MINNEAPOLIS -- In Vietnam in 1969, Army Lt. Steven Sherlock saw the grotesqueries of hand-to-hand slaughter. One memory has gripped him: He was leading a 101st Airborne platoon of 30 men -- armed with M-60 machine guns, M-79 grenade launchers and light antitank weapons -- on a night ambush patrol into the village of Nuoc Ngot, which lay between the central cities of Hue and Danang. North Vietnamese soldiers were said to be slipping into the village at night to get rice. Sherlock's orders were to kill them.
In South Vietnam only three months and combat-ready, he was eager to obey. During the firefight between 9 p.m. and midnight, Sherlock settled his troops next to the second-to-last house on the road through the village. Six Vietcong were killed and one American wounded. All were in their late teens or early twenties.
When dawn broke, and after coming upon dismembered and headless bodies that he described as the "slimy carnage" of the evening before, Sherlock met the Vietnamese woman who lived in the house he had fought beside. To Sherlock, she was no more than another suspicious-looking villager, except that the soldier was never to forget her.
In February 1989, he returned to Nuoc Ngot and to the second house from the end. The Vietnamese woman still lived there. The former lieutenant, who is now a government analyst who earned a PhD in 1980 from the University of Minnesota, had come back to say he was sorry if he had frightened her that night.
A fair number of U.S. Vietnam War veterans have been returning to former battle zones, making their pilgrimages for reasons as varied as the ones that brought them there in the 1960s and '70s. Sherlock's return was different. His went beyond a cathartic exercise in apology. Along with three other veterans, he formed Aid to Southeast Asia, a nonprofit corporation that plans to send medicine, school supplies and agricultural goods to citizens in Vietnam.
The 13 years' war with the United States had been only one evisceration over decades of violence and political disruption that has left Vietnam with nearly nothing. The former South Vietnam is recovering economically. The north, liberalizing more slowly, is not. Sherlock and his co-founders of Aid to Southeast Asia speak of a need for massive assistance. "We found it in a hospital in the southern part of Vietnam where shabby, dilapidated incubators are shared by two infants. We saw it in the central area of Vietnam where one of the finest schools in the country was seriously overcrowded and undersupplied, and again in Hanoi where the best hospital in the city lacked basic medications."
Sherlock is in the now-comes-the- hard-part phase of his project: hustling and scrounging for donations and supplies, and then organizing an air-and-sea shipping network. The goods are to be flown commercially to Bangkok or Hong Kong and then to Vietnam by that country's carriers.
This roundabout route is necessary, in part, because of U.S. sore-loserism. The humiliation of being an alleged superpower militarily defeated by an army of impoverished guerrillas has led successive administrations to impose aid and trade embargoes on Vietnam. With no U.S. embassy in the country, it is such unofficial ambassadors as Steven Sherlock who have the vision and compassion to see beyond the pettiness of political grudge-bearing.
One of the clearest examinations of U.S. negativity came earlier this year in a remarkably lucid five-part series of articles in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Jim Boyd, an editorial writer for the paper since 1980.
An Army veteran who spent 1970 in Vietnam, Boyd wrote of the postwar "U.S.-engineered economic and diplomatic isolation" that Vietnam faces from the West, although several nations have refused to join in. "The sterile state of hostility that continues between Vietnam and the United States -- originating principally on the American side -- is a mistake. It is diplomatically out of date; it is commercially shortsighted, and it is morally shameful."
The efforts of Steven Sherlock combine restitution and reconciliation. His Aid to Southeast Asia is a small operation, with a projected first-year budget of $400,000 in money and goods. It was an incident on his 1989 return to Nuoc Ngot that helped stir him to action. The village woman, after accepting Sherlock's expression of sorrow, showed some broken tiles in her home, still unfixed since that night of death and destruction 20 years earlier. The woman asked Sherlock if he would help with the repairs. He did.
It turns out to have been a down payment, the first of what Sherlock expects to be many before the war is really ended.