Recently, two experiences have caused me to reflect on the Vietnam War. In May, my husband and I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. Monday, May 28, chairs in the area in front of the wall sat empty awaiting the arrival of dignitaries for the Memorial Day service where President Obama gave his address. In addition to honoring Vietnam veterans in his speech, he set aside May 28 - Nov. 11 of this year to honor those who gave their lives to fight in this war, one of the most controversial wars of the 20th century.
Vietnam has special meaning to me because my husband did a tour as a C-130 pilot in Vietnam for 13 months and flew back on other missions from Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries for several years after that. I also knew many people from our age group that served in that war. Some were students I went to high school with and others we knew in the Air Force.
In 1971, we were stationed at Edwards AFB, California, so my husband could attend test pilot school. Those who were accepted and graduated from this year-long intensive program became test pilots of new aircraft and were candidates for the astronaut corps. These were young men in their late 20s and 30s who had the intelligence to do academics such as aeronautical engineering and also had many hours of flying experience behind them. They had to pass extensive physical and psychological exams before their training began. One of the aircraft they flew was the F-104 Starfighter, which could fly at twice the speed of sound.
While my husband attended school and trained in aircraft, we spent a lot of time socializing with the families and got to know them and their children very well. We were a cohesive group. At the end of the year, as these officers received their new orders, two were sent to Vietnam. One was shot down and killed a few months later.
I thought of him as I saw the myriads of names on the black granite Memorial wall. Then there it was—John L. Carroll. His wife was left with two small children. We also found Remi Greeff’s name, Salt Lake City, my husband’s former Air Force flight instructor.
As I walked along the rows of names, with wreaths and flowers placed by loved ones, I marveled at the sacrifice. I noticed at the end of each wall that new names are added each year as remains are found and bodies identified and sent back to the USA— the home they fought for.
As Paul Harvey used to say—the rest of the story, fast forward 40 years . I was in a nail salon in Ogden a few months ago. I was talking with one of the workers about Vietnam, and she told me her story. She was Vietnamese. Her husband was in the South Vietnamese army and after the war he was imprisoned for three years. In 1975, after the Vietnam war officially ended, he somehow made his way out of the country to a refugee camp where he waited for his wife. Lyn followed by arranging passage on a wooden boat. She left Vietnam in 1981 on this small wooden boat with 52 people crowded aboard, 15 of them children. She was 27 years old. In 1975, North Vietnam took over South Vietnam, and it became unsafe for anyone affiliated with the Americans. She was among two million refugees who left the country between 1975 and 1990; 25,000 of them died on the ocean. Those who went to the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia were more likely to be killed because of ocean currents and pirates in the open seas.
Her boat traveled north in more protected waters. They traveled 17 days in the ocean with no food for about 10 of those days. She had her 3 ½ year old son aboard with her. They were traveling to Hong Kong and had to island-hop on their way. They would stop at villages where she traded her jewelry for food to help feed everyone on the boat.
When they got to Hong Kong, it was not the end of the journey; they were in a refugee camp for six months. Then they went to the Philippines for six more months awaiting permission to leave for the United States. They came to the U.S. in 1982 and then to Utah.
Her youngest son is now 21 and her oldest is 28; he graduated from Weber State University with his masters degree and lives in Houston. She has worked in Utah since 1982 and within the week was leaving for Texas to join her son there.
After the war, we would hear about boat people from time to time, but I never realized the scope of that migration. According to the report of United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees, one-third of Vietnamese boat people died at sea by killing, storms, illness, and food shortage. On just one small island, Kho Kra, 160 people died; 1,250 were rescued. Currently, there are over 1.6 million boat people spread all across the world—USA, Australia, Canada, France, England, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and the Philippines.
After 1989, the Indochinese boat people—Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians—were no longer given priority as asylum seekers. Many spent years in refugee camps and many were sent back to the countries they escaped from.
The Vietnam War officially ended—for the United States—in 1975, and the POWs were released from prisoner-of-war camps, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. I remember vividly watching television and seeing those servicemen exit the plane and walk into the arms of their loved ones. I especially remember one man in particular, who after walking down the airplane ladder and reaching native soil, bent down and kissed the ground.
Many feel that the war was a mistake; but regardless, we should honor those who gave so much to serve their country.