Vietnam...for more than thirty-years the very mention of this foreign country conjured up images of canopied jungles, wild animals, rice patties, and thousands of Asian's in black pajamas and pointed grass hats. Now, at last, I have been to Vietnam, I have walked unafraid where many brave men died in battle. I have stood on the very ground where my lost brother was last seen alive. And still, I ask myself, "Why?" Since I cannot answer my own question, I will simply tell you of my experiences while "in-country".
I've always wanted to travel to Vietnam, ever since Jerry was listed as missing-in-action (MIA) on January 21, 1968. When I learned in September of '98 that a Joint Task Force (JTF) team would be investigating case number 1000 in May or June of 1999, I knew the time had come. The preparations for the trip were extremely difficult due to lack of information regarding exact dates, passports, visas, and travel arrangements. While surfing the web I had also learned that information and/or remains were to be turned over to U.S. officials by the Vietnamese at a ceremony on May 4, and I definitely wanted to attend this meaningful event, possibly even learning something of Jerry's fate.
Mike Teutschman, an Army buddy of Jerry's, agreed to travel with me to Vietnam for the ceremony and to return to the Old French Fort near Khe Sanh, the helicopter crash site where the JTF team would look for remains. Mike and Jerry had trained together as Pathfinders, traveled, and served in Vietnam with Jerry. He had found me in 1993 through the Friends of the Wall in Washington, D.C. after discovering that Jerry was listed on The Vietnam Wall as MIA, not KIA, as he had been told post-incident. If they gave a Bronze Star for friendship, this man deserves the honor.
On Saturday, May 1, 1999, I was finally actually on an airplane leaving Little Rock, Arkansas, bound towards Vietnam. I spent two days in the air and hanging out in airports before arriving in Ho Chi Minh City. I struggled through customs and immigration and was greatly relieved to see a smiling young Vietnamese man with a sign that had my name on it. I was a lot less happy when he handed me a note informing me that his office had determined that the MIA Ceremony that I wanted to attend was being held in Hanoi the very next morning, and admittance was still in question. "Where is the American Consulate?" I asked, "Take me there now."
Traffic in Vietnam is something you have to experience to appreciate. I found it best to hide behind the guide or driver in the back seat and just not look. Hundreds of people on motor scooters, bicycles, and cars are weaving in and out of congested somewhat marked lanes. You wait in dreaded anticipation to look up and see a mangled body draped over a side mirror. Entire families travel together on one motorbike, as well as household goods and animals. Crossing a street is an adventure within itself.
I can only imagine what crossed the minds of the travelers who passed the frazzled American woman with untamed hair in one hand and a clenched note in the other hand, standing in front of the official building while guards tried to chase her away. At last an English speaking lady ventured down the stairs and outside to where I planned to wait patiently until I got some answers. I was never allowed entry, but eventually she returned with the information I needed and the good news that Mike and I would be permitted to attend the MIA Ceremony in Hanoi---getting there was our problem.
I caught up with Mike at The Rex Hotel later in the day. He was busy trying to track down his lost luggage and the idea of getting back on a plane to Hanoi didn't spark a smile, but we made travel arrangements for the next morning. The Rex is quite a place, no wonder the CIA made it headquarters during the war. The interior is very lavish and handcrafted artwork decorates every corner, even the ceilings. Traditional dress is very colorful and the uniform of the day for all the staff, from the business center personnel to the valets. But once you step out of the hotel into the teaming street life of Saigon, everything changes in an instant.
As the yellow silk-clad guard opened the glass hotel doors, he bowed slightly, and it would not have been difficult to pretend I was royalty. But down the few steps to the sidewalk an entirely different experience waited, the beggars. I had been forewarned, but it is impossible to ignore these people, especially the children. "Madam, madam," the little brown face implored, "please give me some money so I can eat." You want to put something in every hand that is extended towards you, but there are so many, and if you give to one, the crowd quickly multiplies. As Mike and I explored the streets around the hotel, I saw homeless people asleep on sidewalks. I thought to myself, "Isn't socialism supposed to be about making sure everyone is treated equal?"
I replaced my lost hairbrush in the first shop we visited, but Mike was not so lucky in finding clothing his size to replace his luggage. A few shops carried shirts large enough, but pants were going to be a real problem. And I never did quite get the dollar to dong thing worked out. He was worried about traveling into the boonies of Vietnam with just the clothes on his back. Actually, he was lucky to have anything when he left the country, the children honed in on the fact that he was an easy touch real quick. Our final solution was to have the hotel wash the clothes he had on and hope his luggage would be found by the time we returned from the MIA ceremony in Hanoi the next day.
We boarded an early morning plane to Hanoi the morning of May 4th with expectations of a big, well-attended propaganda event where the Vietnamese officials would turn over information and/or remains to US officials. As we flew into Hanoi heavy rain began to fall with strong winds, and we weren't allowed off the plane to board the terminal bus for about 20 minutes. We began to get anxious because the ceremony was scheduled for 10:00 am and we were cutting it close as it was. Finally inside the terminal, we looked in vain for the VIP lounge our contact person was to meet us at. We also discovered that Vietnam does not have an abundance of payphones. The procedure is to go to the closest post office and they make the call and collect the charges.
I kept calling the JTF Det-2 office trying to get information and they kept telling me to "go to the new building next to the airport." I attempted to approach the guard shack several times in the pouring rain, but the man inside would start shouting and motioning with his hands in a threatening manner before I could even get close enough to ask him a question. Our next smart move was to jump in one of the taxi's waiting in line at the airport and have him drive us up to the main gate. This time three guards stopped us and our driver tried explaining our situation in Vietnamese. Still a no go. I jump out of the taxi, completely drenched by now, and try talking to the guards myself, "MIA ceremony," I tell them, "we are on the list." They just look at me like I'm a crazy American woman and begin to refuse to even acknowledge my presence. Nothing I could do but get back in the taxi, go back to the airport, make yet another call to Det-2.
