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Veterans Return to Vietnam as Tourists

Many Say Visits Help Heal Memories of War

By Mike Philipps
Scripps Howard News Service

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- At first the Americans came to Vietnam in twos and threes, a handful at a time. More followed. Ten here, a dozen there. Today, hundreds of American veterans return every year to the country where they fought a generation ago.

Some bring old buddies they served with 30 years ago. Some bring their wives, in an effort to make them understand why this country had such an impact on them. Others bring their children.

But every one of them brings their memories.

"A lot of these guys have lost buddies,'' said Courtney Frobenius, a former infantry platoon leader who now operates Vietnam-Indochina Tours in Olympia, Wash., and often takes veterans back.

"They perceive this as a chance to go back to say good-bye. They all want to go to a particular place. They don't care about the cities and the culture, but want to go back to that piece of dirt.

"The preponderance of those going back are grunts,'' he said. "The guys pushing a rifle in the paddies or in the A Shau Valley.''

He sees more and more veterans going back every year, especially since 1994, when the United States lifted a 30-year embargo against trade with Vietnam.

Jerry Landman, who operates Nine Dragons Tours in Indianapolis, Ind., also has seen more interest among veterans.

"I have taken 100 since 1994,'' said Landman, who recently left his job as a professor at Ball State College in Muncie, Ind., to devote full time to his tour business.

"I have a three-week tour that covers everything,'' he said, "But the vets don't want to spend three weeks. They want to go where they were and they want to spend time there, even if there is not much there.''

Patrick Mooney, executive vice president of Military Historical Tours Inc. of Alexandria, Va., has been offering tours for groups of veterans for four years.

"We had two groups in 1996, four in 1997, eight in 1998 and a dozen last year and so far this year,'' he said.

The groups average about 30, but he has taken as many as 60.

Why do they go? The reasons vary, he said, but he finds some common themes: "Catharsis; a sense of closure,'' he said. "Some want to take family members back. The wife may have lived with this for 30 years and here it is.

"Reunions are popular,'' he said. "Groups from the same organization go back to commemorate a certain action or series of actions.

"A lot of vets are just curious,'' he said. "They want to see what it is like. When they last saw it, it was devastated and scarred so they want to see what 25 years of relative peace has brought.''

Although some veterans have misgivings about returning to Vietnam, they will be welcomed. In fact, the Vietnamese government has recognized that returning veterans contribute to their effort to boost tourism, promoting what they call "war seeing'' tours.

According to Vietnam tourism, the state-owned tour agency, the place most preferred by U.S. veterans is the Marine base at Khe Sanh, where U.S. Marines held off a series of determined assaults by North Vietnamese troops in 1968.

Veterans who have returned report they were welcomed warmly.

"The people are great,'' said Roscoe Cartwright, a former Army captain from New Richmond, Ohio, who fought near Da Nang and who returned there last year. "They welcome you. The soldiers welcome you. It is green and fresh and clean and totally different.''

Tom Brush, a former Cincinnati City Council Member, was a Marine Corps officer assigned as an adviser in 1961 and '62. He made a spur of the moment visit in 1993 as part of a trip to Sri Lanka.

"What I found was that these people had gotten on with their lives,'' Brush said. "They welcomed us with open arms. They couldn't have been friendlier.''

Last year, Tim Duffie of Fairfield, Ohio, returned to the hamlet of Phuoc My where he had been assigned to a Marine Combined Action Program squad in 1967 and '68, living and working with local residents and local troops.

"My reception was unbelievable,'' Duffie said. "I was an American and it was unbelievable that these people love us. We wonder why, but this has been a country that has been at war for 2,000 years. They don't hold grudges.

"We assume they would hate us because of the war,'' he said. "But many think you have fought in Vietnam for many honorable goals.''

He believes there may be more resentment in northern Vietnam, where America dropped hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs.

"I have been told you do get some hostility up north because of the bombing,'' he said.

Why did Duffie go back?

"The people,'' he said. "I did not go back because I fought a war there, but because I had friends there.''

The Combined Action Program was intended to counter guerrilla operations and help control the rural population by sharing the daily life and risks of the villagers while providing medical help, small-scale construction projects and other civic action programs.

"We were very close to the people,'' Duffie said. "I went back to visit friends. For six days I sat in Phuoc My hamlet. I spent a week in the village and ate only two meals in a restaurant.''

Cartwright wanted to return to fill in some blanks in his life.

"I blacked 90 percent of my tour out,'' he said. "I wanted some answers.''

He returned to the site of a 20-hour fight where he lost a third of his 120-man armored cavalry troop.

"I wanted to go back there and walk around in that village.''

He was surprised at how much the visit meant to him.

"I am not a big person for closure and all of that,'' he said. "But we could save a lot of money if we just sent guys back over there to get it out of their system.''

© 2000 Scripps Howard News Service.

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