Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Vietnam Experience

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Background: I was a Machine Gunner, Vietnamese Interpreter and a Radio Operator with Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines in Vietnam 1967-68. I participated in search and destroy missions in and around the Khe Sanh fire base, which was 7 miles south of the DMZ. On Operation Crockett, I was wounded and spent 50 days recovering in a medical unit in Chu Lai.

Upon retuning to my unit, I was reassigned to a security platoon with Headquarters Company, 4th Marines. Our mission was to guard the perimeter at Camp JJ Carroll, an artillery base just east of Khe Sanh.

My assignment there began on December 1, 1967 and ended April 5, 1968, which was during the the Tet Offensive and the height of the Vietnam War. Camp Carroll received numerous bombardments from enemy artillery, in addition to rocket and mortar attacks. Many times they would walk the rounds along the perimeter in hopes of softening our defenses. Military Intelligence reports had indicated the NVA (North Vietnamese Army Regulars) were preparing to overrun the base.

During one early morning bombardment, my bunker was blown up and I was wounded a second time. Hit with small pieces of shrapnel and debris. The blast also ruptured my ear drum and a concussion put me on "light duty" for two days but I remained on the line.

My buddies at Camp Carroll
The Return Home: Upon completing a 13 month tour of duty in Vietnam, I returned to the U.S.A. to realize the relatively quick transition from jungle warfare to civilian life became difficult for me to process. For the first two weeks, I slept on the living room floor close to the front door of my home because I didn't feel safe above ground level. I remained quite sensitive to sounds and quick movements. This hyper-vigilance caused anticipatory anxiety, all due to a natural survival response.

The military was apparently unconscious to this human condition and therefore did nothing to mentally prepare returning combat veterans. I find it somewhat disheartening that our country never learned from those who returned from the battlefields of WWII. I recently listened to a WWII Veteran who said, "if people found out that you went to a psychiatrist back then, you would be considered crazy and nobody would hire you."

Unlike WWII the American people, including family members, were sick of hearing about the war and treated many returning Veterans negatively. I once had a person scoff at me and called me a baby-killer. Another questioned why I did such a foolish thing as to enlist. "Why didn't you go to Canada?" he added.

As time went on, I became increasingly withdrawn and found it impossible to share my experiences with anyone other than fellow combat Marines. I became anti-social and experienced flashbacks and nightmares. At one point, I experienced homicidal tendencies, which brought me to a turning point. In fear of what I might be capable of, I decided to take positive action through the use of "self talk." I thought if I focused more on the positive things in my life, it had to be better than where I felt I was headed.

It should be noted here that little was known about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at the time. In my case, it had been almost ten years after I was discharged that I watched a report of it on the nightly news. I received no notification or information from the VA or through my primary care physician. Through my own desire to learn more about the disorder, I began to read about it and applied what I had learned to my own situation. Eventually, I started to share some of my war experiences with my wife who by the way, is the sole reason for my mental stability. Without her understanding and support, our marriage could have easily ended in divorce and I strongly believe I would have not survived Vietnam.

Veteran Affairs - Claim for Compensation
Information for Vets who may need help

In August of 2005, I experienced a heart attack that involved a 100% blockage in the Lower Anterior Descending (LAD) part of my heart. Doctors performed an angioplasty cardiac catheterization and implanted a stent to keep open the artery. The attack damaged some of the heart tissue and I am now required to take an annual stress tests and make regular visits to a cardiologist. It has also caused me to be on seven different medications, most likely the rest of my life.

One of those drugs, Amiordarone, was prescribed to control an irregular heartbeat but I had a reaction which permenantly damaged my eyesight. Before taking me off the drug, the doctor ordered a battery of tests to rule out everything from tuberculosis to a brain tumor and of course, protect himself from a lawsuit.

It didn't take long for me to realize that my work as a digital imaging professional involved eye strain due to prolonged exposure to the computer monitor. I felt it could eventually take its toll on my eyesight and therefore became one of the motivating factors in my decision to retire, which I did on July 31, 2007.

During the retirement research and planning process I investigated the Veteran's Administration to see if I was entitled to benefits that would cover the cost of medications.

I contacted the local Veteran Affairs office which by the way, has a phone number but it's not listed in the phone book. Isn't that convenient?! The two Veteran Service Officers (VSO's) I worked with were extremely helpful, however, and encouraged me to file a claim regarding my heart attack. I had no idea the heart attack could actually be considered for compensation.