By this time the lady who answers the phone recognizes my voice. "Look," I tell her, "we can't get inside the gate and we can't find the VIP lounge in the airport. Can you please call someone who is already here and have them meet us in the restaurant?" It seems we at last have a plan.
The tall man in the blue shirt with the JTF logo sure looked good standing there! But Danny Cox didn't have good news for us, seems the ceremony had been postponed until 2PM that afternoon due to the weather. Great, Mike and I were scheduled for a 12:30 flight back to Saigon, arriving at 6:30 PM, to catch a 7:30 PM train. No choice but to pay a $50 change fee and get tickets for a later flight. At least we were assured our names were on the list to attend the MIA ceremony.
The first indication that something was happening was the crowd of Vietnamese lining the metal gate to get a look at the big airplane on the tarmac with giant US letters on the nose. Mike and I didn't connect the plane to the ceremony right away; we were standing in the rain with everyone else waiting on Clinton or some other big wig to walk down the ramp. Then Mike spotted several blue shirts inside the gate and we waved them down. At last the guards were given a list with our names on it and we were allowed entry. By this time we were both soaking wet and I couldn't even get a reading on my camera, but it sure felt good to climb into the vehicles that would take us the few hundred feet to the spot on the tarmac where the ceremony would be held.
I was not prepared for what awaited us...the two small wooden boxes, marked 1 and 2. I knew right away that inside were remains of two US servicemen and I was in awe that each little box contained all that was left of someone's lifetime of experiences. There was no pomp or circumstance, no brass band, only respectful solitude as the exchange took place. A member of the color guard marched to the first box and picked it up with exact movements. He very carefully carried to the first man to a full-size metal coffin being held open by other members of the multi-service color guard, and gently sat the box down, and the lid was lowered. An American flag was laid on the coffin and unfolded carefully, then a service member held each corner, the flag snapping loudly as it was draped over and around the coffin, and tucked precisely at each corner. The ritual was repeated for the second man, without any loss of respect or recognition in the repetition.
The official paperwork was quickly signed by both counterparts, and as each coffin passed in front of Gen. Terry Tucker, members of the Joint Task Force, and other veteran organizations. The serviceman inside each metal tomb was saluted, and carried up the loading ramp of the plane...going home at last. Paulette Curtis, an anthropology student from Harvard studying the phenomena of American veterans returning to Vietnam, turned to me and said, "I don't even know how to describe what just happened."
"Bittersweet," I told her, "this was a bittersweet moment." I am thinking of an old Rod Stewart song, "Faith of the heart, strength of the soul." I realize I will need both to get through the days to come...and I wonder, will a day like this come for my family?
Mike and I realized when we were preparing to return to Saigon that once you bought an airplane ticket, you still had to pay a $10 USD ""airport fee" to enter the boarding area. Vietnam is relatively inexpensive - our rooms in the Rex were only $50 USD a night, but they stick it to you in unexpected extra charges. I think we Americans call them "hidden fees;" maybe our corporate culture is not so different after all.
After we pass through customs, we finally find the VIP waiting area, inside the departure waiting room. Mike is very happy with the air-conditioned, plush surroundings...I am more than happy to find a real toilet in the ladies bathroom. I can see right now, the hole-in-the-floor arrangement is going to be difficult for me. I can stoop down, but due to a spinal injury back in '79 when the Special Reaction Team (SRT) of the unit I was attached to was rappelling off a wooden fire tower, I can't get back up easily. I have to finger-walk the walls and it truly makes my guts curl.
While we are sitting in the VIP lounge I noticed a very attractive Vietnamese woman in conversation with an Australian businessman. I hear him ask, "Are you the woman who started all these ambassador's getting married?" Since we are in Hanoi, home of the American Ambassador Pete Peterson, I wonder if she is his wife whom I have been hearing so many objections to. The conversation continues to indicate that she is indeed Mrs. Peterson. When we board the plane, it so happens that our seats are right behind the two of them, although I can no longer hear their conversation.
I am starved. Mike had lunch at the restaurant next to the airport, but I was too tense to eat. I want a cheeseburger, bad! I think about the food sign we saw near the Rex last night advertising American looking food...ummm. But when we are served a late lunch on the plane, I am pleasantly surprised at how good the food is. I love milk and eagerly open the small carton and take a big drink. Yuck, do they milk the water buffalo or what?
The flight back to Saigon was short and uneventful, the countryside lush green with trailing ribbons of brown water crisscrossing the vastness of open spaces and small villages. When the plane lands and everyone is preparing to disembark, I decide to find out if this lady was indeed Mrs. Peterson. As she stood, I lean across the seat and extend my hand. "Are you Mrs. Peterson?" I ask. A little surprised she answers, "Well, yes, I am."
"I am the sister of an American MIA," I tell her. "Would you please tell the Ambassador not to get discouraged, he is making a difference." I smile at her and add, "And he has a very lovely wife." She thanks me and we leave the plane first because we are traveling "deluxe" and board our special "deluxe" bus to the terminal. No hanging from swaying straps like sardines in a can. This time I actually get to sit down.
After Mike and I make our way through customs for the third time in two days, we see Hai waiting for us. We have exactly one hour to rush to the hotel, collect our luggage, travel to the train station, and board for our trip to Hue. Unbelievably, we make it without running over any one, although I had my doubts a couple of times. Seems to me we should have at least one body attached to a scooter or bicycle hanging off a side mirror. Vietnam is a country where I will never even attempt to drive in, even if they do drive on the right side of the road!
