Veterans Of All Eras And Ages Share Need For A Lasting Personal Peace

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Charitable Words Founder and Editor Tom Callinan recently returned to Vietnam, where he served in 1969-70. The story of his journey was published in The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Memorial Day edition, published below. This is the back story of his decision to return, and why “Service to Those Who Served” is one of Charitable Words’ primary areas of focus.

Meeting with The Wounded Warriors 

My decision to return to the Vietnam, after 45 years, was made in 45 minutes I spent with veterans of different wars and a different time.

I was invited by Randy Plunkett, director of Education Initiatives for The Wounded Warrior Project, to a dinner at The Marriott Hotel in Phoenix.  It was a dinner for veterans interested in its Pathfinder program, which provides services in the areas of education, employment and mentoring. A related program, Project Odyssey, sets up therapeutic outdoors retreats including water sports, rock climbing and ropes courses to help wounded veterans on their road to recovery.

I was there, not necessarily as a veteran, but representing Charitable Words Scholars, which connects students with nonprofits in internships and special project assignments. One of Charitable Words’ focus areas is “Service to Those Who Served,” which strives to match student veterans and organizations serving the needs of veterans of all eras.  Work Charitable Words has done with People Working Cooperatively’s “Ramp it Up for Veterans” caught Randy’s attention  and I was there to explore opportunities for partnerships and collaborations.

Video: Charitable Words Scholar Tyler Bell’s story about Anna Fields, a 98-year-old World War II combat nurse who was helped remain in her home thanks to PWC’s home repair program.  Tyler, a University of Cincinnati student, served as a Marine in Iraq.

I was there looking to the future, not to dwell on the past.

When I arrived, there were about 30 young men and women seated at tables in a hotel meeting room. I looked around. I had seen a handicapped license plate in the parking lot. But I saw no wheelchairs, missing limbs or visible injuries. I’d seen stories about The Wounded Warriors – an amputee football team, tri-athletes, incline bicycle racers and courageous first steps in rehabilitation clinics. Those are the heroic stories that make the news.

As I sat down next to Randy, I asked him, “Is this an ROTC class or something?” Thinking he may have invited students from a local high school to the dinner. “Where are they from?”

“Iraq, mostly, and Afghanistan,” he said. “Most are veterans and there are a few caregivers here, too.”

It stopped my breath.

“But they are just kids. Boys and girls.”

At the table, Aaron Miranda, a fresh-faced but war-seasoned veteran of Iraq, asked me to speak into his left ear, the one that worked. Another veteran mentioned he wanted to join one of the Project Odyssey outdoors adventures, but “not in cold climates, because of my injuries.”

I did not see any severely wounded vets there, unless their injuries were below the tables. Percentage-wise, these wars are on the side of survival with advanced front-line medical care compared to Vietnam. But it also means that in addition to more than 6,500 war dead from the decade-long wars, 50,000 of the wounded incurred injuries they would not have survived in a different time.

The stories that make the news don’t always tell the full story about wars, The numbers don’t always show the hidden wounds.

We talked about that. Plunkett estimated that 300,000 to 400,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans live with the invisible wounds of war – depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  As many as 320,000 are believed to have suffered a traumatic brain injury while deployed. Veteran suicide rates are an epidemic – 22 a day, according to Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, who has introduced legislation to provide alternative treatments and additional veteran service centers around the nation.

I wondered what was going on in the minds of these Wounded Warriors — what they had seen, what it had done to them, what their lives would be like, now that the welcome homes had subsided and the adrenaline ebbed.  They were here to pursue education, find jobs, return to a normal life as best they could.

I hoped these Wounded Warriors would find all that, and more.

As the meeting broke up, one of the veterans – a young woman – came up to me and asked a few questions about Charitable Words Scholars.  And then, she said to me, a veteran brother to her:

“Thank you for your service in Vietnam.”

It was a profound moment, a moving evening.

This was not just about education and jobs. They were there to rekindle a feeling of esprit de corps with other veterans. They needed one another. And they welcomed me, warmly, to their family.

I decided, that night, to go back.

Please help a student veteran help other veterans of all eras and ages.

Please contact Charitable Words if you know of student veterans who might be interested in working in the area of ‘Service to Those Who Served.’ Charitable Words also supports a scholarship fund for veterans at San Diego State University and is working with several organizations, such as The Wounded Warrior Project, to help returning veterans with education and job placement.

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Essay in The Cincinnati Enquirer,  Memorial Day 2014

By Tom Callinan

The Mekong River is at peace.

I needed to know that. I needed to see it.

photo (9)It’s been 45 years since I was last there. Vietnam, 1969. The world was a different place. And I did not think deeply about things.

I was just a boy.

I have not thought much about The Mekong since. When I returned from Vietnam in the spring of 1970, there were no yellow ribbons and banners at the airport. No TV crews waiting. Vietnam veterans came home alone, in civilian clothes and blended back into the lives they had left behind. Headlines were of a nation’s anger over unjust war. There were Four Dead in Ohio.