They explained to me that studies had been done on Vietnam Veterans who were put on blood pressure medication at an early age, (I was 21 years old) and later in life experienced heart attacks. The data collected had proven traumatic combat experiences were directly related to PTSD, which contributes to clogged arteries and leads to cardiac problems. They reviewed my possibilities for a claim and told me I had a better-than-average chance of receiving somewhere between 30 and 60 percent disability compensation.

They asked me to provide two stressful situations encountered in combat, a mountain of medical records and to agree to a mental and physical evaluation at the VA Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.

The VA uses a multiple choice questionnaire to determine if a veteran has PTSD. I scored quite low, which labeled me as "anxiety disorder" not PTSD. One of the VA social workers explained that the score can be different on any given day, therefore, it's basically an unreliable means of evaluation, AND THE VA KNOWS IT! In my opinion, it's purposely designed that way.

In my case, I have witnessed Marines literally blown in half, brains and skull fragments flying through the air, bullets cutting through the elephant grass within inches of my head, not to mention the two months at Camp Carroll that exposed me to the constant fear of incoming bombardments. It is a level of stress that caused some Marines to lose it and become shell shocked. Others who somehow held it together had what's known as the "thousand-yard stare."

After more than a year of waiting, I was awarded 10% disability for anxiety disorder, but my VSO's say it's a slap in the face. It's a tactic the VA uses to delay and demoralize the veteran into giving up. If you are a Veteran filing a claim, DON'T GIVE UP. My VSO's suggested I request my documentation be reviewed by a document review officer (DRO) who has the authority to override any previous findings. It took almost another year for the DRO to reject my case and award no higher level of compensation. Again, another tactic to delay and discourage veterans from pursuing further.

The VSO's say we now have to go to the Veteran's Board of Appeals in Washington. So, at this writing, we have submitted additional supporting documentation from my private social worker and psychiatrist both of whom concur, I have "chronic type PTSD"; a letter from my primary care physician; and a testimonial from my wife. We're now at 3 years and still fighting. That's almost as long as my entire length of service, including service in Vietnam!

I hope my story encourages other vets, who may be considering a claim, to stay the course. Apply your Marine Corps training (take ground and not retreat) as you work through the VA system for compensation. Write your political representatives to make them aware of your frustration with the VA system and demand improvements. It's the only way we can stick together for the betterment of the returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan.

A Return to Vietnam after 40 years - June 2008

Like many veterans, I had no interest in ever returning to Vietnam. However, in the later part of 2007, my oldest son introduced me to an organization in my home town that performs international charity work. The organization is "Kids Around the World." A good friend of my son's was a volunteer and had been to Vietnam to build a playground for the children near Hanoi.

My son told me of an opportunity to join a group going back in June of 2008 to build another playground and said, "dad...we've got to go." He convinced me because I viewed it as an opportunity to do something positive and also revisit Khe Sanh and Camp Carroll with him. I said, "what the hell...let's do it" and we signed up.

Trip Preparations: I read a book called, "Red Clay on my Boots," by Robert Topmiller, a history professor at the University of Kentucky. Robert, better known as "Doc," was a Navy Corpsman assigned to a Marine unit at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive. In his book, Doc writes of his experiences treating the Marines during the siege and his numerous trips back to the country after the war to gather research for his PhD. I found his book interesting reading because his writing style was very much like one grunt talking to another.

After reading his book I decided to send him an e-mail asking for any advice he might offer regarding in-country travel. He immediately forwarded my e-mail to his travel agent, Dieu van in Hue City. She quickly arranged accommodations at the beautiful Morin Hotel, a car and driver, a tour guide to show us the sites in Hue and a DMZ tour guide that would take us to Khe Sanh and Camp Carroll.

After renewing our passports and obtaining the required Visa we contacted our local Health Department to see if there were any medical requirements regarding our travel to a developing country. We were told travel in and around Da Nang, including our playground build site were in areas where vaccinations for hepatitis A/B, typhoid, encephalitis, influenza, rabies and malaria were not required but with our side excursion to Khe Sahn and Camp Carroll, the CDC recommended we be inoculated anyway. We were also advised to drink only bottled water, not to go near chickens or livestock, peel all fruit and never eat anything that had not been properly cooked. Two hundred and twenty bucks later, we were ready to go.

Day One - June 20: Flights - Chicago to L.A. to Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang. Total travel time approx. 34 hours. Upon arrival in Ho Chi Minh City, we stayed awake to acclimate to the 12-hour difference in time zones.

