I met Peter at one of Vietnam’s busy marketplaces. He asked me why I was in his country. I told him all about Sons And Daughters in Touch and our historic return to the battlefields where our fathers were slain.
“I am like you,” he said.
“In what way?” I asked.
“My father, too, was killed during the American War,” he said. “He was an ARVN soldier.”
I invited Peter to drop by my hotel room after dinner for a visit. When he arrived, he pointed out the rules posted near the phone: “No guests allowed in hotel rooms.”
Another sign that Big Brother is watching, Peter said. His almond-shaped eyes lit up as he laughed.
Peter wore a short-sleeved cotton shirt and black pants. His dark hair was cropped close on the sides, longer on top. His laugh was a deep bellow, something you’d expect from a much bigger man. Delicate of frame, he weighed about 135 pounds and is only about five foot eight inches tall. But his spirit was overpowering; it filled the room.
He wanted to share his story of growing up fatherless in Vietnam. I admired his bravery; this one indulgence could have landed him in jail and gotten me a swift boot home, or worse.
The youngest of seven children, Peter was three years old when his father was slain. An ARVN lieutenant, he was killed at Quang Tri in 1972, during what the Vietnamese refer to as the Summer of the Red Fire. “There was very terrible fighting there for three months between the North and South Vietnamese,” Peter said. “Only you can guess the South was naturally all blown away.”
Peter’s last memory with his father was a surprise trip to Quang Tri. “I remember it was two weeks before he died,” Peter said. “He took me and an older brother in a jeep to his base camp. It was the first and only time. We were very excited. He took us to a munitions-storage room. He let us play with the ammunition. I don’t know why. There was guns, bullets, everything.”
A short time later, when Peter’s mother heard her husband had died, she took her older sons and went in search of the body. But the North Vietnamese had piled the dead ARVN in heaps alongside the roads in Quang Tri, Peter explained. “It was impossible for my mother to find him.”
So she returned to their home in Hue without a body to bury. She wasn’t the only distraught widow in the neighborhood to do so. “In my village between 1972 through 1975, I could say everyone’s house lost someone,” Peter said. “There were so many.”
After the Summer of the Red Fire, Peter and his family had to flee Hue when the North Vietnamese drove them out. Peter remembers his mother handing him a basket of household items and telling him to run quickly for his life. “She tells me, ‘Run. Be safe. Run to Da Nang,’” Peter recalled.
Throngs of people were fleeing the city. Along with dozens of refugees, Peter and his family climbed into a military van. There were forty people crammed one on top of the other when the rig rolled on a S-curve at the top of Cloudy Mountain and down a steep ravine. Peter and his family escaped mostly unharmed, save the bruises. Sixteen others died in the crash.
For a while Peter was forced to head into the jungles to find work. That was the worse time, he said. I asked him to write down the story, as he told it to me that night. Here is what he wrote:
After finishing my high school, being unable to go to university, to find any job, I had to go to the jungle to work as a gold prospector to earn my life and to support my mom. So many dangers in the jungle: dangerous animals such as tigers, leopards; high and slippery mountain sides; tunnel collapse, disease such as malaria, yellow fever and so on. Many young men died there forever. There were so many threats that it’s necessary to go in a group. Truong Son range lies along the western side of Vietnam, so we just headed west, sometimes from our hometown, sometimes from the DMZ or further north. The first time I did it I was nearly 18 and I worked that field for a year, each journey lasted around one month.
I witnessed so many broken-heart stories there and I can never forget. But the death of my friend who I tried to save his life has been haunting me all the time. I don’t remember how long he had fell sick of malaria until I tried to bring him out of the jungle, but I’m sure we had been in the jungle rather long, everybody got exhausted. I was the youngest and strongest (!) that time, so it’s only me who could take care of him. The journey from the town (about 20-30 km north of DMZ) to the place we worked took us over two days. Of course, it took me more with him on my shoulder. We had to cross over streams, mountains . . . and he seemed to be heavier, hour by hour.
After one and a half days I could not stand anymore. I laid him down on a top of a small hill, asking him not to move anywhere and trying to find someone else to help. I finally found a tribal village and some tribesmen followed me immediately. It was about 9 A.M. when I left him, and I could get there around 4 or 5 P.M. It was too long with him, I knew, but much, much longer with me. We soon found the hill where I laid him, but found nothing. We spread over the area and finally found him dead by a stream (around 200 yards away) with his head in the water. He was so thirsty with the fever I knew, but I wondered if he got some water before he died or still being thirsty . . . I felt like something inside me broke, and it’s still hurting me now when I am typing these lines. But you know, it’s not the hardest thing I suffered. I only faced with the worst thing when I brought his corpse to his mother. I didn’t know how and what to tell her . . . Sorry Karen, I cannot go on.
Many American soldiers wanted to marry Peter’s mother, to take her to the land of the brave and the free. “She was young, thirty-five,” Peter said. And very beautiful. Americans liked her.” But she was not interested in moving to America, with any of the strong soldiers who offered to take care of her and her children.
