washingtonpost.com  > Education > Education Review > Nov 2004

Not Someone Else's War

In Vietnam, an American student confronts the ugliness of one war and prepares for what she could lose in another

By Ylan Q. Mui
Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page W34

Michelle Heard stares at the menu in front of her at the restaurant in Saigon and comes to a conclusion.

"No squid," she says firmly, shaking her head, her blond bob tossing around her like a halo. And then, almost as an afterthought, she adds, "And no chicken feet."


Michelle Heard, right, with new friend Phung Tang at a restaurant in Vietnam. (Courtesy Michelle Heard)

_____November Education Review_____
Worlds Apart (The Washington Post, Nov 7, 2004)
No SAT-isfaction (The Washington Post, Nov 7, 2004)
Tough Love (The Washington Post, Nov 7, 2004)
Soldiering On (The Washington Post, Nov 7, 2004)

Tung Bui, a tour guide whom the Americans call "Tom," laughs and promises he won't order that.

It is a typical sweltering night in Saigon at the start of the rainy season. Heard and the 15 other college students on this study-abroad trip have not gotten used to the heat. Even with the overhead fans at full speed, they are dripping with sweat, tired and dehydrated.

This is the farthest the 21-year-old Heard has ever been from her small home town of Richland, Miss., a crossroads seven miles outside Jackson. Until the grueling flight to Saigon, which took more than a day, she had never even been on a plane before. Her best friend, Jessica Shows, 22, a history major at the University of Southern Mississippi, persuaded her to go on the three-week, $3,800 tour. They figured it would be an adventure.

"Everyone thinks we're crazy, a couple of loons going to Vietnam," says Heard, one of the few non-history majors on the trip. She's studying medical technology at Southern Miss and knows little about Vietnam -- or about war. But the use of U.S. military force in a hostile, faraway land is a subject that has become far more relevant to Heard than she'd like. Her fiance, Vincent Clay, is a medic in the Army National Guard, and his unit was activated just before Heard left for Vietnam. He's headed for Iraq, although he doesn't know when yet. His orders are to serve for 545 days. Heard won't be surprised if it's longer.

She tries not to dwell on what the future holds at this boisterous restaurant, dissolving into giggles as her Vietnamese companions futilely try to teach her to use chopsticks. Waitresses dressed in tight blue tops and miniskirts with orange racing strips down the sides cart out bottles of the local Tiger beer. The students pop off the bottle caps and lift their beers for a toast. A resounding chorus of "Vo!" -- the Vietnamese equivalent of "Cheers!" -- fills the restaurant.

Heard takes a swig of her beer and turns to history professor Brian O'Neil, the group's leader.

"It's my first Tiger beer!" she announces.

"How'd it go down?" O'Neil asks.

"It's got a little wang to it," Heard replies. "It's not a Coors Light, I tell you that."

NEARLY 30 YEARS AFTER THE FALL OF SAIGON, Americans are back in Vietnam. We have returned politically, with some of the most heated battles of the war refought during the presidential campaign. And we have returned psychologically, with mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq inviting anguished comparisons to Vietnam.

The U.S. college students in this study-abroad program run by Southern Miss are literally in Vietnam. Only it's not the same country many Americans remember. They are in a Vietnam where more than 60 percent of the population was born after the fall of Saigon and the children of Viet Cong veterans major in English at the country's universities. Part of the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prison for American soldiers has been turned into a museum, while the rest is being torn down to make way for a high-rise. The Vietnamese call the changes Doi Moi, an economic revitalization effort that represents a new beginning for a new generation.

The American students, too, are the product of a new generation. Many of them, including Heard, are too young to clearly remember even the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. Geoffrey Philabaum, 20, another student on the trip, says he has hazy memories of watching tanks crossing the desert on television. "I remember my first-grade teacher saying, 'This will be something you'll tell your children about,' " he says, "and I was, like, 'Whatever.' "

That leaves the Vietnam War little more than another chapter in a history textbook. The Southern Miss study-abroad program, which is open to students from any college, is designed to change that. Founded five years ago, the program bills itself as the only one in the United States that brings students and veterans to Vietnam together, giving students first-person perspectives of the war in the place where it happened.

This is O'Neil's third time leading students through Vietnam. The lessons they learn here far surpass anything he could teach in a classroom, he says. But he can never quite prepare them for the trip.

