Returning North Vietnamese Soldier item to Vietnam for Vietnam Vet, Part Two

(L) Larry when he served as a medic in Vietnam, Thuy with the buckle
(L) Larry when he served as a medic in Vietnam, Thuy with the buckle

Larry Hoffman, Former Medic in Vietnam

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.

~Thuy Smith

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.

Website of Thuy Smith International Outreach

Related Posts to this story, Part one and two below

Final Reflections from NVA Buckle Ceremony, Part Three

LARRY’S VIDEO & WRITTEN THOUGTS in Returning Buckle to Vietnam- Part One

Article (one of many) done in Vietnam on this story

SIMILAR STORY- Native American Ceremony helping to release NVA Soldier’s Spirit Home to Vietnam

Returning North Vietnamese Soldier Item for Vietnam Veteran to Vietnam, Part One

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:

Read Thuy’s Reflection regarding her first encounter with Larry (Part Two)

 Read Thuy’s final reflection (Part Three) of the actual handing over of the buckle ceremony that took place in Vietnam

See Video interviews below (Taped before Thuy left to Vietnam to return item) Video will return soon

Related Posts to this story, Part two and three below:

Read Thuy’s Blog regarding this first encounter with Larry (Part Two)

 Read Thuy’s final reflection (Part Three) of the actual handing over of the buckle ceremony that took place in Vietnam


My Father’s Notebook: The Man Behind the Words

My Father’s Notebook: The Man Behind the Words

My Dad is a difficult person to describe. Not because he’s complicated, but because in words he just seems too good to be true. Who would believe anyone is so amazing as he? Granted I’m very biased. But as we heard many times in the days and weeks after his passing, so many people share our thoughts of his character and kindness and the impact he has made on this world. So before we delve into Dad’s experiences in Vietnam, let me tell you more about this man I’m blessed to call my Dad.
Glen Johnson was born July 3, 1949, on a very hot day in a maternity home in Colfax, Wisconsin. He was the 8th of 9 children. Grandma would take a couple of months to decide on the name “Glen” for him, but by then his siblings had already dubbed him “Pete.” From then on, everyone knew him as Pete. Only Grandma called him Glen, with the exception of Mom on those occasions when she was particularly upset with him.
Dad’s humor was legendary. The kind of wit my teenage self was mortified by, my young adult self found goofy, but my middle-aged self now finds endearing. He took great joy in sharing the latest jokes he had heard. He was partial to a good blonde joke, and being the grandson of Norwegian immigrants, spread the best of the Sven & Oley jokes throughout the family. My sisters and I all married men with Dad’s sense of humor, and when we were together there was much laughter. After one of their zingers, Dad would often look at me and say, “Oh, he’s gooood!”
Dad was an excavator at heart and owned his own business for many years. From the time the ground thawed in the spring until it froze again in the winter, he was at work. Seven days a week he would be at work as the sun rose and not return until after it had set once again. And even then, it wasn’t time to rest yet, as paperwork and phone calls would need his attention.
Even in the winter, the off-season, Dad would be working. Early on he would plow snow and drive oil truck. Later, as his business got busy, he spent most of the winters working on his equipment. Dad would never get rich for all his hard work, but he provided for his family, saw that his children could go to college, and took time to make the life of those around him a little better.
Like generations before him, Dad worked very hard for everything he had. But he gave of him-self and his time as though he were born of great privilege. If one of his customers was having a hard time, he wouldn’t charge them. Dad served as a volunteer firefighter and EMT for the Colfax Fire Department and Rescue Squad, also serving as President of the organization for several years.
After Dad passed away last summer, people from the community came forward with some of the most precious stories. One man, a customer of Dad’s, had lost his young son in a farm accident. Every day after work, Dad would stop in to see if there was anything he could do for them. Sometimes it was just to talk, other times he would help milk cows. Upon their son’s passing, they were given a tree, which the family couldn’t bring themselves to plant even when Dad offered to dig the hole for them. Every night for about two weeks, Dad would ask if it was time yet to plant the tree. But they would always respond, “No, not today.”
Then, early one evening, as Dad was heading home, he saw a beautiful rainbow. He turned his truck around and went right back to the farm. He told them the rainbow was a perfect sign: this was the time to plant the tree. And so the tree found it’s permanent home, and it still thrives there today.
Another lovely story came in a card of sympathy from another former customer of Dad’s. More than a decade earlier, Dad had been working on their farm moving dirt to prepare the site for a new shed. Many years before, this same area had been the site of an old farmhouse and barn. The homeowner had often found bits of glass and even unbroken old bottles around the site.
She wrote, “I jokingly told Pete to try not to run over any of the bottles he might dig up when he was working. When I got home from work that night, there were two unbroken old bottles on my steps. I was so surprised! Pete must have stopped his bulldozer, jumped down and retrieved the bottles for me, if not once, two times. I was so impressed by that little act of kind-ness.”
This one-act of kindness would prove, about five years later, to touch another person. As the homeowner explained, “An 82-year-old woman who lived in that old farmhouse came up here to see what the area looked like since her childhood. Right before she left, I gave her the two bottles that Pete had rescued. Pete’s small act of kindness from years before put a smile on her face as she recognized an old perfume bottle and an old cough syrup bottle from when she was a little girl. Pete was a kind man.”
And so, that was my Dad. He touched so many lives. Mother Teresa once said, “We can do no great things—only small things with great love.” And indeed, that was what Dad spent his life doing for anyone in need, one little tree and one unbroken bottle at a time