I moved on with life. So did the people of The Mekong. I forgot about them, at least tried.

I don’t feel the experience had any deep or lasting effects on me. I would not dishonor the true sacrifices made by many with complaints. In general, it was a positive experience, allowing me the G.I. Bill to afford college as a first-generation graduate born of a blue-collar family educated well in faith, love and hard work but not privileged with a legacy of advanced degrees.

Vietnam was put away for a long time. There are a few ribbons on a shelf in our den. I have a ragged beret, a couple of military unit patches and a few photos that we drag out when a Vietnam comrade from Wisconsin stops by down I-75 to winter in Florida. But I never really got into the veteran thing. I’m proud to be a veteran. But it has not defined me.

I do have profound respect for the valor of veterans of all eras and thank them and their families for their sacrifices. Over the years, in my time working in and visiting Washington D.C., I have visited the Vietnam Memorial often.  My fingers have traced names of many of 58,000 listed chronologically on the wall. Grade school classmates, friends I knew from my hometown, friends I met in boot camp, training and Vietnam who would not come home with the rest of us. The base of the wall is cluttered with small flags, votive candles and letters thanking the fallen for their sacrifice for our freedom.

I cried at the wall once, in the 1990s, when a man about my age walked up to me and said, “Welcome home, brother.”  It was the first time I recall hearing that.

The road to the river

The road back to my Vietnam was familiar, but not the same.

My memories were of a small base by a village on a river.

Nha Be was at the end of a narrow road carved through the marshland, less than an hour from Saigon. Along the way were small shack homes patched together with corrugated metal, recycled bits and pieces with fading brand names painted on them. It was not a dangerous road, in the context of war. The road was closed on occasion due to Viet Cong action. But for the most part, we traveled this road feeling safe, but not peaceful.

This road, after all, led to a river and a war that was going on. I recall the constant whir of helicopters, the smell of diesel gasoline and stench of rot. The aftermath of a terrorist attack — burning flesh hanging from a fence along the road. A bloated corpse floating amid debris in the river.

That’s what this place was like, 45 years ago.

River Patrol Boats on the Mekong River.

A River Patrol Boat on the Mekong River.

Nha Be was where the brown water navy based its operations in the Mekong Delta. There was not much to it but pre-fabricated buildings and quonset huts baking in the heat. A helicopter landing pad of steel strips had been set down on swampy land filled with dredge from the river. A dock for river patrol boats was fashioned from Army pontoons to house a line of 40 PBRs — 32-foot green fiberglass craft with water jet drives to allow them to operate in the shallow, hyacinth-choked jungle rivers. Each boat was armed with twin .50 caliber machine guns forward and a grenade launcher in back. This was the end of the road, on the river, where war was waged against Viet Cong insurgents in the Mekong Delta.

All that has changed today.

Today, the road to Nha Be is wide and well-paved. High-class apartments rise 25 stories along the highway.  I pressed my guide, Lim, about whether we had taken a wrong turn back toward Ho Chi Minh City.

But I knew this was the right road when I saw the oil pipelines. I recalled a few white, circular  tanks on the left side of the road approaching the village. I had heard – true or false – they had been taken out by a South Vietnamese pilot who went mad after the fall of Saigon. But they were still there, right where I remembered them, and more.

The rusting white tanks I remembered had sprouted into a complex of sleek office buildings and a tangle of pipelines and towers. This was now Petrolimex, a hub of commerce for the Vietnam National Petroleum Group. If you google the words “Nha Be” and ”oil” today, you’ll find Petrolimex’s web site with shareholder’s meeting reports, in English, and an invitation to like its Facebook page.

What a long strange trip it’s been.

We reached the small village, now an exurban extension a mega-city. In 1970, Saigon’s population was 2 million. It’ almost five times that now and much of it has spilled out into the surrounding countryside south and west of Ho Chi Minh City, including a half million into Nga Be. Not much looked the same. We walked around, Lim looking for tea and me for memories, dodging a swarm of motor bikes.

As we walked, Lim told me his story. Almost crying, he said he was “so happy, so happy” to meet me.  He learned English growing up in a family closely aligned with Americans. His father worked for IBM and did contract work for the Army, Lim said. His father spent time training at IBM offices and living in New York. The job provided well for the family. But shortly after the communists gained control of the South in 1975 his father was sent to a reeducation camp.

“I am so happy to meet you. I have not met an American in 14 years,” Lim said. “When I hear you talk, I am reminded of my father.”

I made it back safely from my 365 days in Vietnam.

Lim’s father died in the camp.

We walked a few blocks and arrived at the Soi Rap River, gateway to the war in the Mekong Delta.