Day Two - June 21: We spent the day sightseeing in Ho Chi Minh City, which also gave us time to adjust to the heat and humidity. Most days were above 100° F with 100% humidity. The hottest day of the trip was at least 106° F or maybe more.

We visited the Independence Palace, a 1950's vintage five-story building that was filled with meeting rooms where visiting dignitaries and other high level visitors met with government officials. A large room with a red curtain, podium and a statue of Ho Chi Minh were the highlights. There was no air conditioning so the rooms were hot, humid and somewhat musty with old furniture. Not really of much interest to me.

We had lunch at the famous Rex Hotel. This is where many high-ranking American military officers managed the war and military unit assignments. The dining room was air conditioned and the "333" Beer (pronounced "ba-ba-ba" in Vietnamese) was the only cold drink available.

Walking along the streets we encountered the locals and experienced the insane traffic. The infrastructure is crude and somewhat unsafe due to the lack of government support. People are left to fend for themselves with no health care, etc. If an accident takes place, they will come to your aid, but it may take a while.

Ninety percent of the vehicles on the roads in the city are 100-150cc motor bikes and bicycles with carts attached to them. The Vietnamese are quite resourceful in that they can balance and attach large items to their motor bikes. I saw one guy who had a cart out in front of his motor bike with sheets of paneling wedged under his chin. If he had become a victim of an accident, he would have been decapitated!

Each year more than 50,000 people are killed in this small country from motor bike accidents. The government has made it a law that motorists have to wear a helmet. The only problem is that children do not. Notice the family of four in this video.

Day Three - June 22: We fly to Da Nang and take a bus ride to our hotel in Quang Ngai.

The three flights from Chicago to Ho Chi Minh City were all on United Airlines however, the in-country flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang was on Vietnamese Airlines. When we arrived at the Da Nang International Airport, formerly known as Tan Son Nhat, there were no plane-to-terminal docking walkways, only the disembarking stairs from the plane to the tarmac.

It was a surreal feeling watching my foot touch the tarmack at Tan Son Nhat airport once again, the same way I remember my foot stepped off the Pan American Boeing 707 when I landed there 40 years ago. I distinctly remember the exact moment my foot hit the ground back in 1967 and the feeling of entering a war zone. It was as if that moment had come back to reality for that spit second.

The Marine barracks and F-4 Phantom jet bunkers are still there. I think the Vietnamese government leaves them as a reminder to visitors.

Flashback: My last night in Vietnam was in Da Nang awaiting our flight home the next day. The base took some incoming mortars that night and I thought, "wow, one final attempt to get me just hours before going home."

The next morning we intently watched the sky for a glimpse of the plane that was to take us home. Once it finally arrived, everyone cheered as it landed. We boarded and most of us couldn't keep our eyes off the beautiful American (round-eyes) flight attendants. It had been quite a long time since any of us had seen an American girl and they sure were a pleasant sight to behold.

When the plane lifted off, climbed, made the turn for home and was at altitude we all knew was completely out of artillery range, every GI on the plane broke out in a thunderous cheer. It was great! I began to notice the comfortable seat I was in, the air-conditioned cabin, the food that finally wasn't C-rations and just being clean. The feeling of happiness at that moment was one of the most memorable of my lifetime because less than 48 hours before I had been at Camp Carroll wondering if I would ever make it out alive. I thought of my fellow Marines still there and said a silent prayer for them.

Day Three - June 22: (continued)

The bus ride from Da Nang to Quang Ngai took approximately 4 hours. It gave us our first experience of seeing the countryside and the results of the lack of traffic laws in Vietnam. Along the road we saw a dead Vietnamese motor-cyclist who had been hit head-on by a large truck. The bike was under the truck's front wheels; the biker apparently had been thrown against the windshield because it was shattered. He then apparently fell back to the ground and was either killed instantly or died before help could arrive. In another instance, we saw an old woman who had been hit attempting to cross the road.

Ironically, the speed limit is only 37 miles per hour, but most motorists travel 40 to 60 mph. Those driving trucks and cars watch for speed traps and give each other hand signals to warn on-coming traffic. The motorists drive offensively and use their horns frequently.

Our hotel in Quang Ngai was less than 5-Star status, but adequate and certainly better than a fox hole. After settling into our rooms, we sent a small contingent to the village of Chau O, about 45 minutes to the south, where were going to construct the playground.