We boarded the Saigon Railway for Train S2 1930 / 1404+ Overnight onboard, almost as it pulled out of the station. A female attendant showed us to our "soft berths." There were already two occupants in the lower berths, an elderly woman on my side, and a young business-type fellow under Mike's bunk. We throw our gear topside and climb up. The attendant comes to our still open door requesting our tickets. Mike can't find them. "I just had them in my hand," he tells her, but I don't think she understood because she continues to rattle on in Vietnamese with her hand out. Mike searches his pockets, his luggage, everywhere he could think of in a panic. Finally he finds the tickets where they had fallen, between the mattress and the wall. We relax.
I am so tired I don't even try to find a private place to change out of my dress into something more comfortable. As I lay my head down on the pillow cover and pull the pallet up over me, I try not to think about how many other bodies have lain here using the very same bedclothes that I have pulled over my head. The room is very cold with air-conditioning blasting through vents and a powerful little circulating fan that does not have an on and off switch. I don't care anymore; I could sleep on a bed of nails right now. I doze off thinking of the day's events. The MIA ceremony really rattled my cage.
A few hours later I wake up freezing. A dress is not much protection from the freezing air. I look over at Mike and he is a covered up knot, and the other two passengers seem to be asleep also. I seize the moment and quickly change into a shirt, jeans, and socks on my bare feet. Warm at last, I fall back asleep almost immediately.
When I wake up again, daylight is poking through the dusty, fogged up train window. The businessman is gone and our bunkmate has prepared breakfast for Mike and myself with small bottles of water, a strange fruit, and some kind of white pastry. I don't wish to insult her, so I share the fruit with Mike, but gently refuse the pastry. Instead, I offer her a Granola Bar, which she politely thanks me for and puts in her bag. She speaks no English but we have no problem communicating. We are both grandmothers. I show her pictures of my family and she pulls her pictures out. Something in common worldwide---grandchildren!
I wandered around the train until I found the restroom. Oh Lord, this one is even worse than the airport. Not only is it a hole in the floor, but the train rocks back and forth. At least there are bars on the window to hold onto. I try not to look at the filth on the walls, thinking only of the sink and soap next to me. And I am more than grateful that at least on the train there is toilet paper.
Mike and I peek out the doors of the train at the few stops we make en route. We get lots of stares and shy giggles from the young girls. We meet an Australian veteran who has returned to Vietnam with his wife to tour his old battle sites. He is tall, with red hair and a very long red and gray beard. He tells us of his time in country and that when he returned home he couldn't deal with the young, inexperienced NCO's telling him his job. He volunteered for a second tour in 'Nam because he "wanted to do what I was trained to do: fight!"
At last, the train reaches Hue and we disembark. There is a fairly small line of people ahead of us, crowding past a female gate guard who is checking paperwork. Just as I walk outside the gate and spot Tra Tran, our guide for the rest of the trip, there is a ruckus behind us. I turn around to see Mike behind a man trying to push his way past the guard with a big suitcase. She is fighting him hard when two policeman rush to help her. The man is detained, Mike makes his way through the gate, and Tra greets us and introduces our driver, Nam. Mike and I are curious about the incident, but they lead us to the car, out of harms way I suppose.
Tra is a replacement guide/interpreter. Our original guide is a part-time policeman, and unavailable at this time. Mike is disappointed because he has two Seattle police patches to give to him. But Tran seems nice and very informative. Just one more little snag, no big deal. It is late afternoon and we will gladly spend the night in Hue. I feel like I've been roller-skating, can't lose the movement of the 20 hours we just spent on the train.
We check into the A Dong Hotel in Hue, which seems nice enough. I am a little surprised at the insect control method, gecko's crawling from behind lights, cruising the walls for other, smaller critters. I can deal with it...as long as there are no snakes in my room. We meet Tra outside for a ride around the city in a cyclo with a driver steering and pedaling. Didn't make note of too much of the scenery, I was too busy freaking out on the traffic! We had so many close calls with scooters and vehicles I think I said the Lord's prayer about three times in a row.
After our ride Tra suggests that we go to The Garden Restaurant, which is within walking distance from the hotel. Okay with me, I'm hungry, but not so much that I'm ready for another cyclo ride. The restaurant is very nice, clean with a French air about it. We sit outside in the garden and look over the extensive menu. We enjoy a good meal and prepare to leave when we both notice the legless man waiting near the gate for us. Mike gives him a US dollar and I do the same for the cripple at the gate. We are humbled by our good fortune when reminded by the plight of the ever-constant beggars.
Back at the hotel, Mike goes to his room to write in his journal. I am too overwhelmed to write, all I can do is think. My little sister has just died and here I am, 30 years late looking for my big brother in a foreign country. I get close to finding out what happened to Jerry, only to lose Cindy. Am I nuts or what? Turning on the television is no help since everything but MSNBC news and MTV are Vietnamese stations. The news gets old, and I sort of wish they had VH1 instead of MTV. At last I drift off into a restless sleep; tomorrow beckons. Tomorrow we take a boat trip on the Huong River, also known as the Perfume River, and tour Hue.
It's early morning of our third day in Vietnam and we are excited about the boat trip on the Huong River. Mike arrives and we settle into the hotel dining room and order a quick breakfast - eggs and toast with juice. When the waiter brings our plates, the eggs are so underdone they look like they might just slide off the plates. Mike does charades with the waiter to no avail, so the cook comes out. We finally get the message across that we don't want runny eggs, and get real close to what we asked for. We eat what's on our plates and get on the road. Thank goodness for French bread!
We board our beautifully decorated boat after greeting the captain and the crew, which was his wife and young son. The river supports many families who shovel river sand for roads, fish for the markets, and provide tours. I guess the boats replace our pickup trucks. We drift upriver towards the Thien Mu Pagoda, but are not allowed to enter because of religious activities. The people on the river are very friendly, but because the soldiers patrol regularly our hostess scoots us inside so they will not get into trouble.