Read Tracey’s Other Posts:

My father’s Notebook- The Enlistment Question

My Father’s Notebook- Christmas in Vietnam

My Father’s Notebook- One Name on the Wall

My Father’s Notebook- My Unknown Soldier

My Father’s Notebook: A Daughter’s Journey to Learn about her Dad’s Service in Vietnam

Tracey is a proud Daughter of a Vietnam Veteran who recently lost her father to a tragic accident in August of 2011. She is now going to blog for our organization and some of her writing will be reflections of her father and his service. Read her BIO on our Author’s Page here.

My Father’s Notebook: A Daughter’s Journey to Learn about her Dad’s Service in Vietnam

My husband, Bob, and I attended the Vietnam Veteran’s Day Banquet for the first time this year (Learn more here). We came in honor of my father, Glen Johnson, a Vietnam Veteran. But this was more than a banquet to me; it was a new path on my journey of understanding and of healing about my Dad and his experiences in Vietnam. This journey had begun the day Dad passed away, and it started with a simple notebook.

Sitting at our table at the banquet that night were three lovely couples. We were fully entertained by their stories: we heard of some close calls and serious injuries; we heard how the army “went to the wall,” but the marines “went through the wall;” and we heard about living with the diabetes brought on by exposure to Agent Orange. In the few hours we were there, I had heard nearly as much about Vietnam from these new friends as I had from Dad in all my 40 years.

Dad left Vietnam more than 42 years ago. But Vietnam never left him. He returned home with the deep scars that couldn’t be seen, both from the war and from the harsh reception that accompanied his return in 1969. He poured himself into his work and caring for his family, running his own excavating business for decades. A gentle soul, he would do anything and everything for a friend in need and never ask for anything in return.

My mother, my four brothers and sisters, and I all knew he was a veteran. We had heard the story about how he had left behind my mom, Sally—his bride of only two weeks—to go off to basic training. My sister, Shelley, would be born while Dad was half a world away. And yet we knew nearly nothing about this year of his life. Perhaps it was the way he would respond to our inquiries with as few words as possible, if he answered at all. Perhaps it was the sorrowful look that would wash over him at the mere mention of that far away land that told us this was something he would not, he could not talk about.

So we waited for Dad to tell us in his own time. But we ran out of time. On August 10, 2011, the semi Dad was driving smashed into the Lowery Tunnel in Minneapolis. We would learn Dad was probably gone before the impact. We gathered together to lean on one another, to make it through this tragedy as a family. And that night, after the neighbors and friends and extended family left us to the barbecues and casseroles and to our grief, we would open Dad’s notebook and read for the first time Dad’s memories of Vietnam.

This plain, ordinary notebook had lived upon my parents’ refrigerator for nearly three years. That night I read Dad’s words as he shared the sights, sounds, and feelings he experienced the first three months of his year-long tour of service in Vietnam. Dad’s description of his experiences were so vivid, I initially thought the journal was from 1968.

Then Mom shared the story of Dad’s notebook:
On a cold day in December of 2008, as I was heading out the door to go to work, he asked me for a notebook. I got him one and asked what he was going to do. He said, “I think that Dan [Dad’s therapist at the VA] is right, maybe it will help if it is written down.”

I gave him the notebook, kissed him goodbye and went to work. When I got home about 8 hours later he was still sitting in the same spot. I noticed he had written a few things, and we talked about it for a while. I asked him if he wanted me to read it, and he said no, not until it was done. So he closed the notebook, and gave it a new home on the top of the refrigerator.

This was a journey towards healing that did not come easily. Every fall when he was not working I would see him with the notebook many times. Sometimes he seemed to get a lot written, other times only a few words, with sheets of paper crumbled and tossed. Today his notebook looks like it could have been from 1969—very worn, but a good friend that didn’t judge the words he struggled to make himself write down. That journey came to an end at 6:27 a.m. on August 10, 2011, having not finished telling his story.

So today, Dad’s journey of healing is done and his spirit is at peace. My journey, and that of my whole family, has just begun. We’ve begun a search, some 40 years in the making, to learn more about the rest of Dad’s time in Vietnam. We began searching through records and, more importantly, searching for the men who shared Dad’s life for that difficult year. Amazingly, we have to date located four men who served alongside Dad. We’re looking to learn more about this year of life that so changed Dad but ultimately made him the man that he was. We’re looking for information, for answers to some of the questions that have gone unanswered all our lives. We’re looking to honor Dad’s service and sacrifice. We’re looking for healing, because Dad’s story is also our story.

In this blog, I would like to share some of Dad’s story and mine. This is a journey of healing for me, as we look to find more information. I hope I can draw from Dad’s sincerity and wit. If even one person finds hope, healing, or comfort from our story, then I know I am honoring his memory and truly thanking all those who have loved and supported and helped my Dad.