The theory was that such a trip would aid the ability of the veterans to come to terms with the war by immersing them in the sights, sounds, smells, and experiences of present-day Vietnam. Over five hundred veterans applied to go on the trip, but only fifteen were eventually chosen, thirteen men and two women. A psychiatrist accompanied the veterans to aid in the therapeutic process, and one of the veterans chosen was Bernard McClusky. Bernard works for the Department of Veterans' Services out of the Soldiers Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He thought that by participating in the project he could not only do something for himself, but could then relay the message and results of the trip to those he works with in the veteran community.
I met Bernard over coffee one day several weeks after I'd returned from my trip. He seemed astonished that I'd gone over to Vietnam, yet was not a veteran myself. "Well, you're an honorary vet in my book," he said. And I was honored by those words.
"Vietnam is like a movie we see all the time in our heads, but it's not always a good movie. By returning, we get to put in a new movie," he told me. Not all veterans agree that a trip to Vietnam is warranted or acceptable for their mental and emotional well-being, and some in fact strongly oppose any dealings with Vietnam. "Alot of guys really beat me up verbally about it when I returned from the trip. I work with alot of guys who are dealing with post-traumatic stress and some of them are not ready for the idea of a trip back to 'Nam. Even recently, alot of guys went bonkers about Clinton lifting the embargo."
Bernard was ready to face Vietnam again. He considered it a mission of new discovery and healing. The itinerary of the trip included the areas of service of each of the participating vets and a buddy system was set up to ease the possible trauma accompanying a return to an old area.
"I remember sitting in the Bangkok airport on our way over. We were only there forty-five minutes, but it felt like eight hours. All the old memories and emotions came flooding back. The sight of the Vietnam Air plane wasn't comforting either - its tires were as bald as this table top. I said to myself, 'Lord, did you bring me back here just to get me killed?' I'd forgotten how spoiled we are to live in America. About an hour later we landed in Tan Son Nhut Air Base right at dusk. I looked out the window and the place seemed nearly barren, only a couple planes on a runway that used to be packed full. It was reality shock. Suddenly I realized, 'We're gone, we're not here anymore.' The kids in Customs weren't even born when I was there last. I felt like an ambassador, twenty-five years later."
Bernard had been drafted and served in Soc Trang, down in the Mekong Delta area in 1967-68, through the Tet Offensive. His unit was the 52nd Signal Battalion, dealing with top secret clearance on all communications, nicknaming themselves the 'Voice of the Delta'.
"My choices were to go to Canada or to go to Vietnam when I got my draft notice. I chose Vietnam because I thought it was my chance to grab my piece of the rock and do my duty for my country, come home with respect as a veteran. As an African-American man, I couldn't even sit like this with a white woman like you at the time. I'm an American! I was raised on baseball and apple pie too. I could've come home in a body bag. Instead I got spit on when I got off the plane in California. I was so full of rage I attacked the guy and would've killed him if someone else didn't pull me off him. I'd still be sitting in Leavenworth! The country blamed the warriors instead of those that sent them over. It was crazy.
"When I was over there I never called the Vietnamese 'gooks' or 'slants' like alot of guys did. I was a 'nigger' in the United States, and I wasn't about to do the same thing to them. I made an effort to learn something of their language and culture. I think the small impression I made back then was everlasting because of the reception we got when we returned. I found the welcome invigorating.
"In every other war, America kicked it's enemy's ass, then went back and helped rebuild their country. With Vietnam, America left screaming and wouldn't talk to them for fifteen years. Other countries eventually gave up their embargoes and got back in there. America missed out on alot by holding out. I gotta admit, though, it is somehow satisfying to go back and see that communism really didn't work."
All of those on the trip had tough times when they revisited their former areas and encountered their own 'full circle', but all agreed that the experience was positive and therapeutic. Delays caused them to miss Bernard's own area, but he had an experience in Danang that brought the war home for him.
"I thought I had myself pretty much under control, but then I met this guy who'd been a 'freedom fighter' for ten years during the war. Suddenly all the old 'us versus them' feelings came back out of nowhere. I guess they'd never truly left. This Mr. Woo told me that his entire family had been killed in the American bombing of Hue. I told him that I truly felt for his loss and knew his grief. Suddenly we realized that we'd once been warriors who had a job to do back then. We no longer had to do it or feel it. We hugged each other - let the pain go. We cried, our bodies shook - it felt unbelievable - fantastic - to get it all out and set it right."