She makes a pot of tea and pours each of us a little cup. I don't like hot tea, so I turn mine down. Tra explains to me that I have offended our hostess, but it is too late to accept now. I think she forgave me when she began to lay out all sorts of souvenirs, unpolished brass, and carved wooden turtles with Buddha on the underside. I bought a few gifts for friends and family back home. Hand-painted silk, watercolor scenes of Vietnam, a wooden turtle, a brass cat and candlesticks, all for $10 USD.
Mike and I are more than ready to get on with our journey to Quang Tri Province, to try and meet up with the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA) team, but first we explore the Ngo Mon Gate. It was built in 1833 as the main entrance to the Imperial, or Forbidden City. We will also look over the interior of the Great Harmony Palace. The Palace itself was decorated very lavishly with gold leaf and much ornamentation, not to mention all the history attached to one of the cultural emblems of Hue. Photographs are not allowed inside the Palace, so I bought a postcard of the Emperor's throne room. We are not allowed inside the Imperial Citadel, but I snap a photo of the outside of the depressing three-story building with a Vietnamese flag waving in the breeze.
We roamed the grounds of the Forbidden City in awe of the delicate workmanship that adorned building after building with intricate mosaic designs and delicate bonsai gardens. We were told that the Forbidden City is in a constant state of restoration and it rather tickled my funny bone that part of the restoration included bits and pieces of colored glass from different bottles and mirror shards, none of which were around when the structures were originally built. As I drifted from building to building, I tried to imagine the people of power who lived within these walls and pondered the criteria that fate uses to determine who will have power and who will not; who will sleep in beds of gold and who will sleep on rice mats on dirt floors.
As we drive north on QL1 to Dong Ha, we stop at a church, roofless and so riddled with bullet holes it is a wonder it still stands at all. Standing inside the shell of the old church, I peek through the pitted walls and question the sanctuary of church in a communist country. Who shot this church to pieces, where people taking refuge here at the time...?
Vietnam seems to have a host of citadels, which I would call war museums. We stopped at the Quang Tri City citadel where workers were in the process of detonating still active explosives within shouting distance of the monument itself. Not a job I would apply for. The monument itself didn't leave a lasting impression, but the exhibits inside on display were graphic. Many pictures of war, all one-sided, of course, and a small collection of captured artifacts such as weapons, etc. Actually, for me the most compelling item was the guestbook. Mike and I took the time to read all of the prior entries. We were surprised to discover that a mini-war of sorts continues in these books. Europeans are still judgmental of American involvement with Vietnam, many American vets expressed bitterness, but many more spoke of peace and some recalled incidents of loss. I found myself resentful of those people from other countries who suffered no losses in the war making broad judgments regarding American involvement in Vietnam. Perhaps they think we were merely interfering with one of Europe's favorite cheap get-a-way vacation spots...who cares what they think now, where were these judgmental souls when the war was hot and heavy and life was measured in days, not years!
I could not help but think of all the school children who visit these memorials and read what is written in the guest books. I wanted to write something hopeful, with a subtle warning of the impact our written words can have on people we never meet. I thought I was quoting a familiar Vietnamese proverb, "The young bamboo bends easily..."
I was surprised when we returned to the car and after traveling for a ways Tra turned around and asked me, "The young bamboo bends easily, what this means?" I explained to him that it meant that what they see and hear easily influences the young, and the children of the world are the responsibility of all. At this point, Tra seemed to open up and began to talk with Mike and I about his childhood---it wasn't the kind of story you tell to your children to put them to sleep with sweet dreams. His story was probably typical of the times, his father was forced to leave the family and fight in the war, eventually being listed as missing-in-action. Tra, his mother, brother and sisters lived in Danang, and when the VC overran the town they ran towards the American troops seeking protection. Unfortunately, the entire family was shot down by mistake. Tra woke up in an American field hospital and after a few months of recovery, was taken home by a farmer to help in the fields; he was 8 years old.
Much time passed and the farmer's neighbor's wife had to go to the hospital for treatment. There she bunked close to a woman who cried day and night. At last she could stand it no more and finally asked her weeping companion what could make her cry so much. The woman told the farmer's wife that she had lost her husband and all of her children during the battle when Danang was overrun and she was afraid because she was a woman all alone in the world now. The farmer's wife thought about this and remembered that her neighbor had brought a young boy home from a different field hospital months ago, but she did not know the boys name. She promised the suffering woman that she would learn more about the boy when she returned home. There was great joy in the "grand-reunion" of Tra and his mother, and together they mourned the loss of the father/husband and all of the other children. Tra ended his story saying his mother lived to be 80 years old.
I sat in the backseat of the small car, rolling down Highway 1, overwhelmed with grief for this man and his family, mentally holding up my family history next to his and realizing that we are more alike than different...pain is the same. Long moments passed, everyone lost in thought, and not a word spoken. At last I had to know, "Tra, how is it that you suffered so much during the war, but you are not bitter?" He did not answer right away, but when he did turn and look directly at me, it was not an answer he gave but a question he asked, "If you look back and are bitter, how can you survive in today?" Reality bites!
Speaking of biting, it was along this road that we passed a truck loaded with wooden cages containing a small breed of dogs. "Where are those dogs going?" I asked Tra. He did not hesitate before answering, "To the Chinese border." Mike and I just looked at one another, and we both wondered...but not once did we see "dog" on any menu. I did see an article in the newspaper before I left that stated the government was asking the people to stop eating so many snakes and cats because it was causing an uncontrollable rise in the rat population. And when I departed the airport duty store had an interesting display of pickled snakes. I recognized a cobra, but most of the other snakes were strange, but interesting, to me.
