While North Korea jails U.S. veterans, Vietnam welcomes them

December 13, 2013

Merrill Newman [“Freed U.S. veteran tells of detention by N. Korea,” news, Dec. 10] went back to North Korea and was locked up and threatened. In the mid-1990s, I made a similar return trip to Vietnam. We were still more than a year away from having normal diplomatic relations. I told whomever I met that I had been a soldier in the war. I also spoke Vietnamese pretty well, and they were canny enough to know that the U.S. Army hadn’t taught me the language to enhance my marksmanship. 

Nevertheless, the Vietnamese put me up in official guesthouses even though I was a private citizen. They allowed me to roam freely, including to the resort town of Vung Tau, where I visited the building that had housed my sister unit. When I told the families now living there that my Army unit had occupied the building during the war, they all laughed and said, “Oh, yes, this was an imperialist den of spies,” while they shook my hand and invited me to tea. Only at my old base, still an active military facility, was I not allowed to enter.

It was more of the same in Hanoi, where the deputy director of Bach Mai Hospital took me to a small shrine in the courtyard dedicated to the memory of the patients killed by the United States in the Christmas bombing of 1972, when he was a young intern. There, he and I quietly lit joss sticks and prayed in memory of the victims. In Vietnam, I met delightful, friendly people who have put the past largely behind them and moved into the future.  

Peter Schaefer, Washington

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