My wife and I knew going to Vietnam and Cambodia would be a special trip.
It was memorable, comfortable but with some challenging jungle trails and temple climbing, a return to an unforgettable three-plus months there as an ABC News correspondent 40 years ago.
Obviously, my time covering the war was a blip compared to the heroics of those who fought the war and journalists who did longer tours of danger. I had virtually no impact on events there, then, but they had a major impact on me.
I wanted to go back and show Chris some of the places — some — from which I wrote her long, longing letters on my Olivetti portable typewriter.
We know Vietnam veterans and journalists here who have gone back, some who’d like to and others with zero interest.
“I’d would love to go, but it’s very expensive,” says Marco Island Police Chief Thom Carr, a Vietnam veteran. “While flying over the countryside we used to talk of coming back to see it after the conflict was over. It is a beautiful country and I assume the bomb craters would not show any longer.”
Vietnam is a beautiful, lush country with miles of beaches, mountain ranges and fertile rice fields. But many bomb craters still are visible. The communist government sees to that, never missing a chance to focus on America’s “aggression.”
Marco Islander Tony Gentile was drafted in 1964 and served for a year as an Army medic in Vietnam’s central highlands.
“We got so many injured troops, mostly Marines and Special Forces,” Gentile recalls. “We didn’t have much contact with the Vietnamese people, but I felt really sorry for them. They had nothing. They’d come by the mess tent and we’d save scraps for them.
“I have no desire to go back. They offered me a promotion and a good assignment after Vietnam if I would resign, but I said no. I wanted to go home.”
Dentist Bob McArdle of Marco Island had 36 years in military service, including two combat tours in Asia — more than 1,000 combat hours of reconnaissance and electronic missions over Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
“I’d be happy to go back to Thailand and Laos but I have no desire to go back to Vietnam, especially how things turned out,” McArdle said. “The (South) Vietnamese Air Force would only fly if it was clear and a million miles visibility. We were going up and beating our brains out through monsoons, thunderstorms. It was a whole different tenor. They were in constant chaos.
“I am looking at it through my own small microcosm. I’m sure there were many, many fine Vietnamese folks fighting along side us, but I have a lot of reasons, good buddies that didn’t come back who went through flight school with me, and so from that standpoint I have no desire to go back to Vietnam.”
Another Vietnam vet was so traumatized that when he came home and moved into a house with a lot of ferns in the yard, he attached chains to his riding lawn mower and yanked the ferns out of the ground. Said a friend, “He won’t even eat rice.”
Next week, more area Vietnam veterans ponder a return and a look at ways to visit that complicated communist country.
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Don Farmer is a former ABC News correspondent and bureau chief and CNN news anchor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.