It was a tired crew that arrived in Dong Ha the evening of Friday, May 6, 1999. We checked into the Phuong Hoang Hotel. Mike and I went directly to our rooms. They were not fancy, but surface clean... Definitely not the Rex Hotel. I couldn't understand why we were given keys to the door of the room and to the door of the bathroom. I had a big bathtub in my room, but Mike had a drain hole in the floor, a red plastic wash basin, and a handheld showerhead. And every room seemed to have the added benefit of a glass full of old, much used toothbrushes.
Mike came to my room to tell me that he had just seen an American in the hallway, when there was a startling, heavy knock on the door. Mike opened it and I could hear an American voice asking if this was "Ms. Elliott's room?" Enter Major Ken Royalty, commander of the 55th Joint Task Force (JTF) Team, one of the last people I expected to see at my door! Certainly blew my hair back, I thought I would have to hunt these guys down all over Quang Tri Province. Now Mike and I are invited to meet with the team this evening to discuss site information and action plans. "We will show you everything we have," the Major told us. It is good that Mike is here, I am reeling from the riptide of emotions, and he will remember details and he's keeping a journal. I find that I cannot... writer's block - too much to digest and spit out on paper right now.
The team met in a small room at the end of the hallway where our rooms were. They were easy people to be around, cheerful despite the mission, but totally dedicated to recovery and resolution. We were briefed on Case 1000, Jerry's file reference number, and a plan of action was determined. The team would leave Dong Ha early the next morning, traveling Highway 9 to Khe Sanh to the Old French Fort. The main problem was the Vietnamese counterparts are claiming that they know nothing of an Old French Fort in the area and it's not noted on the topographical map the team is using. Mike to the rescue. He has brought a hand-drawn copy of a map of the Khe Sanh area that shows the Old French Fort that I discovered on the Internet. We are told that the Vietnamese were not comfortable with our being at the site when they and team were working. Mike and I told the team we were not there to hinder the mission and therefore would follow later. We would find the site by ourselves with the map, the GPS locator Mike had with him already programmed with the grid coordinates of the crash site according to DPMO, and the assistance of Tra and Nam.
Meeting over, we were invited to eat with the team at one of the local street cafes. I'm not particularly found of oriental food to begin with, so I thought a rice and vegetable dish would do for me. Our plates were served and I was gingerly picking through the food on mine when the lights went out. They came back on and I pushed some strange looking items to one side, didn't look like any veggie's I'd ever seen. Lights off again, I'm eating in the dark and suddenly bite down on something hard and crispy, what!!! Lights on again as I spit it discreetly into my napkin and see the ass end of a shrimp's tail. Ugh, I'm eating someone else's leftovers - I'm done! I can see right now food is going to be a real problem for me here in the boonies of Vietnam. Occurs to me that the war would have been over a lot sooner if the VC had known to hit our food supply trucks and force US troops to eat what was available locally.
There was no rest for me that long night. Each time I closed my eyes and relaxed my guard, a nightmare crawled across my mind and startled me awake. Around four in the morning I gave up and decided I might as well shower and dress. The water was freezing and I assumed I was up before the hotel caretakers who must turn the hot water on. My hair is long and I pulled it up into a ponytail to beat the heat, put on a sleeveless shirt and shorts, pulled my camera from it's case and went down stairs to watch the sun come up. There wasn't much traffic that early in the morning, and except for a few of the JTF team who were returning from a run, the hotel was quiet and still in the predawn semi-light. I sit on the steps outside and watch as this little village prepares for a new day. The scooters that passed carried not only passengers, but were alive with everything from huge bundles of leafy vegetables, to quacking ducks and oinking pigs. Today was just another day for these people; to me this day already had an air of unreality about it. Like when you dream of something so often that you began to wonder if it's really a dream.
The JTF Team pushed out about 7am and Mike and I killed another hour or so eating breakfast and getting organized. We ate in the hotel and were served duck eggs, french bread, and very sweet coffee. I managed to have cream cheese added to the menu, although I was really asking for butter or jelly. Add it all together and I had a Donna McMuffin of sorts... at least I could eat it without gagging.
Traveling west on Highway 9 was an adventure. The road was nothing but muddy ruts in a lot of places and traffic was heavy. The bottom of our little car kept dragging and many times I wondered if our driver wouldn't be forced to turn around. Nam never said a word, he just kept driving through mud piles, around rocks, dodging people walking and riding bicycles or scooters. Mike and I joked of bringing him to the states and turning him loose as a taxi driver in some large city; it didn't matter where because he was definitely up to the challenge. I found out later that he had to attend a special school to drive, because of the traffic and unexpected encounters on the road, these guys rarely speak, they just drive with total concentration. The Major told us that it seemed that every trip he had made to 'Nam, there was always one to three dead people they passed alongside the road. Someone covers them up with leaves or whatever is handy until the family can come and take them home for burial. This can take a few days sometimes and I'm really glad that we did not have to see a person sprawled dead on the side of the road like everyday road kill.
Highway 9 is an historical route of the Vietnam War, so much fighting, so much loss of life. We stopped at the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and as I watched work crews and vehicles cross the river, so serene and swift, I could only appreciate the cost, not the beauty. We crossed the Dakrong and Hien Luong Bridges, and passed the Razorback and Rock Pile en route to Khe Sanh. The warrior's tales I have heard and read about make it easy to expect armed troops to pop out of the jungle at anytime. I can easily imagine helicopters circling overhead in preparation of landing on the Rock Pile...it is a hauntingly beautiful landscape that beckons one to explore. If I were a city girl I would be totally unaware that the jungle can swallow people whole and never spit them out again.
