Team XVIII assisted in the construction of ten houses for disabled Vietnamese veterans and their families in Dong Ha in Quang Tri province. Charles Bruton recounts his Team XVIII experience in Journeying with the VVRP.
Gee Heckscher and Fred F. Ptucha each share their experiences as a member of Team XVIII below:
Dong Ha, Quang Tri Province, Viet Nam
On a Friday evening in early September, Team 18 arrived and gathered for a simple soup and salad supper at Magic Mountain, Sonoma County, California. The eight of us (six veterans from three services and two nurse spouses) were joined by our host Betsy, our “facilitator” Scott Rutherford and VVRP board member Gene Powers. Each member of the Team was there because each of us had very personal reasons for wanting to return to Viet Nam and, stumbling on VVRP in various ways, had decided that their program sounded like a good way to do this. At the same time none of us really had any idea what to expect or what our reactions would be. This was to be an adventure somewhat akin to starting boot camp or OCS in terms of the anticipation of both excitement and the unknown at the same time.
We were scheduled to spend three days “training” at Magic Mountain in preparation for the trip – what could that training possibly be? We just wanted to get to Viet Nam and work on whatever project they had for us. Scott made it clear that when a group of strangers agree to live together and embark on a trip with as many personal expectations as this, the group dynamics are very important and need to be formed and channeled. Otherwise experience indicated that the team could fall apart and the goals of both VVRP and the team members could be sacrificed. So the three days were spent living in close quarters and getting to know and understand one another by means of sharing life stories, experiences and expectations as well as determining individual responsibilities for the trip. The goal of the training was to prepare us for handling unforeseen reactions by team members to situations that might arise by giving us background information and a crash course in interpersonal relations. My skepticism quickly vanished as I think did that of the others, and the three days passed quickly in the idyllic setting of Betsy’s simple but magic place.
At that point we were really fired up for the trip and were comfortable with each other so when we were delivered to SFO for our flight we were functioning as a group and looking out for each other. Eighteen hours later, landing in Ha Noi was a strange experience. After all this was the “enemy” capital! After meeting with the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) we would spend four days in this area getting acclimated to the country, the hot and humid climate, the extremely friendly people, the delicious food and the customs before going down to Dong Ha and our project area. Ha Noi is a fascinating and lively city and as a city compresses a lot of the cultural experience. We came to Viet Nam with a purpose but we all welcomed the opportunity to savor the culture first, including day trips to Ha Long Bay and west to a village in search of a clinic we had heard about.
Upon arriving in Dong Ha we were delivered to the “Communist Party Guest House” as our hotel and it was probably the best one in this non-tourist town just south of the DMZ. One of our team members had been a pilot stationed here and remembered it in 1968 as having been obliterated – it is now a thriving city of 65,000. After meeting with the Provincial authorities (DOLISA) and presenting the funds for the project that had been raised by VVRP, the next five days were spent visiting ten single-family house projects. All were for disabled North Vietnamese Army veterans and their immediate and extended families. We had been under the impression that we would be doing a lot of physical labor and were mentally (if not physically!) prepared for that. What we did not understand was that there would be ten projects, all in different villages many miles apart, that we were pushing the monsoon season and that there was a regular crew at each project who would have to put up with eight foreigners coming to their site with good intentions but little knowledge and little ability to communicate. Needless to say it was probably frustrating for both parties but we pitched in and hauled rock or other materials wherever we could. We were provided with government-funded transportation for all of this and were always accompanied by at least one government official. Ultimately we were more ambassadors who showed a willingness to get our hands dirty and we were rewarded every day with a wonderful feast prepared by one of the families. The feast was put on by people who had almost nothing beyond the bare necessities of food and shelter but who were extraordinarily gracious and friendly and were genuinely happy to provide food for us and to converse and share experiences through the aid of our interpreter. Poignant moments occurred when our Army spotter pilot (who flew from Dong Ha) came face to face with a woman veteran who had been an anti-aircraft gunner in Dong Ha and again when we met a veteran’s 25 year old daughter who lost her leg to a landmine a few years ago while working in a rice field. It was one gut-wrenching situation after another but our richly shared experience with them was our reward for volunteering to go over and give something back.