"The focus is on the war and its legacy," he tells them after they arrive in Saigon. "But you'll be learning a helluva lot about Vietnam and the culture today, and a lot about yourselves."

John Young -- who lives in Mississippi and has three Bronze Stars, two Air Medals, a Purple Heart and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry -- has been returning to Vietnam with the program since its inception. Every year before they leave for Saigon, Young, 59, listens as students debate the U.S. role in Vietnam. Every year, he comes to the same conclusion: "Everything that students think they know about the war at the beginning of the semester is wrong."

IT IS MAY 19, birthday of the late North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, whom Vietnamese affectionately refer to as "Uncle Ho." It is also Heard's first day in Vietnam.

She and the rest of the group barely have time to recover from their jet lag before boarding a tour bus for the Presidential Palace, which was South Vietnam's version of the White House. As the students walk inside, they pass a replica of the North Vietnamese tank that stormed the building on April 30, 1975 -- the day the Americans abandoned the U.S. Embassy and the war.

Tour guide Bien Phan leads the way through the palace's opulent rooms, which feature living quarters with Austin Powers-style mod furniture, a library with untouched books, a ballroom and a rooftop helipad with banyan trees growing all around. Then he takes the students to the war planning rooms in the basement. There are pictures of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and charts showing the strength and location of South Vietnamese and U.S. troops in 1968. Radio equipment used during the 1968 Tet Offensive takes up a whole room. Heard and friend Shows are snapping pictures left and right. Shows has brought 25 rolls of film, and Heard is not far behind.

They walk through a tunnel fortified with armor and into a war room, where South Vietnamese President Thieu Van Nguyen and his family spent the final weeks before Saigon fell. (The Communists renamed Saigon Ho Chi Minh City and declared April 30, 1975, "Liberation Day.") Eventually, the students are ushered into a small, dark room with a television, where they watch the Vietnamese account of "the American War." The film begins with images of dead Vietnamese bodies. Thousands of Vietnamese were killed, the narrator says in English, adding that "the Vietnamese people will never forget their bloody repression."

The film accuses the United States of setting up a puppet government in South Vietnam and using a supposed attack on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 as an excuse to bomb the country "back to the Stone Age." The film ends with the takeover of the Presidential Palace in 1975. A song swells in the background; the students can make out only the refrain: "Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh . . . Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh."

After the video is over, the students head outside. Back in the bright sunshine, William Quinn, 21, and Jason Sokiera, 26, break into their own rendition of the chorus. "Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh . . . Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh," they sing out as the group pauses for photos in front of the tank.

"I don't know why, but I want to become a communist now," Sokiera says jokingly.

Back at the hotel a few hours later, Quinn sits in one of the overstuffed red chairs in the lobby, trying to sort out what he saw. He's a military history major and knows that the film served up a healthy dose of propaganda.

"They put an interesting spin on it," he says as he drags on a cigarette. The film didn't explain the U.S. justification for the war: to prevent communism from spreading throughout Southeast Asia. It didn't mention the thousands of U.S. planes shot down or soldiers killed. It didn't acknowledge the torture that some American soldiers faced in Vietnamese prison camps. But then, Quinn adds, "we like to put a smiley face on our side of the war, too."

Take the war in Iraq, he continues. The U.S. government calls it "Operation Iraqi Freedom," but Quinn thinks a better name would be "Operation American Imperialism."

Two tours of duty in Vietnam have given John Young a much different perspective. Iraq, he argues, is a necessary front in the war on terrorism. In Young's view, the U.S. occupation there is not comparable to the war in Vietnam. Different terrain. Different tactics. Different enemy. The war in Vietnam was fought against an identifiable opponent, he says, while the war in Iraq has focused on small, militant subgroups and invisible networks of terrorists. Young can think of only one similarity between the two wars: They have both required soldiers to risk their lives.

"The worrisome thing that I see in the young generation today is they don't, in fact, realize that resorting to violence is sometimes the only solution," Young says. "We've gotten so modern, so civilized and liberal that Americans are losing sight of the fact that there are people in the world who would kill you as soon as look at you. And the only response we can have to them is to destroy them."

