Vietnam Stories: Bridging the gap between two Vietnams

For the Monitor
Sunday, October 01, 2017

I arrived in Saigon one week before my 13th birthday, in November 1956.

My father, a medical doctor and public health worker, had chosen to take advantage of an offer for a two year “adventure” halfway around the world from our home in Maine.

We were a family of seven, five children and Mom and Dad. He ended up staying in country for seven years. I stayed with the family for the first two-and-a-half years and returned when I graduated from high school for the summer of 1962.

The French were still leaving the country that first year. Street names changed from French to Vietnamese. What we did not know was that the North Vietnamese were moving in as the French moved out. They were under the ground digging their way to occupation and unification of their divided country.

The United States Information Service Library, which was right down the street from our house, was bombed within three months of our arrival, revealing the presence of MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group). The U.S. was already in country training and assisting the South Vietnamese troops.

Our new home was a thrilling place to live, however.

We drove all over the country and to Cambodia. We took holidays on the beaches and in the mountains. Saigon was a vibrant and lovely city for the small cadre of American teenagers. And we made many Vietnamese friends.

People loved our large family. We were big and there were lots of us.

We had household help who adopted us as we did them. My younger siblings learned Vietnamese and the rest of us absorbed French, which was still spoken by many.

Gradually the reality of the war consumed us.

When I returned in the summer of 1962, we could not travel out of the city. You could hear the war, especially at night. We were tense, frightened and restricted.

My father was determined to save the people and the territory of this beautiful country. He told my brothers that they must go if drafted. They did not go.

Living back in the U.S. we children opposed the war but also were very conflicted about our loyalty to the people and places we knew.

I married, moved to New Hampshire and had a family. The war ended badly for all.

One of my brothers adopted two girls in the 1980s when Vietnam began to open up for adoption again. My life of long ago seemed far away and almost forgotten.

I had learned not to talk of our long ago home to friends and neighbors. It was too complicated and too painful. No one I met had a similar relationship to this country.

Then Richard, a new neighbor, came to visit one day. He stopped and confronted me when he saw a Vietnamese peasant hat on my wall.

“Where did you get that?” he practically shouted.

I quickly explained and thus began a long and emotional exchange of our experiences in Vietnam.

He served in the infantry, joining at 19 in 1968. He spent one whole year being hunted by people wearing that same hat.

He said he knew after two weeks that this was a terrible war not to be won. He was the only survivor in his unit.

He encountered Agent Orange and is being treated for PTSD and diabetes.

We have become close and special friends. I have read his journals with a mix of terror and sadness. He has made me understand what it feels like to be hunted by the enemy every day. I have given him a gentler view of the Vietnamese people. He has met my Vietnamese nieces and embraced them. The effects of this war are deep, painful, confusing and so sad. They linger just as Agent Orange still pollutes the rivers and affects the unborn.

Thank you, Richard, for your generosity and openness. May we continue to build a relationship and an understanding of the other. May your anger ease. May my sense of loss be lessened.

As for the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, Richard says, “Why would I watch it? I lived it.”

(Susan Koerber lives in Dunbarton.)