At last we have arrived in Khe Sanh. I have seen pictures of the village from 1968 and it hasn't changed all that much, just more buildings and people - progress, you know. But the countryside is a lush green jungle, with sparkling waterfalls sliding down solid granite mountains into rivers that make you want to get out of the car and go fishing on the spot. We weave down a muddy gravel road to yet another, even slicker dirt road off to the right, a road that nobody without a four-wheel drive is going to travel very far on. We park and walk. The usual passel of curious kids swarm us as we walk up to a sign that announces simply "Historical Vestige of Tacon Combat Base 'Khesanh' 500m". The children, all giggles and smiles, try to sell us everything under the sun...while one of the braver and more talented little boys attempts to pick my pockets as we walk. I let him go for it. After all, I know any pocket within reach is empty.
We drag our heavy, slick and muddy feet past row upon row of coffee beans into the middle of a big flat red, totally barren dirt field. We walk past several groups of Vietnamese tourists returning from the museum, friendly but somber. War is a two-edged sword.
In the background the after-rain mists float surrealistically across the green mountaintops in the distance. On the bare field before us are displayed remnants of U.S. artillery. A Vietnamese man with a wooden tray approaches us; "You buy American dogtag? How 'bout medal?" The box was full of French coins, old belt buckles, buttons, and many U.S. soldier dogtags. They almost had it down pat, except some of the names were imprinted backwards on the tags. I bought one just because Richard Lennon had told me he had purchased one the first time he returned to Vietnam after the war and had been able to return it to the rightful owner, who had indeed lost it in battle.
Khe Sanh Combat Base. This place almost sucked me into the past. I admit I knew of the battle fought here, but not as much as I was to learn from the pictures hanging on the walls of the war museum. Had I known the magnitude of lives lost on this field, upon first sight I would have known the dirt was red with blood, not minerals. Mike and I slowly walked around the one-room collection of photographs and paraphernalia of war portraying the Vietnamese view of "The American War". We read the captions of every picture. All depicted the "heroic" Viet Cong in the midst of battle performing acts of bravery. The titles were in Vietnamese and in English, but if the Provisional Revised Government really wants to lure American tourists, particularly Vietnam veterans, to Vietnam, somebody better learn not to translate literally. "The miserable Americans..." offended me. Mike shrugged it off and said, "Well, we were miserable!"
This war museum also had a guest book for visitors to sign and I made note of a few: "WAR - Young men fighting out old men's insecurities." (Maggie Berg Aug '98); "For those who have fought for it, life holds a flavor the protected will never know." ("First found written in 1967 on a C-Rat carton tied with commo wire to an engineer stake next to a bunker at KheSanh and are words some of us will never forget as long as we live." Written by Sun-Run who returned 30 years later after serving in Vietnam '66-'68.)
THE OLD FRENCH FORT
We rode up and down Hwy 9 in the middle of Khe Sanh while Mike checked his GPS for the crash site location. After a couple of passes, the GPS indicated we were very close and it would probably be easier to park and walk since navigable roads were few and far between. The three of us, Mike, Tra, and myself, drew a lot of attention as we humped the slick backroads of the Khe Sanh community. Children were returning to school from lunch at home and they greeted us with friendly smiles, as did the few adults we encountered. It was a hot, extremely humid day, and my hair felt like a ton of wool dripping sweat. My camera hanging around my neck, which I usually don't even notice, seemed as though I was hauling around a cinderblock on a string. All three of us were breathing hard by the time we topped the hill and saw the four-wheel drive vehicles the JTF teams were driving. They had just returned from the crash site...my heart was pounding in my chest so hard I wondered if the others could hear it.
Major Royalty greeted us with these words, "Ms. Elliott, we located the crash site, but I'm sorry to say we didn't find any sign of the chopper or your brother." He continued to tell us they had found the exact spot where the helicopter had crashed, used the metal detectors, and made a few digs. There was so much metal debris the metal detectors were making positive reads so consistently it was impossible to make viable use of the machines. He then handed me a piece of a mortar round they had dug up from the site and told me he was so sorry he had nothing else to give me.
The team was hot and tired, ready for a meal, and then they and the Vietnamese counterparts were going to locate and interview two local residents who they had learned had scavenged the crash site. We would meet back in Dong Ha at the hotel and they would brief Mike and I on whatever, if anything, they discovered. The team departed and Mike, Tra, and I climbed the steep hill they had just descended.
"Oh my God," I thought, "they've built a Vietnamese cemetery right on top of the crash site!" We quickly discovered there was an even higher level of land behind the cemetery and found our way around the fenced burial grounds. On approach we spotted a tall, concrete tower, partially destroyed, function unknown. To the left, behind the cemetery, was an uninhibited, flat area, and to the right, at a lower level, a newer burial ground. Mike kept checking his GPS for the exact site (unknown to us the military keys in variables that threw us off the exact spot by a few hundred feet.) Nobody said anything, we all knew no matter where we stood on this ground, and it was hallowed.
We kept walking around and around, Mike checking his GPS and maps with Tra, me just wandering. I needed to be alone, to get a feel for the place, to see if some kind of sixth sense would miraculously kick in and I would instinctually know if Jerry's spirit dwelled in this spot. I desperately tried to pull all the details I could remember from Tom Pullen's letter describing the event he witnessed from the air that fateful day...it just didn't feel right, like we weren't in the right spot. I walked a little ways down an old trail that wound down the mountainside, searching every inch of ground with hope. I didn't get very far, Mike and Tra were right on my heels, calling, "Donna, Donna, where are you?"
"I'm right here," I shouted back and stepped out where they could see me from the top. "You don't have to worry about me getting off the trail and getting lost. I'm not stepping anywhere it's not obvious somebody has been many times before." What I really wanted to say was, "Please, leave me alone, let me feel whatever is here. Sometimes the pain is better than the numbness, at least you know you are alive." I read somewhere that "Pain from loss contains within it the seeds for healing and renewal." Guess I was looking for some of those seeds. I pray and walk some more.
