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My dad on the right

The Vietnam War. It started in 1954 (some say 1959), before I was born, and ended 5 American Presidents later. It was a war that raised nagging questions for me personally and for the nation in general. For what reason did this all begin and WHY?

To help answer some of these questions, I can’t  write this any better than these guys from “Schmoop Beta” (an educational resource site for teachers):

“The Vietnam War—commonly referred to as America’s Longest War—grew out of the American commitment to the containment of communism during the Cold War. For approximately fifteen years, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) fought against an American-supported Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The war for the U.S. ended in 1973 [others date it at April 30th, 1975] with the withdrawal of American combat troops, and two years later, South Vietnamese forces surrendered to the North.

With the unification of Vietnam under the Communist government of the North, the U.S. had officially failed to achieve its objectives. A nation accustomed to grand victories suffered its first major defeat; the “longest war” was a military, political, and social disaster, one that would haunt Americans for decades.”

The line in DC when family visited the Vietnam Memorial

This past week, I spent my time learning more about the Vietnam war and how it affected my family personally.  I was 10 years old towards the end of the war. I cannot remember the collective sentiment surrounding this emotional and highly debatable war. I remember how I felt  when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred and September 11, when the New York City Twin Towers fell. The Vietnam War was simply further removed from me by time and experience.

When I began to write about Viet food and culture, I knew that one blog deserved a mention about the Vietnam War. So I phoned my dad.

At the young age of 19, my dad  joined the naval reserves in order to support an equally young family. After hearing him tell his story, which he has never shared before, I am quite surprised that he survived. To be honest, I am far removed from the realities of war. I do not come from a military career family; I am pretty much a pacifist when it comes to any war; I have my opinions about war, like most people, but when asked, I rarely get emotionally tied to conversations about it. I do not personally know anyone who has been killed in action.  To hear this for the first time, was quite surreal.

In the early 60’s my dad left the port from San Diego, California.  My mom, his young bride,  was given the term “West Coast Widow”  – a term referring to women whose husbands left from the port in San Diego, Calif. to join forces in Vietnam, – sort of eerie to hear that then and now. I can only imagine what that might have felt like. According to my father, it took 30 days to get to Vietnam on the ship. On the way, they stopped in Hawaii to pick up some Marines who were also being shipped out. For a whole month, a long sea journey without stops, he bonded with marines and other naval reservists.  At night they talked a lot about the communists in Northern Vietnam and the reasons why this war was happening. My dad said he was struggling to figure it out himself.

My dad served two tours of duty. In his first tour, he was the ship’s store keeper where he sold candies, managed the vending machines, and ordered food. In the second tour of duty, my father was a gun battle captain. In that particular role, he had to man the gun battle station of 40 millimeter cannons. He recounted the story by saying that often the soldiers would be going down the Saigon River watching out for snipers,securing the rivers and canals and weeding out any enemies and traps that might have awaited the naval ships. It was like patrolling the river in a boat. My dad said it was pretty tough to tell what was off the Saigon river due to the denseness of the jungle.

Me:  “Dad, were you scared at any point while you were in Vietnam?”

Dad:  “Yes, when we arrived in Vietnam, we lowered the plank to let the marines that we were with on the ship out, and that was when gunfire from the jungles erupted in our direction. I fell to ground and crawled my way to the back of the boat. I later learned that some of the guys I bonded with died. That was probably the most scared I had been.”

Me:  “What happened when you arrived back to the U.S.?”

Dad:  “When I arrived home, I was spat upon and I felt despised. Many people had reservations about why we were there in the first place. Some felt like it was a pointless war believing that the soldiers died for no reason.”

My godson visiting Vietnam Memorial with us

Me:  “Anything else?”

Dad:  “Yes, you were just a newborn when I left and when I returned, you did not know me, that was very hard. I was like a stranger to you.”

I’ve had a couple of days to think about the Vietnam war.  My dad and others who were in Vietnam got the whole agent orange thing (the herbicide that was sprayed everywhere in Vietnam to reduce the dense jungle foliage). Not only have the Vietnamese suffered, (some estimates have said that it was used for 9 years) but agent orange has been linked to my dad’s diabetes.

This week marks the anniversary of the ending of the Vietnam war. In honor of my dad and all vets, my family and I visited our local Vietnam memorial, to pay respects for so many lives lost. As of 1997, over 58000 soldiers have died in the Vietnam war. I may have not answered the tough questions for myself or for the nation, but then again that’s okay.  Sometimes all it takes is to  listen to someone’s story.

Today, my dad is alive and for that, I am thankful to hear his story.

Thanks Dad, I love you.

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