Thirty-three years after their first time there, a group of Vietnam veterans goes back to the old Area of Operations.
The first time we went, it was with the 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry as the unit deployed from Fort Hood, Texas and traveled by ship to Vietnam in the fall of 1967. This time, we gathered at San Francisco Airport late the night of 19 October 2001. The traveling party included myself, a former company commander, now retired, and fifteen others. We had a medic who went on to a career as a firefighter and is now a trucker; a rifleman who is now Facilities Engineer in a Zirconium metal plant; another medic who is a newspaperman; a platoon sergeant - now a home inspector; a platoon leader - now retired; a radio operator who just retired from the postal service; an old "deuce and a half" driver who is now a specialist in digital enhancement in the film production industry; another squad leader - now retired and a frequent participant in the annual Veteran's motorcycle rally known as "Rolling Thunder"; and another squad leader who farms in Minnesota. Also on board were four of our wives and our travel agent - a former Artillery forward Observer. Lastly, we had a Master's Degree student in graphic arts (too young to be a Vietnam Vet), who is doing a documentary around the trip.
The anxiety level when we came together at San Francisco International was noticeable, and it had little to do with apprehension about flying after 11 September. More likely, each veteran was pondering how he was to react when he soon revisited significant places he had not seen in over three decades. Each of us was different, but all harbored some painful memories of our time in that country, and nobody knew for sure how he would react to the shock of being again at locations where so many nightmares got their start. Many of us were motivated to make the trip in order to pay tribute to those we had left behind half a lifetime ago.
One effect of the terrorist attacks was the powerful reawakening of patriotism and enthusiastic support for the military that our population was experiencing. Each of us applauded this surge of public sentiment, but wished fervently that our countrymen had demonstrated just a tiny part of that during the sixties.
The trip to Saigon - Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called - was long and tiring. We boarded a plane in the middle of a cold misty San Francisco night, and landed a day later stiff and groggy at Tan Son Nhut airport in blinding sunshine. During the long taxi to the terminal the plane passed an endless row of concrete revetments, bunkers, which protected our US fighter aircraft thirty years ago. Seeing those vestiges of the war was the first wake-up call to a vast storehouse of memories for each of us.
The steam room heat had us soaked with sweat even before we started loading our baggage onto the carts for customs. One by one, we cleared the inspectors in their NVA-looking uniforms and on exiting the main building we clustered under a large awning to wait for the others. Just beyond were crowd-control barriers restraining a mob of relatives of passengers, taxi drivers and sign-waving travel agents searching for their clients. As our eyes adjusted to the glare, each of us in turn was delighted to spot in the second tier of that mob, three smiling young women in flowing ao-dais holding up signs that read: "Welcome, 1st Battalion, 50th Inf", "Play the Game, ICHIBAN" (our unit's motto), and "Peace Patrols". Artillery Observer/Tour guide Dave Gallo had clearly done his job well, and we all got a great lift from that touch. Before long we breathed easier as the air-conditioned bus took us to the Rex Hotel. This was a place none of us ever got to, but we all knew it had been a favorite hangout of news people during the war thirty years ago.
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