The playground equipment had been shipped almost a year before because the trip was originally planned for November 2007. However, a typhoon had hit the area and displaced people, etc. so the government called off the trip. We needed to find out if the equipment had indeed arrived and to do a site survey.

Mike went with the site survey team while I stayed back so I could go with the others to visit the site of the My Lai massacre. On March 16th, 1968, 26 US Army troops killed 347 to 504 unarmed villagers, including women and children. Some of the victims were sexually abused, beaten, tortured, or maimed, and some of the bodies were found mutilated. Lt. William Calley was the only one convicted, he served a 4 year prison term.

At the entrance, a young boy in a wheel chair was begging for money. The site of the village brought me back in time again as it reminded me of the silence and danger whenever we approached an unknown village.

Bullet holes are still visible in the palm trees and the Vietnamese Government has reconstructed the village hootches to resemble the aftermath and a small museum, complete with tour guide. The guide told the story from the perspective of the villiagers and I took photos of the ditch where the bodies were piled. A somber time spent there, but I'm glad I had a chance to see and reflect on.

When the group returned we were informed that the equipment was secure, but the locals had misinterpreted the site preparation instructions. A three-foot cement wall was constructed around the playground area and filled with sand! Unfortunately, you can't dig post holes in that much sand so some type of earth-moving equipment had to be located. Our group leaders talked with the local constable and by some miracle, they found the following piece of equipment.

It was used to move some of the sand aside so we could begin and hopefully make up for lost time the sand was going to take. With a limited number of days to complete the project it was not the best of circumstances.

Our team had a young lady whose job was to break the ice with the children. Her name is Erin Suttle. Erin did a great job playing games with the children and winning their trust. The first day on the site a few children were watching us from down this dirt road.

They didn't quite know what to make of us, these strange (large) people from another land. Some of them had never seen Americans before and had little knowledge of the War. Vietnamese call it the American War, not the Vietnam War.

Day Four - June 23: The children eventually gave way to their inquisitiveness and made there way down the road to the build site. They began to warm up to Erin and she had them playing games in no time at all.

As more children ventured in to see what was going on, Erin needed help managing the games so Mike and I joined in with Carol and Alyssa DeGraff and Katie Townsend.

We had a great time with the kids. They asked us to sign autographs and we had them signing our shirts. We also discovered they know how to play rock/paper/scissors, but they call it fruit/leaf/cut-your-finger! We found they had no knowledge of giving a "snakebite" to the loser of each sequence so we had one of our interpreters explain it to them.

Day Five - June 24: Second day at the build site. The games continued with even more kids showing up at the site and the playground construction was now in full swing. Everyone remained enthusiastic as the heat began to bear down on all of us.

During one of our breaks, we decided to go into the village to meet some of the locals. As we walked along we came upon a shoe store and Mike decided to buy a pair of shoes. When the proprietor saw the size of his feet, compared to those he was accustomed to fitting, his reaction was "priceless" in this video.

We then stopped by a vendor selling coconut juice. For the mere price of 40 cents each (5,000 Dong), we purchased a coconut and were treated like royalty as the husband and wife seated us along the roadside and gave us sugar to dip the coconut pieces in. Although the coconut milk was warm, it was a welcomed treat for all of us and a break from the sun.

Further down the road we entered the Chau O Market where we bought the traditional Vietnamese straw hats (video part 1) and walked among the multitude of vendors (video part 2) in such poor conditions compared to our air-conditioned malls and shopping centers. I can't begin to explain the smell as we passed fish vendors, the incense burning and the humidity under the makeshift roofs that kept the sun from bearing down with no breeze to speak of.

We discovered a short time after returning home that the Market had burned to the ground, caused by an electrical short in an incense vendor's stall. A Vietnamese news web site report claimed an unusually high cost of damage. It was for some their sole source of income.

Side note: I thought of sending clothing to the people there, but was told the people are heavily taxed for any clothing that comes into the country from sources other than those approved by the communist party.

It is said that when war ended and the North Vietnamese Regime took over in 1975, all South Vietnamese Army soldiers (ARVN's) were sent to re-education camps, where sophisticated techniques of indoctrination were used. The ARVN's family was also repressed by not being allowed to work until their ARVN family member was released, which in some cases were years. I was told by a reliable source, who I shall refrain from identifying due to obvious reasons that many poor people were without clothing. My source's Father was an ARVN soldier and he said he owned only two T-shirts while attending school.