Those five days were intense but not without opportunities to see significant sights in the area such as the Vinh Moc tunnels and the Quang Tri Citadel. Later we would go out Rte 9 to the Laotian border and see Khe San, Camp Carroll, the Rockpile, the Vietnamese National Cemetery and other significant military sites. And our pilot had an album of photographs of a number of these sites taken in 1968 and 1969 with verbal narrative to go with them. He was able to make the war history seem very real for those of us who had not been in that area.
With our VVRP mission completed, we agreed to go down to Hue as a group and after that go our separate ways for our personal reasons. The Citadel at Hue and the surrounding pagoda sites were worth every minute of our precious time and allowed us to split up on a high note. By then we all had enough experience being back in country to be completely comfortable on our own.
In summing up, we were a group of veteran strangers brought together by a common desire. We were generally proud of our individual performances during the war in that we did our jobs to the best of our ability. But in retrospect we were not so proud of why we were there in the first place. Through a three-day boot camp we were transformed into a group and prepared for an adventure wherein we were able to alleviate our angst by giving something back to the country to which we had caused so much harm. We were able to do this by coming face to face with our former enemy and being able to see them as people the same as us. In return the Vietnamese people treated us graciously and with respect and, not to be forgotten, wined and dined us royally every day we were at a project. All of us had been instruments of our governments and as such had to view each other as a faceless enemy. The nature of war is “kill or be killed”. I personally was fortunate to have been in Viet Nam very early in 1965 and did not have to try to overcome the terrible life-changing experiences of some of my compatriots.
For me the success of the trip can be measured in the expressions of one team member who had had nightmares for 35 years and now can sleep at night. Having given of himself, with support from his wife, to the people of Viet Nam (veterans, civilians and children alike) he was finally able to develop the courage to return to the place that was the source of his anguish and put the past behind him. Aside from the trip being fascinating in all respects, the healing part was made doubly so by that individual’s experience. That is what VVRP is all about at its best. As much as you can give, you may get even more in return. All you need is to have the desire and an open mind.
Gee Heckscher, 1st Lt. USMCR
1st Platoon, A Co, 3rd Engineer Battalion
3rd MEB, 3rd Mar Div
Da Nang, South Viet Nam – March, 1965
Reflecting on Returning to Viet Nam as a member of VVRP Team XVIII – Fred F Ptucha
I served two tours of duty during the Vietnam war as Lt. in the U.S. Navy. As an intelligence officer with Top Secret Crypto Clearance, I was privy to many of the “dirty secrets” of American policy and became increasingly convinced that the war was a terrible mistake and that we should never have been involved in Vietnam. I’ve carried a lingering sense of guilt about my participation in an unjust and immoral war since my return to civilian life in 1970, over 32 years ago.
The primary humanitarian aspect of Team 18′s work was to provide the money and some token/symbolic labor to build 12 houses for disabled Vietnamese veterans. The 12 veterans had all suffered major wounds such as loss of an arm, a leg, an eye, etc. In addition, their homes and sometimes their entire village had been destroyed by American forces during the war. They had all lost one or more close family member in the war such as a child, a wife, parents, brothers and sisters, etc. Three vets had also suffered wounds or had family members who had been wounded after the war was over by land mines America left behind.
Yet, despite this, we were treated as honored guests at each house site. After an opening ceremony and a small amount of physical work, they would have a big feast with the veteran’s extended family and leader of the village with many toasts of rice wine to “Peace and Friendship between the Vietnamese and American People.” I never felt any hatred, anger or resentment, from any of the Vietnamese people we met about the terrible destruction we caused to their country and to their individual families. They were unbelievably warm, forgiving and gracious hosts.
Suppose the situation was reversed and Vietnam had invaded America, bombed my city, destroyed my home, and killed some of my immediate family, and left me disabled. Then some Vietnamese Vet showed up some 30 years later and said, “We are going to pay for a new house and help you build it.” I wonder if I could be so forgiving and gracious. I doubt it.
Finally I realized that if these Vietnamese Veterans who had suffered so much could forgive me, then maybe it was OK for me to forgive myself. That release of guilt and forgiveness has been a wonderful gift. Now I can finally see Vietnam as a beautiful country with warm, gracious and forgiving people and not as a war.
October 23, 2002