Hill 102

That visit to Hill 102 took on even more significance for me a year and a half later, in September 2001.

Now there was total clarity, reality. The valley isn’t dark and vast, overwhelming and mysterious. It’s a finite place, not much bigger than Fishing Creek Valley in the Blue Mountains, north of where we’d lived in Pennsylvania. The terrain tells the story, and I can see clearly what happened. The hill lets the enemy know exactly where we are. The hill allows us to hold them off. Superior numbers of North Vietnamese are matched by our superior firepower; without the strobe light we’ll be overrun. In all the confusion, I see the NVA sniper slipping through our lines. No, there is no way I can physically react in time to stop him. So I’ll have to leave before my time. Others will fill in. Life and death go on. It all makes perfect sense. The ghosts are evaporating.

In the middle of the field, I bent down to scoop some soil into an empty film canister. I was careful not to disturb the manioc plants. It amazed and pleased me that food was growing here, nourished surely by the blood spilled in this place—my blood, the blood of my comrades, the blood of my enemies.

I said a prayer for Oliver Noonan. A prayer for the soldiers who died, all of them. A prayer for my dad and for Mai Thuan. I thought of Patty, who had shared my burden all these years. I thought of bringing my children, Brandon, Meaghan, and Matt, here. It might help them understand me a little better. Understand why I’ve sometimes been distant. And why now maybe I’ll do better.

I knew we had to leave. I’d have liked to have stayed longer, explored the area more thoroughly, learned more. Yet I left satisfied. Perhaps I will come back again, but it won’t be out of need, and there is no hurry.

The word closure is a contemporary cliché, but I was feeling what that word tries to express. Light, clearheaded, relieved, I had retrieved the part of my soul I had left here. As we roared out of the Que Son Valley on the motorbikes, I felt myself smiling.

That visit to Hill 102 took on even more significance for me a year and a half later. I work in the World Financial Center, across the street from the World Trade Center. On September 11, 2001,1 was less than a block away, evacuating with others, when the first tower fell. I heard a rum- bling, roaring sound and glanced back over my shoulder. It looked like an avalanche, and it seemed close.

There was a familiar combat sensation of detachment as time and space blurred. I thought: I survived Vietnam, buildings burning, sulfur in the air, civilians fleeing, communications cut off, roiling black clouds from napalm or B-52 strikes, the fear that we’d be strafed or gunned down out in the open. It all came back.

“Is this building going to be the thing that gets me?” I thought. Then the unthinkable: the implosion, collapse, the massive black and gray dust cloud surging along the streets, threatening to engulf us as we ran. We made it.

I’ve read the obituaries in the newspapers and ached for each victim. But I felt a special pang for the Vietnam veterans, who survived that distant war only to be killed at home as they went peacefully about their lives. Now American troops are on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq in a fight different from Vietnam in every way but one. I tried to explain it to my son recently as I pulled out the canister of earth from Hill 102. I showed it to Matt, and he asked to touch it.

“Matt, this is soil from a place where hundreds of men died in battle,” I said. “Whatever else you hear about Vietnam, this soil is about the idea of freedom and the willingness to fight for it, regardless of whether the fight is popular or not.”

It meant all of that, that patch of ground.