It was quite evident, that the Communist Party and local police have control over the people. We were told there is one under-cover spy for every 1,000 Vietnamese and the people fear the local police more than the "People's Party" because they are corrupt and have been known to use physical force well beyond reasonable means.

While on the road to Khe Sanh (see Day 8), our drive had to make a number of stops to police outposts for some unknown reason. We speculated it had to do with a traffic violation, and depending on the severity or number of occurrences, he was being pressured to pay to keep from facing more severe alternatives.

We go out to dinner for some Asian food and have snake wine (more to follow here). We drive by a park in Quang Ngnai where lovers park their motor bikes and make out.

Day Six - June 25: It is now the beginning of summer school and a sea of children descend upon the area before school starts. We have to cordon off the playground work area to keep the kids from getting in the way. As school begins we are allowed a peak inside to see and compare. I first notice the poor conditions, broken hand-made desks and benches, dirty floors and worn out black boards that are basically painted plywood. See for yourself in this video.

After work at the playground site, we return to our hotel and attempt to make contact with Dieu van to confirm our driver picking us up in the morning. Attempts fail due to Internet connections at the hotel so we try to communicate back to our wives in hope they can relay our emails to Dieu van. With the time zone difference it becomes hard to know who said what when, but we eventually get the word to her and the driver shows up as planned.

Day seven - June 26: Our driver meets us at our hotel and we begin the 4-hour trip to Hue City, where we are to meet Dieu van. As we drive back toward Da Nang and on Northward, I saw the surroundings begin to look more like I remembered 40 years ago. Highway One, once a dirt road, is now a two-lane paved highway, similar to one of our country roads.

The rice patties and small villages looked quite the same. Small shanties, made of scrap lumber, tarps and corrugated tin roofs replaced many of the huts, which were made of bamboo, mud and straw.

Rice is still planted by hand and water buffalo are used to plow the rice fields. Small cemeteries and pagodas dot the countryside where I once laid in ambush as a company of Viet Cong fell victim to our superior fire power.

Flashback: I remember sitting in the ambush that night when the 1Viet Cong (VC) approached our trap. I called in an artillery mission to fire a 2flare round over the enemy position as a spotter round and to light up the area before calling in the live 105mm howitzer bombs. I was off my target by approximately 100 meters and the flare popped directly over our heads. Needless to say, I immediately adjusted fire by telling the artillery guns to "add 100 and fire for effect." After the attack and ensuing fire fight, I proceeded to clean my skivvies and say a prayer of thanks for surviving yet another close call.
1The Marines always called the Viet Cong "Victor Charlie" or "Charles" as a sign of respect to a worthy enemy, knowing the hardships they endured as combat veterans themselves.
2A flare round is a flare attached to a small parachute that burns white hot and lights up the area below as it floats to the ground.

Day seven - June 26: (continued)

As we continue traveling North, our drive points out what used to be China Beach off in the distance. For many GI's, it was a popular spot along the South China Sea to take an in-country R&R.

North of Da Nang we approached Phu Bai, my first assignment after arriving in Vietnam. Whenever we left the base to go on operations in the area, we passed by a bunker that was built by the Americans for the South Vietnamese Army. The 3ARVNs were to man the bunker as a check point along the roadside. The bunker remains there as an icon for any Marines who remember working the rice patties and villages around Phu Bai.
3Army of the Republic of Vietnam

Farther up the road we see the remains of the Long Hung Church, which still shows the pock marks made by mortar shells and small arms fire. We are told the Communist Party leaves sites like this as remembrances so the people have visual reminders to obey or face harsh consequences.

Shortly before noon we arrive at our destination, the Morin Hotel in Hue City. We found the hotel to be one of the finest so far. Uniformed bell hops with brimmed hats and white gloves take our bags to our room while we meet Dieu van in the hotel lobby and make arrangements to meet for lunch. Dieu van invites us to visit a boarding school where she is a volunteer. Many of the children who live there were born with birth defects from their parents' exposure to Agent Orange. She also arranges a tour guide to take us to some of the historical sites in Hue.

After lunch we visit the Thuy Bieu School for Handicapped Children. As we remove our shoes and enter the school office, Dieu van introduces us to the Buddhist nun who manages the facility. She offers us some juice as we sit down to discuss their interest in having a 4playground built on some nearby land.

We talk about my war experiences and I am overcome with emotional as I am confronted face-to-face with the harsh realities of war and what it can do to innocent children a lifetime later. The nun attempts to comfort me with an understanding nod of assurance as she pats the top of my hand.