On the river

When I have tought about the Mekong, it’s usually been because of music. Songs like “Creedence Clearwater’s “Proud Mary – rolling’ on the river.”  We did have “Good Morning Vietnam” music there, after all. Athough, I did not know that Woodstock happened in August of 1969  until I got home the next spring. We missed The Summer of Love. But we heard the music. I still do.

The Door’s “(This is The End),” has been the single song that has haunted me when I hear it. It was in the soundtrack of “Apocalypse Now,” the absurdly accurate 1979 Francis Ford Coppola depiction of horrors on the rivers in Vietnam, winding into Cambodia.  “The End” would bring back memories of beating helicopters, red tracers – one for every five rounds delivered  – streaming down from the night sky. I would remember “Zippo” boats heading up river, laden with napalm to “defoliate” the mangroves along the shore to keep all of us safe from whatever lurked behind them. If innocent villagers – children – were collateral damage, we didn’t think about it much in the numbness of the moment.

Today, that’s all changed on the river, like it never happened.

A company called Les Rives now offers boat tours into the Mekong Delta, with stops along the way at small farms, riverside markets, pagodas and a small shack of a bar serving shots of strong rice whiskey.

Guide Tam grew up in these parts – the Long An Province. The 25-year-old recent bride moved to Ho Chi Minh City to find work. She had not attended college, she said. But her English skills, learned from watching television, landed her this good-paying job as a guide. Her home province is a place, one of many, that had been devastated by war. There was nothing left for her in Long An, so she joined the massive migration from the countryside to the city.

On one stop, we visited a farm home that looked like the Vietnam I remembered. The only running water was what could be captured from monsoon rains on the corrugated tin roof and flow into plastic barrels. A wood stove sat in the corner of a small kitchen area. On a table, a U.S. combat helmet was now used as a bowel. A young father swayed a baby in a hammock. An old woman walked across the courtyard with a basket of fruit. Three raised graves could be seen in the tapioca field next to the home. As I stood in half-way in the doorway in reverence and respect, the family went about their lives, oblivious. They likely were to receive 100,000 dong, about five U.S. dollars, for allowing us to visit. They appeared happy. Safe. It was a peaceful place to be.

Tam, a Mekong River tour guide, stands by a bomb shelter in a farm house in Long An Province, now at peace.

Tam, a Mekong River tour guide, stands by a bomb shelter in a farm house in Long An Province, now at peace.

Tam pointed to a concrete structure about the size of a large pool table with a heavy wooden table top. A narrow vertical slit on the side of the structure revealed that it was the entry to a bomb shelter, a very small one for an entire family. This home was in the epicenter of the war. As the military command machine tried to decide the right balance of ground and river troops in The Mekong, it never wavered on its faith in U.S. air supremacy.

“This home was destroyed by air strikes during the war.” she said, pointing to the dark hole on the side of the table.  “They all hid in there.”

photo (8)A woman, in her 80s and with an impish, angelic face, posed with me for what I suspect may be the first ever “selfie” in that village on the Mekong. She embraced me warmly and I wondered where she was in 1969. Was she a young mother with a husband at war? What about her children, her family?  Did they survive?  The graves in the tapioca field were someone’s, after all.

But from her I received no anger, no tears. Just that smile.

My military record was less than impressive, my Vietnam tour ordinary in comparison to the experiences – the sacrifices – of others who served. While riverboat and survival school prepared me for whatever, I arrived “in country” in the perfect eye of the Vietnam War storm.

My year was wedged between the bloody Tet Offensive of 1968 and the incursion of river forces into Cambodia in 1970, which set off protests on streets and campuses across the U.S. This was the year of “Vietnamization,” Richard Nixon’s policy to turn over U.S. involvement in the war to expanded, trained and equipped South Vietnamese forces. I was nestled in under the constant whirring of Sea Wolf helicopters landing and taking off at Nha Be and river patrol Task Force 116 sweeping the river. My job was to do office and mundane maintenance, go out on perimeter patrols and night watches on the river, make occasional courier runs to Saigon or a nearby village base, and mark the days off my calendar.

I went home after 365 days. But the people of The Mekong stayed. They tended to their farms, through the American withdrawal, the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the rise of The Socialist Republic of Vietnam. They have done so for millenniums: Americans, Chinese, the French come and go. The Mekong keeps flowing.

As we rolled along the river, passed lush mangroves and heard the chirping of birds over the low hum of the boat engine, the music returned to my head,

John Lennon’s “All we are saying…is give peace a chance.”

The helicopters were gone.  The oily water had cleared. The mangroves were lush and alive. The killing had stopped.

Medals, yellow ribbons and waving flags are appropriate and wonderful recognition for veterans.  A nation committed to programs to support them even better.

But rolling down a peaceful river on a warm spring afternoon.  The angelic smile of the woman on a farm in a village deep in the Mekong Delta.

That is a lasting peace.

A peaceful picture of The Mekong River today.

A peaceful picture of The Mekong River today.



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