AFTER THE TOUR OF THE PRESIDENTIAL PALACE, Heard calls her fiance at the rate of $1 a minute. Their conversation is short -- she hasn't brought that much money with her. He tells her there's still no word on when his unit is scheduled to depart for Iraq.

The war in Iraq is looming over both of them, though Heard says she avoids reading about it. It's too depressing. Hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis have died. The big news today is an American bombing of what the Iraqis say was a wedding celebration, killing about 40 people.

"Every time you read [the newspaper], it's somebody else dying," Heard says. "If the war is over, and we're just keeping peace or whatever it's supposed to be, why are people dying?"

She's skeptical about the purpose of the war, but maybe that's because her relatives and loved ones are the ones fighting it. Her brother, James, 19, is a military policeman with the National Guard who is scheduled to train in the California desert before shipping off to Iraq. Her great aunt, who is in the Air Reserves, has been activated as an emergency evacuation nurse.

And, of course, there is her fiance. She and Spec. Vincent Clay, Company C of the 106th Support Battalion, have been engaged since February. They still haven't set a date for the wedding. Heard wonders if they should wait until Clay returns from Iraq. Leaving him to come on this trip was hard for Heard. She knows that it will be even harder when he leaves her to go overseas. They've been together since high school, when they were both working at a pizza place called Mazzio's. When Clay, now 26, asked her to marry him, all her friends said: Finally.

A few days after Heard's arrival in Vietnam, Clay receives an order to report to Mississippi's Camp Shelby to begin training. In another hurried phone call, he finally gives voice to their biggest fear: "What if, God forbid, I don't come home?"

Her answer is immediate: It would be unbearable to lose him without ever exchanging wedding vows. "I would hate to have that kind of regret laying on me, that I had the opportunity to be your wife, and you died," she says she told him.

His tour of duty will begin nine weeks after she gets back. They decide to get married before he leaves. Heard had already planned to buy her wedding dress in Vietnam. She'll just wear it sooner than she thought.

JOHN YOUNG WAS MARRIED ONCE, TOO. Twice, actually. Neither union lasted very long.

The Army veteran had tried to open himself up to other people, wanted someone in his life. But he simply couldn't do it, he says. His memories of the war -- and the scars he bears from them -- are his lifelong companions. There is no room for anything, or anyone, else.

"Nobody is going to stay around you very long," he explains. "You ruin everyone."

Unlike many of the soldiers Young fought with, he enlisted in the Army, specifically requesting to go to Vietnam. His country was at war, he says. There was no other honorable option. He tells his story in a hotel conference room, where the air conditioning is making the college students shiver. Tomorrow they will visit the area where Young fought as a 21-year-old rifle squad leader. And they will watch him hand out packages of notebooks, crayons, pens and other supplies to local schools -- a small gesture of penance, he says, for what he did as a soldier here.

His company had been in Vietnam a few months when it was ordered to scope out a stretch of the Mekong Delta about 12 miles south of Saigon. It was June 19, 1967. The soldiers traveled by boat to the edge of a rice paddy, shielded by bright green nipa palms. After he got off his boat, Young couldn't see but a few feet in front of him, he says. As he and others advanced through the rice paddy, they drew light fire from the tree line. But when they arrived at a rice paddy dike, they were hit by a barrage of .50-caliber machine-gun fire.

The gunfire triggered something primal in Young, he says: raw self-preservation. He can remember the things that happened, but he is unsure of their sequence. He remembers learning that the soldiers in three of the boats going up the canal beside the rice paddy were all killed. Twice, helicopters tried to ferry away the dead bodies in the canal and in the field. Twice, they were shot down. No one on the helicopters survived.

"I thought we were all going to die that afternoon," Young says.

The Americans were only about 50 yards away from the North Vietnamese troops wielding machine guns on the other side of the canal. Three American aircraft eventually flew in to silence them, Young says. They dropped their bombs on the Viet Cong positions, and the land shimmied like Jell-O. But as the smoke cleared, Young realized that there was fire coming from behind him, from a small straw hooch. No one had been hit yet, he says, but it gave him "a naked feeling."

Young pulled another guy out of line to help him get rid of the gunfire. A Navy boat fired a white phosphorus round into the hooch to smoke out whoever was inside, Young says. He and the other soldier were gripping their M-16s on either side of the hooch when Vietnamese women and children began pouring out, he says. Mothers were dragging their children out by their arms, screaming. He can't remember how many there were. Maybe 30. All running for their lives.