The children's sleeping quarters consisted of wooden bunk beds without mattresses, pillows or blankets. Although they are harsh conditions by our standards, it was explained to me that some of the children wet the bed and bedding, and with the heat and humidity, the bedding would only be more difficult to manage. I come to realize that people raised without the finer comforts in life never know what they're missing and therefore, simply don't know any better. It's the same living in a Communist country. Those born after the war have never experienced freedom and therefore are content with life as they know it. Those old enough to have been around during the war, accept the conditions because at least the country is not at war and military forces are not killing their families. Thus, a peaceful existence under Marxist-Leninist Communism.
4Prior to our meeting Dieu van had mentioned this and I hand carried a packet of information from Kids Around the World.

Next door to the school is a pagoda where Dieu van takes us to see a shrine honoring Robert Topmiller's war buddies and his deceased Father. The Vietnamese leave fruit, snacks and other gifts to honor the dead and burn incense.

After leaving the pagoda, we say goodbye to Dieu van and meet our tour guide who takes us the Tu Duc Tomb. His English is somewhat difficult to understand but we get the essence of his message that the King was looked upon as a deity. It took 3,000 workers three years to construct the grounds. The architecture is magnificent but it is evident the government barely keeps up with the maintenance.

The Citadel is across the street and when we left the tomb we were divert from the most obvious exit because the main entrance was only for the King, even though he's been dead for more than 125 years.

The heat was unbearable so we decided to end our touring for the day and returned to the refuge of our air-conditioned hotel room. We e-mailed family and friends and had an Australian filet mignon dinner and drinks. Total cost...$6 USD each!

Day 8 - June 27: At 7:00 a.m. we met our drive and began our trek to Khe Sanh and Camp Carroll; only this time, instead of "humpin' the bush," we ride in the air-conditioned comfort of a Toyota automobile. As we travel North of Hue, the landscape begins to look more familiar. We enter the Quang Tri Province and eventually reach Dong Ha, where we meet our DMZ tour guide, Tam Troung Van.

Tam told us he has taken many American GI's throughout the DMZ area and showed us topographical maps American Vets have given him to use. He also informed us that the Americans deal more with PTSD than the Vietnamese soldiers and he wants to help Americans heal their emotional scars from their war experiences. My experience with Tam was a good one and I highly recommend him to others who may be going back.

Finally, we reached the infamous Dong Ha Mountain. I know we are now getting close.

Flashback: From this mountain, the NVA pounded us with rockets and artillery day and night for two solid months while I was at Camp Carroll. As we approached and eventually got within artillery range, I was filled with memories of those days we took heavy fire from that place. If there was ever a hell on earth, for me it was the Dong Ha Mountain.

We took "incoming" so often that most Marines on the line became shell shocked. This is where the meaning "Hard Corps" comes in and the "Thousand Yard Stare."

One day in December 1967, air strikes pounded the mountain for three days and nights. We had one day of peace and the NVA started again as if nothing had happened. It became clear to me on that day, the unwavering determination and resolve of our enemy.

Day 8 - June 27: (continued) The terrain is now mostly mountainous and we see hootches that look more like they did 40 years ago. The hill people remain extremely poor. Their rice crop, fish and goats allow them to survive. They have virtually no income at all. I come to realize the answer to a question I am asked so many times. What are the conditions now, after 40 years? My answer, "nothing has changed." Whatever slight improvements there are hardly add up to much at all.

We see The "Rock Pile" and "The Razor Back." Those are two very identifiable mountain ranges most Veterans who set up ambushes and went on patrols in the DMZ area would easily recognize. We also g0t closer to the jungle and saw some triple canopy as we came within a short distance of Ho Chi Minh Trail, Khe Sanh and Camp Carroll.

We stopped at a scrap metal yard and found literally tons of artillery rounds, cluster bombs, shrapnel and other ordnance. I got wounded once again as I picked up a piece of shrapnel. How ironic. Mike and I purchased some pieces of shrapnel and moved on.

We arrived at Khe Sanh. There was an eerie silence, yet we could hear the locusts and birds. We approached a small A-frame structure; it's a museum but nobody's there, only us. They sell a handful of books, pamphlets and souvenirs with a Vietnamese attendant. What was once a hustling Marine firebase, is now a coffee plantation. The attendant gave Tam the key to a gate at the entrance of what used to be the air strip.

