- Historic Sites
How a patch of ground forged a man’s future, stole a part of his soul, and gave it back to him 30 years later
June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
The American delegates entered the room. We filed by each other, two courteous “receiving lines.” I couldn’t figure out which was my man. Finally we all sat down at a U-shaped table. A retired Vietnamese general made a welcoming speech and then asked each of his nine compatriots to introduce himself. The sixth to do so stood and said, through a translator, “I am Col. Mai Thuan, commander of the 2d NVA Division.”
He sat down. I sized him up. After the meeting, Julie Schmit, a USA Today reporter who was covering our group, asked: “You were staring at him. What were you thinking?” I knew exactly what was going through my mind: What was he like? I had imbued him with special qualities, none of them, to my surprise, dark. (Later Patty told me she was doing the same thing.) What else could account for my near-death experience? He had been taller, bigger, more handsome, more charismatic, more intelligent, more strategic, kinder—more everything—than his comrades. I had needed him to be special. In fact he was small, slender, but wiry and handsome, with a round, almost cherubic, face, short gray hair, thick gray eyebrows arched upward, and a warmth in his eyes I did not discern in the others.
Thoughts flashed through my mind: He tried to kill me; a flicker of hatred. I tried to kill him; a glimmer of remorse. There was a surge of respect for his abilities, for his ferocity and that of his troops. “He’s just a human being,” I thought, “like me, a man who was doing his job. We are seeking neither forgiveness nor to forgive. We happen to be here together, and together we can put the past behind us.” I wanted the formalities of the meeting to end so we could speak together. That took a while. The retired general had a lengthy speech ready. His initial words were welcoming but delivered without warmth, and the speech, which included a diatribe about the horrors of Agent Orange, made us all uncomfortable. When he finished, a full 25 minutes later, several colleagues spoke about how ours was a mission of reconciliation.
I told Mr. Chinh we must get to the hill. “I don’t think we can go there,” he said. My heart sank.
For my part, all I wanted was to meet the colonel, and only 15 to 20 minutes remained before the staff would begin to prod us toward our bus. When the meeting concluded, I headed straight for Mai Thuan. Bill Dyke, a retired general in the delegation, and Mai Thuan had a lively discussion. Bill offered him his Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund delegation lapel pin; Mai Thuan accepted it and in turn gave him his Veterans Association pin. I felt a little jealous; I wanted that pin. I asked him if he remembered that battle in the Que Son Valley in 1969, if he had been there. Yes, he said, he remembered it well. It had been a big battle and lasted long. And he had been there.
I told him I’d been wounded. He asked where; I pointed to my arms, chest, head, and legs. He, too, had been wounded, he said, turning around and pulling his shirt up. “Shrapnel,” he said.
I asked if those wounds were from Hiep Duc No; six months earlier, farther north. “I didn’t do it!” I told him, and he laughed heartily. I asked his age. Seventy-two.
I had many more questions, but a staffer was pulling on my arm. I looked at Mai Thuan. He was about the age my father would have been. Mai Thuan reminded me of Jack Critchlow, hard, tough, and wiry to the day he died, at 69, of a heart attack, while on the job laying carpet in Omaha, Nebraska.
I shook hands with Mai Thuan, and suddenly we embraced. A good, hard embrace, with no trace of awkwardness. An embrace of enemies, an embrace of soldiers. Patty held my hand as we walked to the bus. “He’s just a man,” I said. “Just a man.”
That night we flew to Ho Chi Minh City and an official welcoming dinner at the Caravelle Hotel. The Caravelle was where most of the American war correspondents had made their headquarters, and many of them were staying there again as they returned both to cover the anniversary ceremonies and to have a reunion of their own.
Patty was a surprise addition to the evening’s program. A diminutive, dark-haired Irish beauty, she had professed to be intimidated by all these strong men so deeply bonded by combat, but that night she stood and touched us all with a speech about the power of this journey for the women in our lives.
“Paul and I have been together for 22 years,” she said. “I’ve heard his war stories, met his buddies, heard all the jokes. Only in anticipation of this trip did I learn more things, parts of his story he had never been able to share before. And during the trip, memories and reflections have bubbled up.” Speaking for all our spouses, those present and those at home, she said, “We are grateful for the opportunity to know you better—and to love you more.”