdom. I appreciate your letter and your real honesty. Although I do experience it at times today, this was many years ago now that I initially experienced this. However, you still took the time to say this to me today. As you are proud of your father, he should be of you.

Sons and Daughters of Veterans, Advocates for Peace and Healing for all

THE GREATEST MAN I NEVER KNEW DEDICATED TO MY FATHER & THE HMONG PILOTS

THE GREATEST MAN I NEVER KNEW

DEDICATED TO MY FATHER & THE HMONG PILOTS

Nock XiongPerhaps it was because I was young and selfish, thinking that the world revolved around me and that the drama during my teenage years were the only things that existed in my world.   Not only that, but I was a Hmong girl, the oldest of four girls.   My sisters and I always wondered if that’s why he never talked to us about the Vietnam Was. I know that my parents have always been chastised from other family members because they never had any sons, but my father never complained and he never showed any disappointment in us.    I don’t believe that my father ever intentionally meant to neglect telling us about his role in the war, maybe there were just some aspects of the war he just did not want to talk about.  Perhaps it brought back bittersweet memories for him.

I think that it had a lot to do with the fact that we, Hmongs, have never been ones to really “talk” and convey our emotions properly.   Every lesson taught was a riddle to be solved.   At least that was the case in my upbringing.  With the older generations, children were still meant to be seen not heard, and that is how many of those of my generation had grown up.  We sat and listened like well behave children, we were not to question anything, we were not to speak unless spoken to.  We never held hands, never hugged our parents, and never uttered the words, “I love you”.  It’s not that we didn’t love each other, nor longed to be held, to be acknowledged.  It was just that Hmong kids were taught to became adults a lot younger than our counterparts, and being adult meant being strong and holding your emotions inside.    Yet, it was that mentality that also raised us to be passive about our past which leads to our regrets when we lose the opportunities to reap all the memories, all the knowledge of our elders.

Tou VangTou Vang (My Dad Nock Xiong) -ThenI just never stopped to take the time to ask my parents what it was really like during that time.  I know that my father is a great man, but I really didn’t know just how great he really was, until this past summer.  My father is a Hmong veteran, a Hmong T-28 pilot to be exact and my mother, a Thai woman from the town of Nakom Panom.   Their youth spent trying to survive during the height of the Vietnam War in Laos.    We grew up knowing that we were Hmong, and we knew of the circumstances as to why we had to come to the United States.  I even heard tidbits here and there from my mother about my dad flying and crashing and breaking his nose, but that was the extent of it.   It was only this past summer in a muggy banquet hall in Maplewood, Minnesota that I was to truly “meet” my father.

Here we were in a hotel with a small banquet room packed full guests ranging from high ranking officials from the U.S. Air Force to family, friends, and invited guests of the pilots to see them being given their first acknowledgement of their role in the Vietnam War.  Many of the men left behind all of their belongings, photos, training certificates, uniforms, anything that would identify them as pilots of the CIA’s Water Pump program.  They feared for  the safety of their family if they were to be caught with any of the above in their possession.  So when they came here to the U.S. they all had quietly been forgotten and had no proof as to their involvement in the war.   It was only recently that these men began to reconnect with each other, and with the technology we have today, it was possible for them to start sharing lost photos, documents, and information that would eventually lead to the recognition of these men.   It was long overdue to a group of humble men, all of whom I can gladly call my “father” as well.   It was the first time in 37 years that these men were to see each other again.  For some, it had been since their departures from Laos back in the early 70’s.   Watching these once young men, now older, a little sadder, some of whom are not in the best of health… well,  let’s just say it brings tears to my eyes.  As the video tribute was playing you could see the longing of younger days,  the soft chuckles and teasing of the styles of youth, but you could see the tears, some trying to be held back at the thoughts of all their brothers who had died fighting for what they believed would let their children lead better lives.  The widows and children of the fallen pilots coming forth to receive their recognition on behalf of their fathers…for some it brought closure to the hurt of never knowing their husbands/fathers, for the resentment of being forgotten.  For many of us children in attendance that day, the memories shared by fellow pilots and their wives  was like finding a key to a treasure chest and I know for that, just like me, they are grateful.  In being there that day, I believe many of us, even those who no longer had a biological father, found that they still indeed had “fathers” and a connection to a group of extended family they never knew as well.  We all discovered how difficult it was for our fathers to learn how to fly.  They flew on outdated equipment, they flew in terrain that was treacherous to take off and land in, and not to mention in all weather conditions and even at night.  They flew endless missions knowing that they may never return home to their loved ones.  We learned how wives and mothers had to become fathers as well and care for the home and well-being of the children while the fathers were away, or for the fathers that never returned.  We learned that being Hmong meant being brave and smiling on the outside, even if you were dying on the inside.  It meant living for the next day, living for your children and the future of your children no matter what obstacles were thrown in your way.   Even if it meant sacrificing everything you owned materialistically.  I learned a lot about my father that day, but all unspoken by him of course, as it was always his way to be a quiet man, but a man whose actions mean even more to this day.

