Richard P. Hyland, Vietnam veteran
Houston, TX, USA
Vietnam Revisited: 1969-1999 [excerpt from a journal, 24 April - 11 May 1999]
30 April 99, Xuan Loc, South Vietnam. The road into Xuan Loc from the south is narrow and crowded with oxcarts, water buffalo and small boys herding them, young people on motor scooters. We are in a new Toyota SUV. The horn is constant; space is narrow. We pass within inches of the scooters, wheel rims, tossing horns of the water buffalo who are irritated, as am I, at the dissonant honking of the cars and scooters.
Teeming, shabby shops are strung out in rugged array along the road-- a shantytown more than a city. Xuan Loc is larger than I remember and as nondescript. Then it was a typical military town teeming with soldiers, trucks, weapons. Now, it is a typical provincial capital teeming with poor peasants, produce, scooters. Nothing looks familiar...but then, how could it. My life was lived in compounds, not neighborhoods; outposts, not towns.
We stop for lunch and my North Vietnamese friend asks around to see if anyone remembers where the ARVN division compounds were; difficult in a country where 50 percent of the people are under 30. My stomach is turning; my mind spinning. Where am I? Everything is so ordinary, so routine. We drive by an intersection of two main roads enclosing a marketplace. This was where one compound --perhaps mine?-- was located, folks say. Nothing remains. Not a scrap.
My past is gone here. I cannot reconstruct it, touch it, feel it. But how can this be possible? So much happened here: to friends, to the people I worked with-- parents of the youth careening around on their scooter-- and to me. To me. Can I find the man who served here day after day, week after week; the fears, briefings, midnight firefly missions, B-52 arclight missions, 8-inch gun serenades, dawn perimeter walks with a .45 strapped to my side? The monotony, the mud, the dust --red dust-- the order of battle analyses, questionable intelligence sources, flimsy certainties, reluctant ARVN, drumbeat of demands for body count, briefings to commanders who weren't sure of what they commanded in a war that grew more perplexing, more frustrating, by the month. A war where there were more beer trucks than tanks and where logistical support took on a whole new meaning played out in Japanese electronics in every hootch, abundant beer and air conditioning and American food.
We didn't live Vietnam, eat Vietnam. We were stationed in Vietnam. We didn't see Vietnam --really see Vietnam. We saw the U.S. in Vietnam --from the semi's hauling along the road out of Long Binh/Bien Hoa, to the UH-1 "Huey" helicopters chopping the air over our heads. We saw Vietnamese in U.S.-made uniforms, weighed down by U.S. equipment, fighting a war defined by the U.S., with a strategy and tactics fashioned by the U.S. Everything was out of place, wrong. We were out of touch with the land, the people, the culture, the history. We had created an American presence in an Asian land, guided by American, not Vietnamese, objectives. We played out our hopes and dreams, not those of the Vietnamese. We played out --superimposed-- our history, not that of Southeast Asia. Our only connection was war, and the incredible violence it brought to this land.
So what was I searching for that hot afternoon in Xuan Loc? Something solid, something real, something connected? Yes, because I was disconnected and had been for 30 years; disconnected from my life and dreams before the war and my life following the war. Something came undone here, broke here, and I needed to find it. But it wasn't there, at least not physically. How could it be? Our entire presence was disconnected from Vietnamese reality, except the destruction and the blood. I was looking for a phantom reality that had evaporated as if it had never existed.
We finally drove back to the main square of Xuan Loc where an NVA tank sits prominently. We stopped, my friend solicitous, watching me intently, aware of the turmoil. Hidden by overgrown shrubs off the square was a memorial; simple, crumbling. It was a memorial commemorating the Final Offensive in 1975 and the battle at Xuan Loc that was its climax. I approached it, walked around it and finally had to ask my friend to leave. Tears welled up; my throat got tight. This was where some of the people I knew --ARVN-- died or were captured. This was where everything I had known in Vietnam --the America in Vietnam-- had been obliterated. I cried for them and for the part of me that had been here 30 years ago. And then...it was over. Over. I took some soil from this place to remember this moment when I could finally bury the ghosts.
I then walked back to the car to find my friend waiting for me, understanding and concerned. I walked back to the car and into the Vietnam of today, not the Vietnam of the past that I had been living with for these 30 years. And we smiled.