These are the people who have been killing us, Young remembers thinking. That's them. "And I started to shoot." The other soldier did, too. They fired until every last one of the women and children went down. Then they walked away.

Afterward, what was left of the company crossed the canal to clear out any remaining Vietnamese with an infantry assault, which Young describes as "fire all you can as fast as you can." He threw a grenade into a spider hole, tearing apart a Viet Cong soldier. He emptied his magazine into a wounded Viet Cong. "The hell with you," he remembers thinking as he riddled the body with bullets.

Though he has told this story many times before, Young's words come out slowly, as if it is a struggle to pull them out of his soul. His breathing is labored, and his eyes are wet with tears.

"It's an ugly story," he tells the students. "I know that."

None of the soldiers was the same after that battle, says Young, who has fought alcoholism and depression for almost four decades. He still revisits that hooch every night in his dreams, still hears the screams of the women and children, he says.

"War's a pretty terrible business," he says. "It's terrible because of what you learn about yourself."

The room is quiet for a few moments, the silence broken only by stifled sobs. Amber Miller's makeup is streaked with tears. Miller, a 26-year-old sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, was born long after the Americans pulled out of Vietnam, but grew up surrounded by the war. Posters, maps and other memorabilia fill her parents' home.

Young reminds Miller of her father, who also fought in Vietnam and struggles with its legacy. The way they talk, the way they dress, the cares etched into their faces, everything. Listening to Young, she says, was like hearing the story of the war that her father has never been able to bring himself to tell her.

Several other students have family members who served during the war. Twenty-two-year-old Scott Houston's father helped direct Air Force bombers and planes spraying Agent Orange. Twenty-two-year-old Tiffany Beckham's stepfather served two tours of duty. The first time he fought in Nha Trang with the 101st Airborne Division, he was ready and willing to battle communism, she says. The second time, those ideals no longer mattered. He returned for a Vietnamese woman he had fallen in love with. He never found her.

Before this trip, none of the students had talked to their parents much about the war, and their parents hadn't brought it up. Maybe they were trying to forget. About one-third of all Vietnam veterans suffer from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

When Miller was little, she used to wonder why the war always seemed to be more important to her father than the toll that his anger and depression were taking on her and her mother. But now, she says, she is beginning to understand.

"I'm not going to grab his hand and be like, 'Oh Dad, I love you,' because we're not like that." She stops and looks away. "I wish he were here, I tell you that much."

AS HEARD LISTENS TO YOUNG TELL HIS STORY, a scary thought creeps into her mind: What if the war in Iraq devastates her fiance the way the Vietnam War devastated Young? Clay is a medic, which she hopes means that he won't be in the line of fire. Heard has been praying that he'll be safely tucked away at a base hospital somewhere in the desert, treating people for bug bites. But Young has made it harder for her to harbor those illusions. Deep down, Heard knows Clay will witness the carnage of war.

"I don't know what he's going to see, and I don't know what he's going to experience," she says. "He'll probably have seen more than I have ever seen in my life. He'll see people die, and probably hold them while they die." She pauses to imagine her beloved treating people with their legs blown off.

Heard is counting on their faith -- both in each other and in God -- to help them make it through the separation and return. Still, she can't get this one dream she had out of her head. In the dream, Clay was off in Iraq, and she learned that she had stomach cancer. When he found out that she was on her deathbed, he left his post to be with her. It was a bittersweet homecoming: They were together, but they didn't have much time before the stomach cancer ate away at her completely.

What will this deployment do to them? Neither of them knows. "I keep saying, 'Are you going to tell me about it when you come home?' And he's like, 'What do you want to know?'

"I say, 'I want you to tell me everything.' "

PHUNG TANG AND TRUC VO CAN'T BELIEVE THAT HEARD IS GETTING MARRIED. She's too young, they tell her.

Both in their late twenties, the Vietnamese women are happily single, their cell phones constantly buzzing inside their trendy purses. Heard meets them at a banquet on one of the first days of the trip, and they become fast friends throughout her stay in Saigon. They get their nails done together, shop for lingerie and zip around the city on mopeds.

