What was a middle-aged woman, ex-psychiatrist doing living in the heart of Hnaoi? Over dinner she told us that her husband was drafted as soon as they'd both finished their residencies in psychiatry, and not wanting to part from him, she too signed on to the military. Clearly, making unusual moves was nothing new to her. In a stroke of good fortune, their request to serve together was granted and for a year they worked together in Danang with soldiers suffering from the trauma of war as well as various psychiatric disorders. "Vietnam is very important to me," she said, and because it was important to me for other reasons, I could understand that. After she and her husband separated she quit her practice and went to live in Hanoi as a cultural writer and has written a guidebook on Vietnam. Still, she remains an enigma to me.
One woman leaned over for more french bread and asked, "Why did the Vietnam War seem to cause more stress than other wars? What was so different about it?"
I was surprised by her question. After all, she had lived through the 'Vietnam Generation' when I was just a child. I remembered my mother saying she was too busy with four kids to think much about the war. The only real memory I had of the war was that it seemed to go on forever, that it always seemed to be on television when I wanted to watch cartoons.
I turned to the woman chewing her french bread and told her about punji sticks, Bouncing Betties, the tunnels. I told her about DEROS and rotating alone. I told her it was a war in which soldiers spent most of their time anticipating action, sometimes even looking for it, because their wer no battle lines. The enemy was elusive , could even be the 'friendlies' working on the base. The guerilla tactics of the Viet Cong left American soldiers never knowing when the next blow would come, often unable to respond when it did because the enemy was by then long gone, leaving trip wires or mines to do the work.
The climate of the war led to intense frustration and anger, and creating further tension was the fact that a growing number of soldiers felt the war to be unwinnable. Morale plummeted because of the military, the government and the anti-war movement. It was a difficult war to fight and a more difficult war than any other to return from, greeted as 'baby killers' by some, indifference by others. Not only had they seen, suffered from, and taken part in great destruction, but circumstances back home dictated that they hold their pain inside, never speak of it, never grieve. Many forced Vietnam into the backs of their minds, where it just could not stay forever.
I then felt embarassed for going off on a tangent, taking over the conversation. The others stared at me. But Barbara smiled and nodded as she dug into her cold fish platter. "Listen to her. She knows what she's talking about," she said. Did I? I'd made it my business to learn as much as I could without having been there. And now I was there, taking over the conversation from one who had been there, who knew far more than I ever would. I felt ashamed. But Barbara winked, and said, "You come over later, the guys will come. We'll talk."
Another woman at the table had been to Vietnam before and travelled with the mother of a Vietnam vet. The son had told his mother, "Mom, you can go anywhere you want in the world. But I will never forgive you if you go to Vietnam." She was therefore in Vietnam without his knowledge. She wanted to know the county that had played such a big part in her son's life, a mission I emphathized with and undertook myself. When I first told Bob I planned to go to Vietnam he was less than thrilled. He'd often told me what a beautiful country it is and how he'd both hated and loved his year in Vietnam. I felt a powerful pull toward the country. Despite his reservations, I kept making my plans, reassuring him that I would be fine, the war was long over. Eventually he grew as excited about my trip as I was, though he wasn't going himself. He dug up the religous medal both he and his brother had worn through their tours and put it around my neck for good luck.
Before I could go to Barbara's apartment I had to go back to my hotel room for my nightly phone call from Bob. "He's really here with you, isn't he?" she observed gently, just like a psychiatrist. She didn't ask why he wasn't in Vietnam himself. She didn't have to.
My phone call gave her time to find the other vets. "They can be rather unreliable, you know. I just hope they show up." They did show up. The two men appeared one by one in the doorway of her apartment and slipped off their rain-sodden shoes. They were Joe Bangert and Danny Cunningham. They clearly regarded Barbara with a great deal of respect and she in turn seemed to have a very real, almost motherly, affection for them. Joe was a hearty man, full of life. He sat cross-legged on the floor drinking a beer. Danny sat in a chair, dressed all in white, his long hair pulled back into a ponytail. One of his legs was missing, but he'd opted not to disguise that fact with a prosthesis. In a way, he reminded me of the many Vietnamese veterans I'd seen about town. While Joe was enthusiastically talkative, Danny had a quiet serentiy that impressed me immediately.
I spent several hours with them in the tiny, one room apartment filled with file cases and books. They welcomed me as one of their own and I felt immediately comfortable in their little group. "We just want people to know you don't have to be maimed or crazy to want to come back to Vietnam," Barbara said. I looked at them and all I saw were veterans happy to be in Vietnam and at peace with themselves. I gained an understanding from them that I never could have gained on my own. When I got back to my hotel I called Bob back to tell him of my strange and wonderful experience there in Hanoi. At one in the morning, the phone lines out of Vietnam were so clear he sounded like he was right there beside me.