All my life, he has tried to give us the best of a western life as well as trying to make sure we would remember and respect the ways of the Hmong .    He came to the U.S. with a little English speaking skills and learned to adapt quickly.  He worked quietly day in and day out to provide for our every need and wants, but he never neglected our family.  There were weekend picnics at the beach, fishing trips, and family vacations to even Disney World.  Even though he wanted us to have an “all American” life, he also taught us to remember and respect the Hmong ways of life because no matter “what color you dye your hair, speak English, and act like you are not Hmong” you will always be Hmong and one day you will come back to love who you are.   As others may squirrel away money for a rainy day, I collect memories for the days when my children are grown and I am alone so that I may withdraw these precious moments to keep me company and bring a smile to my old wrinkled face.   I believe that that time has come for me and I am sure for many others like me to acknowledge this…I do love the fact that I am Hmong, and I cherish everything I can learn about my heritage, and I wear it as my badge of honor for the greatest man I never knew.  I may not have ever hugged him, I may never have held his hand, and I have never so much as whispered the words “I love you dad”, but it is never too late to start, and I encourage all of you to take the time and do the same today.

Nock Xiong

My organization and Congressman providing a certificate of Appreciation from both of us to Nock for her father who wasn't able to attend our Annual Vietnam Veterans Day event this year.
My organization and Congressman providing a certificate of Appreciation from both of us to Nock for her father who wasn’t able to attend our Annual Vietnam Veterans Day event this year. I was also honored to be a part of the first Hmong T-28 Pilot reunion. It was very moving and inspiring.

 

Copyright (C) May not use without permission.

 

 

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 http://www.redcross.org/ca/los-angeles/ways-to-donate/individual-gifts/holiday-mail-for-heroes.

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:   http://www.whitehouse.gov/joiningforces/get-involved.  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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My Father’s Notebook: The Enlistment Question

My Father’s Notebook: The Enlistment Question

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that I was the daughter of a Vietnam Veteran, nor a time when I wasn’t very proud of my Dad for his service. I had so many questions about Vietnam and what Dad experienced there, but never seemed to get answers for them. Sometimes I would ask my questions, and Dad would respond with a brief answer and a look of sadness that left me wishing I hadn’t asked.

One question, in particular, had lingered in my mind for as long as I could remember. It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college that the opportunity to ask it finally arose. My assignment was to learn more about my family members and then give a speech on my family history. I jumped at the chance to ask Dad the question I most wanted to have answered, “Why did you join the Army knowing you’d probably have to go to Vietnam?”

He paused a moment and then he looked at me and said, “I was young and stupid.” Even though I knew there was so much more to it, I just couldn’t push further. I was too overcome with the desire to protect him from the pain that was so clearly written on his face. Would he have shared more with me then, had I asked? Was I even ready to hear the answers then?

I know now, some twenty years later, why Dad made what seemed to me an impossible decision and one that stood in such contradiction to his gentle nature. And, as it turns out, the reason was far more in line with his nature than I ever imagined. He did it for his family.

Even from a young age, Dad was a caregiver and a protector of those he loved. At five years old he took responsibility for his little sister, the youngest of 9 kids, who he called “Bevie-pie.” By high school he was working on the Dobbs’ farm. He lived and worked with the Dobbs family during the week, doing chores on the farm before riding the bus in to school, then riding back for more chores after school. He never shied away from work.

As his high school graduation neared, so did his wedding to Mom. Dad set about planning his future. His father was very ill, and he felt it his duty and his honor to help support his mother and sister. With his family to support and a new life with his bride-to-be about to start, continuing his education just wasn’t an option financially. My grandfather, Mom’s father, offered Dad their family farm. But Dad knew firsthand the long hours and the stress of farm life, and he didn’t want that for himself or for his family. He also knew factory life was not for him. So as his father’s health deteriorated, he began considering the military.

Dad’s family was not new to military service. His grandfather, Hans, served in the Norwegian army before emigrating from Norway to the United States. His father, Jasper, served in the U.S. Army in the World War I era. Two of his older brothers, Bob & Ron, also served in the military. And, even if he didn’t chose to continue on to a career in the military, it would still provide him financial assistance to continue his education while still supporting his family.

So, with his parents signing to give their permission, Dad signed enlistment papers in 1968. It was a year of many changes. In April, his father, Jasper, passed away. Dad graduated from Colfax High School in May. One week later, on June 1st, my parents were married. Two short weeks later, Dad left for Basic Training in Kentucky.

Dad joined the Army for the same reason he did everything else in his life—he did it for his family. Though he likely made the choice with a certain innocence and naiveté, knowing he took on such an incredible responsibility to make a better life for those he loved makes me even more proud of him. Yes, Dad was young, but I disagree with him on one point: he was far from stupid. At 18, he made the best decision he could have. And in the end, his service allowed him to go on to school and to become an excavator, which he truly loved. And through it all, he took care of his family–of all of us. For this we could not be more thankful nor more proud.

Three generations of Johnsons in the military:  At left,  Hans Johnson, Glen’s grandfather, served in the Norwegian army prior to immigrating to the United States.  At center, Jasper Johnson, Glen’s father,  served in the U.S. Army in the World War I era.  Glen, right, served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971.

Glen worked on the Dobbs’ family’s dairy farm during high school.  His bride-to-be’s father offered the young couple his farm, but he knew firsthand the long hours and stress of farm life, and he didn’t want that for himself or his family.