This day, 8 May 1999, 11,196 days later, I walk where Jerry ran. I stand atop the Old French Fort in Khe Sanh, Vietnam, in the hot, humid sun of Southeast Asia, and look out across the peaceful mountainside. "Why? Why? Why? Where is he?" I ask myself, "Dead or alive?" I have traveled to the other side of the world and I still don't know. Not a trace that he is, or ever was.
It was fairly obvious to all of us that if there were any remains in this area, they would have been discovered long ago by the locals when they began burying their own dead here. Funny, how none of us would give up, we must have stayed up there for a couple of hours searching for...a clue, hope? After all, what could we possibly discover that a team of experts did not?
Mike finally utilized his Pathfinder survival skills and he paid a couple of children who were following us around some dong to show us where the American's had marked the spot with a x, as they had told us. The kids took us right to the spot, about 75 meters down a slight slope from the highest point. There it is a big yellow x spray painted on a utility pole. The only thing that marks the spot where LTC Joseph P. Seymoe, WO1 Gerald L. McKensey, and SSG Billy D Hill lost their lives, and my brother, Jerry, disappeared from life, as we know it. A pathetic memorial to four American soldiers just "doing their job," trying to insert troops and supplies to Hung Hoa.
We're hot, sweaty, tired and a bit discouraged as we trudge downhill from the Old French Fort,back onto the red dirt road that runs into the main drag. There Nam is waiting in the car for us. Some Vietnamese children fall in beside us and chatter away asking questions with open curiosity. "You Americans...I learn speak English." I was so burnt out I couldn't manage conversation and walking at the same time, so I leave the kids up to Mike. They charm him with their cheerfulness and smiling brown faces. We treat them to bubble gum before we climb into the wonderful cool air of the car and head up OL 9, towards some grub and cold water!
Tired and hungry we stop at the Nha Trang restaurant just outside of Khe Sanh. Two ducks are playing in the mud hole in front of the simple, open-faced building. At the end of the porch dishes are piled in a handmade basket, air-drying. Someone is asleep in the next, room separated only by a wooden handrail from the restaurant. A small figure is stretched out on a mahogany wood bed with no mattress, just a thin rice pad. Mike orders a rice dish and I order a package of Nabisco cookies
There is a group of Vietnamese women; some are dressed very Western, at a table near ours. It seems like the city cousins have come to visit the country cousins. Chop sticks waving, they chatter in Vietnamese among themselves. I happen to glance up to check out the structure of the building and notice a very large spider. "Mike," I ask, "do you know what kind of spider that is hanging over your head?"
"No," he says without even looking up, "and I don't want to know." But I did notice he finished his meal in record time. In the back, the dishes are stacking up.
As we finished our meal and were squaring up the bill, the restaurant owner notices Mike's tattoo. His right forearm is marked "67 VIETNAM 68" above jump wings. Ever since he arrived in Vietnam, people have been walking up and touching his tattoo, especially the young men and women in the shops, and asking questions, like "You fight in American War?"
At first it made Mike very uncomfortable because he expected to be the brunt of some of the bitterness he felt, but by now it had become a useful conversation starter. Our host proudly turned his right arm towards us, revealing a tattoo of a peace dove with the letters U.S. Turns out he fought with us during the war. I ask Trah if this man was mistreated because of his tattoo after the war. He translates that the restaurant owner had a hard time until around '75 and then it didn't seem to matter anymore to the officials. I thought about asking what happened before '75, but decided I didn't really want to know...I still had to digest the stifled emotions of the Old French Fort.
Back on the road again we travel OL 9 towards the border of Laos. Lang Vei is one of the old Special Forces Camps and many lives were lost here. There is a Soviet tank on display here, #268, a Vietnamese monument. There is a trail directly behind the large monument leading into the lush, green valley below, and the river that separates Vietnam and Lao's. Mike and I have just returned from exploring the remains of two bunkers , and we are standing quietly, trying to still the vivid images of bloody battles that our imaginations have hurled at us.
Suddenly, the roar of a dirt bike we can hear, but can't see, startles us. Whoa, a scooter carrying two passengers pops up out of thick bushes behind the tank. It's a man and a very pregnant young woman; both have bandanas covering their faces. She gets off the bike and he drives right past us without word or action. A second look at the girl reveals a very strange pregnancy indeed. On a hot day in May she has on a long-sleeve jacket and a black shirt that stretches over a rectangular shaped midsection . Oddest-looking baby I have ever seen! Looks like she may give birth to a case of cigarettes any second now! I can't help but laugh at the irony of the situation. Smugglers! And using a Vietnamese war memorial for cover at that.
Another two bikes zoom up the trail, one zipping right past us and the other driver pulling into the bushes. Mike and I glance at each other, asking without words, "think we're safe?" I smile because the smugglers don't seem to give a damn if we are there or not, not even responding when I openly take pictures.
Trah explains to us that the smugglers go to Laos or Thailand and bring in black-market items, mainly American cigarettes. If they are caught the punishment is life in prison or death. Money must be really good! Although it appears that quite an elaborate safety net is in place with checkpoints along the way where the bike riders are tipped off if the border patrol has just passed and is in the area. The smugglers just backtrack to the last safe zone. Such a daily routine the two old ladies across the road don't even stop picking ticks off their precious cattle to look up.
Maj. Royalty and the JTF Team are already at the hotel in Dong Ha when we arrive and are waiting to brief us on what they found at the crash site. Mike and I join the team in the meeting room, a small room with a large table, several chairs, and a noisy wall fan that just moves the hot air around. The Major informs me that the team did indeed locate the crash site, but were unable to utilize the metal detectors due to the huge amount of ordinance frags in the area.