Bernard has photographs he took in Vietnam; a big man ducking through the Cu Chi tunnels, another posing in front of a downed American chopper, another arm in arm with a tiny Vietnamese man. His return to Vietnam did something wonderful to him and his memories of the place are now something he can treasure. He wants to get the word out to other Vietnam veterans and to America. It is time to come to terms with the Vietnamese. The war doesn't have to hurt anymore.
"On the trip back I wore the watch I'd bought in Vietnam twenty- five years earlier. When I got back home to America I realized it had stopped. Now what do you make of that?"
"Obviously I was drawn to Vietnam because I'd been there before and I knew it was beautiful. My first experience there was a bad experience. Then I got to go back and feel good about being there. How many times do you get to correct your original perception of a place? In a way, I fixed it. And now that part's overwith. I keep going back because I like the people an awful lot and I like the countryside. I go to get away from the industrial world. I never went with any intention to deal with any heavy issues of the war. I didn't have any. I'm sorry, I don't have any crazy stories. I wasn't a soldier who bit people's heads off."
I wasn't looking for stories of rerenegade soldiers. I wanted only to know what would draw a man back ten times to a country that he'd first experienced in wartime. There are plenty of countries in which one can escape the modern day world and find great beauty. Why go back again and again to Vietnam?
"The photo world is very competitive. I was looking for a place where no one had been for a long time, where what I had in mind hadn't been done before. When I first came up with the idea of Vietnam I wasn't able to get into the country on my own. Then in 1985 I read a _New York Times_ article on plans for a tour to Vietnam by several American veterans. I hated the idea of a group tour, but I figured it was an easy way in." On the tour he met a veteran named Joe Bangert, who has returned to Vietnam as often as Clifford has since the initial trip. They still keep in touch today, from Hanoi to Cape Cod to Arizona.
"On the first trip we landed in Hanoi, which stirred up no memories since I'd never been there before. It's very different from Danang and Hue, which is where I spent most of my time as a soldier. I'd never been to a Communist country before and expected a cold reception, no friendship whatsoever. Immediately, I found just the opposite.
"I had a lucky tour the first time I was there. I brought no emotional baggage back with me when I returned to Vietnam, I'm positive of that. I'm sure it would have come out by now if there was any. All I felt was nervous anticipation of our arrival and found excitement on the part of the Vietnamese on the return of American veterans."
Though it meant something to Clifford to return to Danang where he'd been based, he found he couldn't recognize anything from his past. His old base at Marble Mountain was off-limits. Still, the countryside was familiar, as was China Beach, where he used to swim during the war.
"In 1987 and 1988 I got into more of the country. I went to My Lai. That was quite an experience, although I had no memories of my own of the place since I'd never been there before. On my first day there I photo- graphed a woman who simply refused to shake my hand. She wanted nothing to do with an American. She was still bitter, and rightfully so. But in ten trips, no one in Vietnam has ever treated me badly because I am a veteran."
Clifford enlisted in the Army out of sheer boredom after dropping out of college. "I picked the stupid option. I went to Vietnam because I didn't want to go to jail for refusing to go. I absolutely hated the service and since then I've refused to be affiliated with any veterans' organizations. I go back to Vietnam now for fun."
Still, Hanoi seemed eerily like a war zone to me on the eve of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration that still went off on schedule during the war. Not an advisable time of the year to visit for veterans still sensitive to explosions. I was startled myself on several occasions when mischievous little boys threw hot pink firecrackers my way, oblivious to the danger. At midnight on Tet I listened to the city as it seemed to self-destruct. An acrid cloud hung in the streets, making it impossible for cyclo drivers to pedal their bikes. The din of exploding fireworks went on and on, echoing on itself, like a never-ending crescendo of mortar rounds and machine gun fire. All I could do was hang out the french windows of the hotel and laugh in disbelief at the mayhem.
As I settled down to bed, I remembered once teasing Bob for falling asleep during a firefight scene in 'Rambo'. "I slept through half the war," he replied, "why not the movie?" Eventually I too slept through the onslaught outside.
Beyond the water-filled bomb craters puncturing the landscape just outside the city, other things about Hanoi can bring one back to the war. The Hoa Lo Prison, or Hanoi Hilton, as most of us know it, still stands in the center of the city, its corroded yellow walls and tangled barbed wire taking up an entire city block. The color of choice among the North Vietnamese men is olive drab, the outfits they wear reminiscent of Army uniforms, and their pith helmets add a definite militaristic flair. The poker-faced police officers look like the guards depicted in P.O.W. movies. But eventually all the strangeness becomes familiar, unfamiliar sights reassuring. I made myself at home in Hanoi.