One day the provincial police came into Peter’s home. When they saw the altar, they became enraged and they screamed at his mother. “Who is this enemy soldier?” Peter recalled them demanding. “Why you hang this enemy above Ho Chi Minh?”
Peter’s brothers told the soldiers, “This is our father.”
The soldiers yelled back, “I don’t care he’s your father! He’s an enemy! Throw him away!”
So Peter’s mother took their father’s picture down. Along with that of Ho Chi Minh, he noted with a chuckle. She threw the picture of Ho Chi Minh away. But she hid his father’s picture.
I asked Peter if he blames Americans for his father’s death, the way I had blamed the Vietnamese for the loss of my father.
No, he said. He blames the Communists. They mistreated so many after the Americans left Saigon in 1975. Those who served with the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam were considered traitors. Their families were despised by the North Vietnamese.
“In spite of what people think of me and of my family – that we are losers, traitors – I’m proud of my father,” he said.
Peter appreciated the Americans and the Vietnamese who fought to free his country from oppressive rule. His father’s death strengthened his desire to be a free man himself.
Three times Peter tried to find passage to America. The first time was in 1990, when he bribed his way aboard a boat, but after a week drifting about the South China Sea, a fierce storm arose and tossed the boat back to Vietnamese shores. Peter was devastated.
In 1992 Peter tried again to escape his motherland.
“I was working as a carpenter,’” he said. “I paid for a place on the boat to escape. But I missed the boat.”
Perhaps it was God’s way of watching over him. “Everybody on the boat was killed.”
No matter how hard I tried, I could not imagine wanting to live in another country so badly that I would be willing to risk life, limb, and livelihood for the chance the way Peter and thousands of other Vietnamese had done.
As a small child, with a basket full of family treasures clutched to his chest, Peter had fled his hometown of Hue while North Vietnamese dropped fiery bombs in the streets. As a teen, he had worked in malaria-infested jungles to help support his war-ragged family. As a young adult, he had risked his life in an ill-equipped boat for passage to America. Peter had suffered so much for freedom’s sake. Not only had he lost his father, this courageous young man was willing to lose his own life for a chance to live as a free man. Peter said we should both be proud of our fathers – they had died fighting so all Vietnamese people could live in a nation free from oppression.
Sitting there in that hotel room, listening to Peter’s stories, I was overcome with grief. Not just grief over the loss of our childhoods and the continual absence of our fathers, but for all the suffering his family and thousands of other Vietnamese families had endured. I knew losing Daddy would’ve been easier emotionally for me if such a sacrifice had ensured a life of freedom for men like Peter.
Of course not. If anything, the suffering of Peter’s family and yes, the suffering my family endured are greater because our fathers did not been succeed in their mission. Peter grew up fearing a retaliatory Communist regime. I grew up fearing men and ghosts I could not name. In those terrifying moments, we both wanted the same thing – our fathers to rescue us from war’s poverty and pain.
We’d grown up halfway across the world from each other but under the same cloud of confusion. The North Vietnamese had labeled all the ARVN soldiers traitors. American antiwar protestors berated Vietnam veterans as murderers. In both instances, fathers like ours were spit upon and cursed. And as kids, we’d grown up in societies that didn’t allow us to talk about our fears or our fathers. That silence had stewed for a long time. I asked Peter to explain how he’d reached a peace about his father’s death:
The “sorrow of war’” is what I have wanted to share with you personally, and all Americans commonly. You are right when believing that Vietnamese seem to be “happier.” Some things seem to be forgotten so quickly by Vietnamese. In fact, as you know, suffering from fighting, starving and losing someone’s dear would never be easy for everyone. But, historically, wars took place in Vietnam so many times that we say “1.000 years of Chinese domination, 100 years of French domination and 20 years of civil war” and that people think of Vietnam as a war not a country!
It seems that we did not have any time to recover, to build our country and, bitterly, we did not have enough tears for the dead. Take my mom as an example, when my father died, undoubtedly, she cried so many tears, but I’m sure it didn’t last long. She must not have wanted to live anymore, but she couldn’t do it. He went away and left behind him 7 kids. Who would look after them if not her? Working hard to raise all her children has helped her to forget everything. No time for her to think of the reason why he died, who killed him. Now all she could do was to save all her energy to support the children. Time passed by and one day she’s suddenly found her kids grow well and they love each other and love her. She would sometimes cry only happy tears when looking back and feel pleased with somethings she had done for her kids, and thinking she’s just completed a great mission that her passed-away husband gave to her.
Moreover, it’s Vietnamese nature to forgive and forget. On the battlefields we fought the enemy bravely, we were willing to sacrifice ourselves to protect our country. But if the day after they came back not in military uniform we would take them as friends. We could only survive by doing that. We could never live with the pains and hatreds inside. Yes, Vietnamese are very religious. Catholicism has taught us to forget and Buddhism (has taught us) to set our minds free from the hatred, the greed. Life and others could only be seen beautiful and nice with a peaceful mind.
Instead of living with the bad memories of the past, we should look forward to live a better life, to treat each other well and everything would be very easy with love and peace in our heart.