They identified, located, and interviewed two Vietnamese witnesses who scavenged the site in the 70's, discovering and recovering part of the helicopter rotor blade being used as a corner post in a cowpen . The team later presents the war relic to me and help me make arrangements to have the 10' section cut into pieces, so it will fit into the trunk and I can have it shipped home. Due to lack of evidence found at the crash site the Major informs me that he cannot make a recommendation to excavate the site at this time.
Before I have time to absorb and respond to this information, the door opens and in walks Col. Tho, the Major's Vietnamese counterpart. All the Americans in the room, including Mike and I, unofficially know that the Maj. is under orders to keep the Col. and I, an unpredictable MIA family member, separated in order not to jeopardize the 55th JTF's mission to recover as many remains during their time in-country as possible. If I offend Col. Tho, or worse yet attack him physically, diplomatic hell will certainly break loose. A hush falls over the room and you can feel muscles tighten as the Col. unknowingly sits directly across the table from me. The Maj. Introduces me through the team's interpreter, and explains my status as a family member of "case number 1000."
The Col., Mike, and I shake hands and the Col. looks down at his knarly; hazelnut hands and speaks to me in Vietnamese. "I regret that we meet under these conditions, and it is with a sad heart that I must tell you that we have no news of your brother." The old soldier looks up at me and says, "Perhaps, in the future we will be able to answer your questions."
The Maj. immediately tries to bring the briefing to a close, but I hold up my hand to stop. "Wait, sir, if you don't mind I have something to say to the Col." Almost as one, the JTF team members casually shift in their positions, some seated, some standing. They are primed to leap without forethought, not unlike wild animals responding to primitive warning senses. Will I cuss him, or worse yet, will I leap across the table and try to choke the truth out of him? Neither, I am not an out-of-control individual, and I am not quite so politically naïve. I want to impress on the colonel how important accounting for Jerry really is to me, put a face to the misery, put at the same time allow him to save face.
"Col. Tho," I began as I lock my green eyes dead onto his liquid brown eyes and try to keep his complete attention, "I come to Vietnam to look for the bones of my brother." I hold out both hands, palms down, and open them as I spread my arms wide to indicate the emptiness. The colonel cannot look at me now, his head hanging. "But now I must now return home with empty hands." It's true, you can still a room where a pin drop can be heard!
I reach across the table and pick up both of his big, brown hands in mine. "But I go home with many new Vietnamese friends!" I finish with a big smile. Everyone takes a deep breath and goodwill abounds with smiles and handshakes all around.
The Colonel and the Major briefly discuss details about tomorrow's case. The team must deploy to a remote spot in the jungle, to a crash site and look for remains. Col. Tho informs the Major that they will chopper out in the old Russian helicopter the Vietnamese counterparts use for JTF missions. The team moans, apparently maintenance is a problems on these old girls, and the team has had to bail out after take-off more than once. They fear for their lives every time they go up in one, but it's that or hump the jungle for days, with two vanloads of equipment on their backs. It's interesting to hear the planning process. Every member of the team has responsibility and input. The individual professionalism is reassuring. I believe there is not a man here who does not take the mission personally.
The Major informs the Colonel that they have intelligence that the crash site has been located by Vietnamese in the area who want compensation. The Colonel shrugs and says through the interpreter, "Before we find it, nobody knows about it. Now that we find it---everyone knows about it."
Did I make a difference? Doubt it, but I think that if "case 1000" doesn't bring Jerry's face to mind the next time Col. Tho's encounters Jerry's file, maybe, just maybe he will remember that this man had a sister, and that she traveled thousands of miles to Vietnam to look for him. Simply because she could not, would not, forget her brother. I believe that as long as Jerry is missing-in-action, our eagle flies in chains!
When the meeting breaks up Maj. Royalty invites us to eat supper with the team. Everyone walks down the blacktop road dodging vehicles, bicycles, and potholes, to a different restaurant. What a difference having an interpreter with you. The team turns us on to "khoai tay chien," french fries! They are delicious, especially with "dua gang-ca chua," or cucumbers and tomatoes, and I'm thinking I may not starve to death after all. Even the big rat scurrying along the inside wall of the restaurant can stop me from cleaning my plate slick. Except for small loaves of French bread daily and the occasional duck egg, this is the most food my belly has seen in days.
After supper Mike and I return to the hotel, worn out from the day. I lay in bed, staring at the acoustic tile in the ceiling, wrestling with my emotions. I fall asleep only to have a totally wretched dream of Mama, Daddy, Jerry, and Cindy. I turn the light on and try to deal with my feelings by writing a poem, which everyone signs the next morning. I will take it to The Vietnam Veterans Wall with a large piece of the chopper blade, and place it by Jerry's name so perhaps he will know someday how hard and how long we searched for him. That we never gave up.
POW/MIA---Who Can Say?
In my dreams I can clearly see Jerry's face,
But harsh reality reveals only an empty space.
To Vietnam, Mike, his Army buddy, and I, his sister, came,
Searching for something, anything to ease the pain.
The last Elliott alive, I am eternally duty bound,
To question until my big brother is someday found.
My worn body aches, heart and mind so very tired,
Yet questions unanswered still burn like fire!
My Father, my friend, my rock, my guide,
Does he perhaps in Your heavenly house abide?
With Mama, Daddy, and little sister Cindy Ann,
Or does he somehow, somewhere, survive in some foreign land?
No sure answer, no piece of bone have we found,
Walking over the crash site's hallowed ground.
Only half the chopper's blade, a cornerpost in a cowpen,
Surely, Lord, this cannot be the final end!
We and the 55th JTF Team traveled far to find my brother,
All clues end in Khe Sanh, at this time we can go no further.
Now, in the rainy darkness of a Vietnam morning I pray,
Please, Lord; give us all word of Jerry some day...
Copyright, 1999 by Donna E. Elliott