Heard bombards her new friends with a million questions about life in Vietnam: What do they do for a living? (Vo works for an insurance company; Tang is an accountant.) Do they have cars? (No, just mopeds.) How close are they to their families? (Very.) In turn, they take her to karaoke bars and the local open-air market, where Heard and a few other students are the only tourists in sight. Tang and Vo also take them on a picnic at a lush park filled with couples shooting their wedding pictures.

They give her, Heard says later, a "much greater appreciation for Vietnam. I see it more like a country now instead of just like a place where we had a war."

Tang and Vo don't talk about the war or what it did to their families, Heard says. It may be because their English isn't good enough, though they certainly have plenty to say on the subject of men. Most women in Vietnam wait until they are 24 or 25 years old to get married, they say. Is Heard really sure she wants to do this?

THERE IS ONE WEEK LEFT ON THE TRIP when Heard gets her wedding dress made. She had picked out the gown in a bridal magazine and then taken a picture of it at a dress shop before leaving for Vietnam, she explains after her return home. The dress, which costs $600 in the United States, has a halter top with an empire waist and elaborate beading on the front. She is in love with it.

The photo of the dress remains packed until the group's two-day visit to Hoi An, a city known for its fabrics, tailoring and low prices. By then, Heard says, she is ready for a break from all the talk of war.

Over the past two weeks, she has crawled through the Cu Chi tunnels, a vast underground network used by the Viet Cong as a base of operations through 1968, and fired an AK-47 rifle at the shooting range nearby. She has attended a repatriation ceremony at the U.S. Embassy for the remains of soldiers who had been missing in action since the war. She has met Bao Ninh, author of Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam. And she has listened to retired Major Gen. Benjamin Harrison, 76, tell his story about leading the fight for the Firebase Ripcord near the demilitarized zone in 1970, the last major U.S. ground battle there.

Heard has confronted killing fields on this trip. She has seen poverty beyond the worst public housing complex she could imagine -- a bathroom that is nothing more than a corner on the dirt floor of a straw hut, and barefoot children shrimping in the delta. But, she says, she has also seen recovery and hope, not just for Vietnam, but also for herself.

She has found, she says, "a deeper sense of my moral values, and how much I take for granted what I have . . . It was sort of an enlightenment for me."

The first afternoon in Hoi An, she sets off with a tour guide, Shows and another student, Lauren McKee, 22, in search of the Lan Chi tailor shop. Young recommended it to her -- he buys clothes every year from the two women who run it.

Inside the tiny shop, bolts of shiny fabric are piled to the ceiling; there isn't even a dressing room. A shy woman appears and asks them in halting English if they need help. Heard shows the woman the picture of the wedding dress and asks how much it would cost. The woman thinks for a moment. Eighty dollars, she offers. Heard is sold.

The students feel like movie stars for the rest of the afternoon and into the next day. The Vietnamese women take their measurements, and the students put in orders for virtually a whole closet of clothes. They shop so much that McKee jokingly says later: "I think I blacked out. I don't even know what I bought."

But when the tailors bring Heard's wedding dress out for the first fitting, the bride-to-be is crestfallen. The beads sewn onto the front look like a bunch of cheap Mardi Gras trinkets, Heard says, though she can't bring herself to complain to the tailors. They are so happy about her wedding and excited about her dress. She'll just have to have the beading removed back in Mississippi.

Heard slips into the dress. It's a little big, she says, but the tailors promise to take it in. The next time she tries it on, it fits like a dream.

The night before she returns to Saigon, she fingers the dress, taking in its sheen, the fullness of the skirt, even the awful beading, before packing it away with all her other things. This is my wedding dress, she remembers thinking. I am getting married.

Nothing she's seen or heard in Vietnam has weakened her desire to marry Clay before he leaves for Iraq. Yet she thinks about John Young, fighting the same battle in his dreams night after night. She thinks about some of the other students, a generation removed from the war but still grappling with the effects it has had on their fathers' lives and their own. And she thinks about herself and Clay, and what it will take for them to make it down the long road ahead of them.

"You think, 'Oh, the war in Iraq.' It's just four words. And that's all it is to some people, just those four words," Heard says. She knows it won't be for her. Not anymore.

Ylan Q. Mui, a reporter for The Post's Metro section, is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants and an alumna of the University of Southern Mississippi study-abroad program.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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