Peter gave me the precious gift of grace that night when he taught me why our fathers had risked and, indeed, given, their lives. It was so that men like Peter might one day live in a free country, one that promises its people economic opportunity and the freedom to hang their dead father’s picture wherever they like, a nation that grants people the freedom to invite whomever they wish into their homes or hotel rooms, and to use their given names without fear of retribution. The freedom to read a book of their own choosing, or to worship in a church of their choice. The sort of freedoms I’ve enjoyed every single day of my life and taken for granted for far too many of them.
I wished somebody had explained all this to me when I was a young girl.
Peter had his own wish: “Why could I not have met you 10 years ago?”
The last time Peter tried to flee Vietnam was in 1995.
“I bought two sets of bones of American soldiers,” he said. “One set had 30 percent of the body. The other had 90 percent. They had the dog tags with them. We made a photograph of the dog tags and we sent them to Thailand to be examined. We thought with these bones we could get permission to go to America.”
He said the bones were certified to be those of American soldiers, enabling him to broker a deal. “American officials said they would get me out if I would show them where the bones were found,” he said.
But the deal was spoiled by a raid from the provincal police, who confiscated the bones.
“The Vietnamese government wanted to return the soldiers bones but by themselves, not through the Vietnamese people,” Peter said. “A fleet of police cars surrounded our home and took the American bones away. The Vietnamese government took credit for returning them.”
He was not penalized by the police for hoarding the bones. “No. No punishment. That’s a good thing,” he said, chuckling. And now, Peter says, it’s too late to leave. “I don’t want to leave my mother. You know we have a saying in Vietnam, ‘A mother can raise ten children but ten children cannot care for one mother.’ Sometimes my older brothers are a little bit careless. Our mother is ill and they don’t check on her. I feel I must stay. I have obligations to my mother.”
Then, Peter told me about the towering statue in the center of Da Nang. As tall as a three-story building, the carved statue is a woman donned in traditional Vietnamese peasant garb. She stands with her right arm outstretched and her left hand over her breast, near her heart. She carries several bags, perhaps the sum total of her family’s possessions. Her face is stoic, resigned to fate. She looks strong, powerful, but there’s a tenderness around her eyes. As if they have seen the future and fear its sorrows. “This is Hero Mother,” Peter said.
She represents the women who grieved the loss of their sons, their brothers, their husbands in the American War in Vietnam. “One by one, these mothers saw their husbands and kids off to battles and never met them again,” Peter said. Just as his mother had done.
“Some mothers lost seven sons or more. Men died for the country. They are actual heroes. But it’s the mothers, the wives, who suffered at home, who are the real heroes That is what I think.”
The North Vietnamese built this memorial to honor all Hero Mothers who lost so much during the war. Peter said the Vietnamese people try to find other ways to honor these women as well. “We build them houses, give them money and gifts very often.”
Peter recalled that when he was attending university he worked part-time in a hotel that was caring for a hero mother. He and his coworkers would often ask her to tell the story of her sons.
“She told us, ‘I lost seven men of mine, my husband and six sons. My husband and the first son left for the battle almost at the same time in the early 1960s. I sometimes received their letters that first year, rather late, three or four months after the sending day. Then the letters were less and less.
“‘I also sent them some, but they could not receive any, I guess, because they moved very often. I received the bad news from my husband’s unit first and then the son’s. In the same month. Bitterly, their letters still came when they had been dead. My other sons gradually went and never came back. I was waiting for them, at least one of them, coming back to me the next few years after the war, but then no one.”
Peter and his coworkers were always surprised whenever they heard this hero mother’s tale.“She told her story in a very calm tone of voice,” Peter said. “No tears. No emotion. Not at all. Why?”
But having witnessed his own mother’s grief, Peter knew the answer. “She had cried so much tears when receiving the bad news, when unhopefully waiting for someone to come back, there is no more tears to cry now,” he said. “That is what I think.”
# # #
The pain of war does not end when the bombing stops. Despite the decades that have passed, many of my fellow SDIT friends are still waiting for their father’s remains to be returned home for burial. There are over 1,800 American soldiers still missing in action in Vietnam, Cambodia and Loas.There is no getting over the Vietnam War for those families. Not for any of us, really. The Vietnam War, as all wars do, forever altered the landscape of our nation, and our families, causing us to fight through some tough terrain.
I have come to terms with a harsh history, as a daughter and as a citizen of a free nation. I don’t miss my father any less with each passing year. I am simply more aware of all the life he’s missed. I did not go to Vietnam seeking closure. Grief is a journey with a beginning, but it does not have an end, not in this life anyway. But my trip helped me realize that Vietnam isn’t the scary jungle I’d always imagined it to be.
“For the first time in my thirty-seven years of life, I believe I will think of the country first, not the war, when I hear the word Vietnam,” Cammie said during our long flight home.
Moments before we’d boarded a plane in Singapore, bound for Los Angeles, our group gathered around big-creen televisions and listened as President Bush announced that American troops would soon invade Iraq. My heart sank into my gut. I said a prayer for the families that would soon be thrust into an inevitable lifelong journey of grief and reconciliation.
An excerpt from After the Flag has been Folded (formerly Hero Mama.)