Tam had some difficulty opening the gate because it was not only locked, but had barbed wire wrapped around the top and bottom, as if it were seldom opened. We eventually got in and Mike took a photo of Tam and me walking toward a road that leads to the rows of coffee bean plants. I recognized another familiar mountain range which we Marines affectionately called "The Witches Tit."

Something caught my eye in the dirt and I pulled up the remains of an old sand bag with the cinched top still tied with black cord. The red dirt was as I remembered it, as fine as talc. It sticks to the pores of my skin as I remembered how it used to get in our eyes and even our teeth. I remembered how our green utilities would actually become orange. When choppers and C-130's landed you can imagine how much of that stuff we inhaled.

We came to a spot where Mike and I decided to have a toast to honor all Veterans who held ground in and around the Khe Sanh firebase. It was an emotional time for both of us, one that I will never forget. To be there again with my son at my side was an experience not many fathers have. I am so grateful to my son for doing this with me. It created not only a special bond for us as father and son, but also completed the circle of my Vietnam experience. There is nothing more I can do for myself regarding Vietnam. I can only share this experience with other combat Veterans in hope they will find some healing.

We moved on to Camp Carroll where we planned to also toast to the vets who served there. We drove up a dirt road to a spot in the middle of nowhere. There stood a monument to the North Vietnamese Soldiers honoring them for their victory. The monument is in need of repair as with most of those outside the confines of Ho Chi Minh City and, I'm sure, Hanoi.

Unlike Khe Sanh, Camp Carroll is a place where tapioca plants and rubber trees now grow. As we walked up the hill we came upon a gun emplacement where 175mm artillery cannons had once supported the siege at Khe Sanh. There was also noticeable silence. My main reason for being here was to savor that silence because 40 years ago we listened for enemy rounds leaving their guns, dove for cover at the sound of incoming and the crack of the rounds hitting nearby our positions. It was a welcomed and peaceful silence. I enjoyed it.

From our position and the recognizable mountains around, I could tell the approximate location of where my bunker had been. Once again I was reminded of the Marine who was blown in half and the concussion and ringing in my ears when my ear drum was perforated from the blast.

We made our toast with less emotion this time. I was then ready to move on, but Mike wondered why I was in such a hurry to leave. I really don't know. It seemed as though the time I had spent at Camp Carroll during the war was enough for a lifetime and the few minutes of peace and quite there on that sunny afternoon was merely putting the cap on the bottle. As we walked down the road to the car, I reflected on how peaceful it was. A great sense of relief came over me, mission accomplished!

Back on the road again to bring Tam back to Dong Ha and make the long trip to Hoi An, where we would once again join our playground group. Along the way we stopped at a roadside cafe for lunch. Mike needed to use the facilities but when he opened the outhouse door, there was no toilet, only a pot with a wooden barrel of water with a gourd ladle with a bamboo handle. What's more, there was no toilet paper , so he declined but the owner gestured him to another door. Mike opened it to find a toilet, but no paper, so he went to the van to get his camping toilet paper from his backpack and returned. He did his duty and when it came time to flush he found the toilet was not hooked up to any water. We all had a laugh and once again Mike found out what it was like to live in a Communist country.

As we left the cafe, our driver pointed to a table where Americans and English were sitting. We introduced ourselves and found they were there removing live ordnance in and around the DMZ area. They explained how they work with a former Veteran who builds schools and they clear the areas before construction; a nice group of guys doing some good for the people of Vietnam.

We finally arrived at the Swiss Belhotel Resort at about 3:00 p.m. to find our group enjoying the longest swimming pool in Southeast Asia. Everyone is curious about our trip to the mountains and we also, having missed the dedication of the playground, were interested in hearing how that went. After a number of cocktails and a cool dip, we went to dinner. Later that evening we walked along the beautiful beach and Mike witnessed for the first time the phosphorus glow in the surf as as the gentle waves rolled into shore.

Day 9 - June 28: A group of us decided to go to Marble Mountain. After our tour there we leave for Da Nang for our flight back to Ho Chi Minh City. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and returned to the same hotel we stayed at when we first arrived. We went out to dinner that evening and Mike and I took a cab back to the hotel. It was Saturday night and the traffic was something to behold.

Day 10 - June 29: We woke up at 3:00 a.m. and had a box breakfast on the bus so we could be at the airport early to see if we could upgrade our tickets to business class. The airline clerk informed us we could upgrade for $639 each! We gladly paid because the 14-hour Economy Plus seat from Los Angeles to Hong Kong was cramped and my ankles and feet swelled due to the lack of circulation. On top of that, we received an apology card from United because the audio system on the plane was not working.

