THUAN TANH, VIETNAM -- The end of the Vietnam war came a month too late for Be Van Nhot, who was a 28-year-old North Vietnamese army sergeant in 1975.
Nhot was leading a squad during Hanoi's "spring campaign" against the U.S.-backed government in Saigon. But he never made it to what was then South Vietnam's capital, which was captured in April of that year. A mine explosion in Dac Lac Province in the Central Highlands left him paralyzed from the waist down in March 1975, and he has been confined to hospitals and infirmaries ever since.
"I don't feel any regret that I took part in the war, even now that I am paralyzed," Nhot said at a government sanitarium here. "But sometimes I do have nightmares -- not because I have psychological problems, but because some memories come back at night."
Fifteen years after the war ended, the state is still caring for thousands of disabled veterans like Nhot at nine major centers and a number of smaller provincial facilities.
At the Thuan Tanh Sanitarium for Disabled Veterans in this rice-farming town in Vietnam's Red River delta, about 100 staffers care for 200 paraplegic former soldiers wounded in four wars going back to the 1950s. Three doctors and 20 nurses are assigned here, but there are no psychologists.
Vietnamese officials say none is needed. A military mental hospital in Ha Nam Ninh Province looks after 200 incurably deranged veterans, they say, and most of the patients here have not suffered the kind of psychological trauma that afflicted many Americans who fought in Vietnam.
But under the surface, according to other Vietnamese sources, there are plenty of examples of grave war-related mental disorders that continue to crop up even today.
"We know there are many cases," said a former political commissar who left the army five years ago as a lieutenant colonel. He said bombing by American B52s took a heavy mental as well as physical toll on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where he served from 1967 to 1972.
One soldier in his unit, who was never physically wounded, died in a hospital in 1969 after suffering a mental breakdown during a heavy bombing raid on the trail, the former officer said. He said he knows a regimental commander who still has to check into a mental hospital every year because of trauma over losing a whole unit of recruits, whose names he did not even know, during the battle of Quang Tri.
A government official said a relative, who received a grazing bullet wound in the nape of the neck 16 years ago, suffered a breakdown only last year. After chasing his family out of their house, he built a bamboo fence around it and refused to let anyone in, saying he had to "defend against the enemy," the official said.
"I don't know why we are ashamed to tell the truth to people that we have mental problems, too," the former political commissar said. "It's the national psychology. We would like to hide the bad things. From generation to generation, we always hide the losses we bear."
He ventured that the government does not really know the extent of Vietnam's war-related psychological problems. While such disorders among American veterans have received great attention, in Vietnam they have been pushed into the background by other, more pressing concerns, and by a shortage of qualified professionals to treat them.
In many ways, certainly, the war experiences of the Vietnamese and Americans were markedly different.
For young U.S. soldiers, Vietnam was an intense, frustrating and often incomprehensible ordeal, all the more so if they went home permanently disabled to a society that seemed unappreciative of their sacrifices. Then came the onus of defeat.
By contrast, veterans of the Communist side were products of a war-hardened society geared to its leaders' struggle for "national independence." They seem to carry fewer such misgivings.
"We had nightmares, we felt horrified by the war, but we didn't have persistent remorse," said Chu Duc Dai, the director of the sanitarium and himself a wounded veteran. "We were the ones defending our country. We were horrified, but we don't blame ourselves."
When American veterans visit this place, he said, they often cannot contain their emotions. One recent visitor "embraced us and cried," the 51-year-old director recalled. "He said he cried because he thought he would be treated like an enemy, but he was treated like a friend, and he was moved and he cried," Dai explained.
"Were you also moved?" Dai was asked. "No," he said evenly, "I wasn't moved."
Ex-sergeant Nhot, who received a new wheelchair last year during a visit here by U.S. veteran William Fero of Whitewater, Wis., said he no longer feels "angry toward life," but continues to resent "the American government's attitude toward Vietnam." He then launched into an attack on the U.S. trade embargo, recently renewed by President Bush.
"Vietnamese never killed Americans on American soil or burned houses in America," he said. "American veterans express no hostility toward Vietnamese. So why should the American government keep up its hostility toward Vietnam?"
While the facilities here are spartan by Western standards, they seem about as good as can be expected in a country that remains one of the poorest in the world. Single veterans live two to a room on the ground floor of two-story buildings erected in the 1960s. Most get around in elongated, cart-like Vietnamese wheelchairs, and many spend their days under the shade of a banyan tree in the main compound's courtyard, where they chat or play checkers. A cultural center, where authorities plan to install a library and small theater, is under construction.
About 30 paraplegics live with their wives and children in a separate compound, and six women who were paralyzed by wounds they suffered on the Ho Chi Minh Trail are in another area.
"Veterans are considered people who contributed to the victory of the nation," Nhot said. "Of course, Vietnam is still a poor country, and a lot of things can be improved here. But the government is doing its utmost to help us, and we can't complain."
The oldest of the veterans is Le Van Tam, 71, who lost a leg and was paralyzed in 1953 while fighting the French. He said his parents died of starvation in 1945, and his young wife divorced him two years later because of his poverty. So he responded to the call of his hero, then-president Ho Chi Minh.
Now, with his wispy white hair and beard, Tam somewhat resembles the leader he idolized.
"We know the government has tried its best, but the truth is we don't have enough medicine and the meals are not very good," Tam said as he lay in his wheelchair. His paralyzed body is bony and frail, his left arm twisted and useless. The worst time of his life, he said, was "when I didn't have a wheelchair, when I had to lie on a bed in one spot all the time."
"When was that?" he was asked.
"From 1953 to 1972," he said.
Tam said he has had the same wheelchair now for 18 years. Now he and 16 other veterans from the war against the French pass the time by reading newspapers, he said. "We wait until night, and at night we wait until day. And it just goes on that way, like a circle."
Some of the other patients are veterans of Vietnam's decade-long war in Cambodia and a 1979 border conflict with China that produced skirmishes into the 1980s. But 80 percent are veterans of what Vietnamese call "the American war."
Vu Duy Hung, now 41, was hit by a single bullet in the spine during a battle with South Vietnamese troops near Hue in 1972. Now he lies in a wheelchair, paralyzed in two-thirds of his body, his legs atrophied and stiffened and his bare feet deformed and discolored.
After six years in a military hospital, Hung said, he was moved here in 1978.
"I was angry in the beginning, but now I am used to it," he said. "I just wanted to commit suicide at first. I tried to save sleeping pills, but I couldn't because the nurse forced me to take them in front of her. For three years it was so mentally painful."
Asked if there is anything he lacks now, Hung answered, "We lack of life. Society, that's what we need. I always dream of the war," he said. "The war still comes back every night."
"I also dream of being normal again. I dream of the time when I was healthy. I dream that I can run, I can jump, I can dance."
Hung added softly, "I ask myself, 'Have I been worthy of life? Have I contributed enough?' It haunts me."