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  • The Post 1967

    A Final Mission: Facing the Wounds

    Last of three articles

    By Phil McCombs
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, July 21, 1998; Page A1

    PEACE CHURCH, Vietnam – Soon after arriving in Vietnam to pay a "debt of honor" to his older brother who died in the war, Rob Sutter found himself hot, tired and somewhat amazed at the emotional intensity of this journey with American veterans back to a place where they'd risked everything and given their best.

        Father Laute, 85
    Visiting Marines listen to the Rev. Michel Laute, 85, in the Vietnamese city of Hue. The Americans returned to the ancient city in March, en route to a battleground where they fought 30 years ago.
    (By Frank Johnston – The Washington Post)
    One day, as the large group was having lunch at a charming restaurant in the old imperial city of Hue – site of ferocious fighting in the 1968 Tet Offensive – one of the men made an announcement that brought a sudden hush.

    In an adjoining room, he said, was a woman who'd been a Red Cross "Donut Dolly" – a humble job, to be sure, working in a recreation center for U.S. troops. Many of these men could remember a time during the war when – frightened, exhausted and lonely – their spirits had been lifted by the warm smile of just such a girl.

    Now, like the Marines, Judith Hansen of Hermosa Beach, Calif., was a mere tourist in a land where she and much of her generation had lost its innocence in a war that ended in defeat.

    Quietly, she came and stood before them – a little bewildered and quite moved by this unexpected meeting. It was her first time back to Vietnam, she told the men. She'd spent three days in old Saigon, then come north. "I was in Da Nang working with Marines in 1967," she continued. "Now I can't find the rec center. ..."

    Her voice broke, she couldn't continue.

    Silently, except for the scrape of chairs, the men instinctively rose and, standing at attention, sang "The Marines' Hymn" for her at the top of their lungs. The spontaneous, disciplined eruption of feeling was the highest tribute they could pay, their most heartfelt salute.

    Some were crying.

    That night, Rob – a Marine who'd just missed serving in Vietnam but who was trying to understand the life of his brother and hero, Richard, who died near Khe Sanh on July 21, 1967 – wrote in his journal:

    It was one of the most awesome moments of my life. Judith Hansen will never forget it, and neither will we.

    Yet Rob had displayed no emotion.

    In fact, he hadn't cried about anything since that moment 31 years ago when he was 13 and his family received the news of Richard's death. Now a successful Atlanta businessman of 44, Rob told friends he'd "carried some deep mental wounds" from the Vietnam era, and had spent much of his life chasing Richard's shadow, "wanting to follow in his path."

    Finally, his search led him here.

    As he sang for Hansen, Rob stood with Marines like Tom Esslinger, a Washington lawyer who'd commanded his brother's unit – Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines – several months after Richard's death; Carl E. Mundy Jr., Richard's battalion executive officer, who later became commandant of the Marine Corps; and Frank Johnston, who'd left active duty but, as a civilian newsman, had taken a famous photograph of Richard in the besieged country parish of Nha Tho An Hoa ("Peace Church") 25 miles from Khe Sanh.

    Like most of the retired Marines – some wives and sons, U.S. Army veterans and active-duty Marines were along, too – Rob was a little vague on his reasons for being here. "Closure?" – not a word he liked. "Grieving?" – he'd done it. Yet in honoring Richard, he sought a final measure of peace with the war that had wreaked havoc in his nation, his family, his own soul.

    Much of the trip – like the war itself – had a surreal quality. Rob and the others frolicked in the surf at China Beach, the storied R&R center for American troops near Da Nang; walked in a somber line past Ho Chi Minh's chilled, spotlighted corpse in a Hanoi mausoleum; played with kids at the Lewis B. Puller Jr. School, which is supported by American funds and named for the Marine who told his story in "Fortunate Son"; and shopped for their wives in bustling Saigon (now officially Ho Chi Minh City) under new skyscrapers and a red banner bearing a huge portrait of Colonel Sanders, the chicken king.

    Traveling in modern air-conditioned buses, the 36 Vietnam veterans, seven family members, journalists and others visited old battlefields in what used to be called "I Corps" – the northernmost area of military operations in the former South Vietnam.

    At one point during the two-week tour, Rob listened as Mundy and others who'd served with his brother stood sweating in the tropical sun not far from Peace Church south of the old DMZ, describing the battle of "Ambush Valley" there in September 1967. Nearly two-thirds of the 1,184-man battalion – outnumbered and holding off human-wave assaults by a North Vietnamese Army regiment – was killed or wounded in three days.

    Peace Church
    A former Marine tries to pass a Vietnamese woman carrying water up the steps of Marble Mountain in Da Nang.
    (By Frank Johnston – The Washington Post)
    It was akin to walking the battlefield at Chancellorsville with Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. ... Many men displayed incredible acts of heroism. Richard was already dead by then, but this was his unit.

    As he heard the men's stories, Rob learned what life and death in Vietnam had been like for his brother. As he connected with them in a series of humorous, sad, uplifting moments, he got a sense of how men come to love one another in battle – a bond that is like no other.

    Pursuing his quest, Rob got a broader look at America's Vietnam saga through these glimpses of men struggling – as their country struggles – to understand and cope with what happened. In many of the stories, terrible as they are, Rob could see surprising and powerful elements of redemption, a saving grace. Each man had tried to do the right thing when his country called, going to a strange, faraway land and risking life and honor in an idealistic fight for freedom. Now, Rob saw, there was much bitterness at the political deceptions that had accompanied the crusade, at the waste and loss. Dear friends had died, horribly – and to what end?

    Though this tour was not billed as a "healing" experience, the increasing popularity of such tours fits naturally into America's broad cultural effort to close the book on Vietnam: You've seen "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon" and "Coming Home;" you've read "Fields of Fire" and "Going After Cacciato"; now you can return to Khe Sanh, and walk through your memories.

    "The veterans have an insatiable curiosity to go back, to find the place where they lost their youth," explained retired Col. Warren Wiedhahn of Military Historical Tours, the Alexandria agency that organized this trip. "Each guy has his moment, and you see him go off by himself."

    Rob wanted to stand on the ground near Khe Sanh where Richard died.

    He wanted his moment.

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