Another problem developed as we paid for your business class seats. The airline clerk was a rookie and apparently did "step three" before "step one." As we waited for him to adjust the data entry, other passengers filled the seats. Because of his delay we lost the seats. I would not stand for it so I asked to speak to his supervisor. I explained it was unacceptable and would not accept another apology card. The supervisor ordered the clerk to call Hong Kong to see what could be done.

Upon our arrival in Hong Kong, we approached the gate check-in counter to find a very experienced clerk who informed us we indeed had seats in business class. We were seated right next to each other and had plenty of room all around our seats to walk around. They must have upgraded two business class travelers to first class in order to accommodate us.

As we fly home I reflected on our trip. I have a renewed opinion of Vietnam its people, culture and country. They are very much like us. They want the same things for their children and were thankful that we came to their village and provided a family meeting place, in hopes to build unity within the community. The war is no longer a part of their daily lives as it was when I was there. Peace has come to Vietnam and it was nice to have an opportunity to once again be in that country to see what peace feels like there today.

Sad News from Vietnam: On August 30, 2008 I received the following e-mail from Dieu Van.

"I have the sad duty to report that Bob "Doc" Topmiller took his own life last Wednesday. A memorial service will be held at 2 pm on Tuesday, September 2, at the Kerr Brothers Mortuary, 463 East Main Street, Lexington, KY 40507. Terri and the kids are holding up well so far.

W are all trying to comprehend this unimaginable tragedy. I know that I will need a couple of days to come to grips with such an enormous loss and so am not in the right frame of mind yet to discuss it on the telephone. Thanks for understanding; I share your grief." Dieu van

A Vietnam combat veteran who survived the war, obtained a PhD and worked as a History professor for the University of Kentucky. He was married with four children and four grandchildren. What makes a man take his own life? An educated man who apparently made the transition back to civilian life, managed to stay married, raised a family and became successful.

Maybe he took his life due to something other than his war experience but I know the bad memories of the Vietnam War will never leave me as I'm sure they never left Doc. We wear PTSD on us as if it were a uniform. If Doc did indeed take his own life as a result of his war experiences, I guess one can only say, he was killed in Vietnam but hadn't died until now.

Veteran's Day 2008: On Veteran's Day, our hometown newspaper, The Rockford Register Star, ran a story about my Vietnam experience and our trip back. I had people stop me who recognized me from the paper and many who continue to call and send emails. Click here to read the story.

Dedications: Dedicated to the love of my life, Linda, who was at my side every step of the way. Through many dark days and sleepless nights she has been there for me. Without her love, devotion and unwavering commitment to hold our family together, I would be one of the tragic statistics that war produces. For that, and many other reasons, I will be eternally grateful. She is my rock.

Dedicated to my son, Michael, who had the courage to convince me to return to Vietnam and was at my side every step of the way "back in time." As with his younger brother, Nicholas, we three have a special father-sons bond, built on mutual respect and love for one another.

The "life" experience gained by traveling to the other side of the earth to see a Communist society has changed Mike's life forever. Sharing those moments with him at Khe Sanh has given him a unique opportunity to reach out and touch war like no other civilian can. It has helped me realize that people other than combat veterans can indeed understand what it was like, if only for a moment. Thank you my son.

In memory of Robert "Doc" Topmiller. Semper Fi, Doc. You will never be forgotten.

Copyright 2008 John Lombardo, All Rights Reserved.

UPDATE:November 2010 - It has been 4 years since I first submitted my claim for compensation to the VA. Well, I finally won the case and the 10% disability rating for anxiety disorder was upgraded to 60%. This rating places me in category #1, which means I will now receive all of my medication free of charge.

The VA decided this based on my heart attack being associated to agent orange exposure, not to PTSD. There are over 22 diseases associated to agent orange exposure so, although the compensation is certainly welcomed, it is "compensation" not a benefit. In my opinion, it is compensation for having to live the rest of my life knowing I can be diagnosed at any time with any of the A.O. associated diseases.

The question remains...Can U.S. politicians possibly ever understand what war does to those who serve, their families and the innocent children a life-time later. Can they comprehend the human cost over time? I fear not.

We are now at war in the middle east and the VA is inundated with incoming wounded Vets, both physically and mentally. What have we learned from Vietnam? We've learned on thing...The welcome home handshake and pat on the back. But what else?