June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
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
Nine men were aboard, and all were killed. One of them was Noonan, a 29-year-old Associated Press photographer. I did not know his name at the time. I only knew from my radio that a photojournalist had gone down nearby. His presence in the maw of hot combat puzzled and intrigued me. That a civilian would risk his life to do his job well would in time inspire me to become a journalist. But for the moment, I was in my own “world of shit,” as we liked to say then. Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The Que Son Valley. August 19, 1969.
Earlier that morning my company—Charlie Company, 2/1,196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division—had hiked into the valley to reinforce Delta Company, which the day before had encountered a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) force and come under siege. Delta Company had taken heavy casualties, 9 killed and more than 30 wounded. As Charlie Company descended slowly from Landing Zone West, the fire base atop Le Kiem Mountain some 25 miles southwest of Da Nang, I thought: “I am going into the Valley of Death.” A cliché, but how I felt.
We met no resistance as we climbed down, sweating, hacking at times through thick jungle. We entered a ravine, pushed up a slope, and suddenly there they were, the men of Delta Company. A shelled-out ruin of a French plantation building occupied the center of a flat clearing on the crest of a hill. The building had no roof, just four walls with openings where there had been windows and several doors. Outside the north wall the bodies of nine GIs lay side by side, some only partially covered with ponchos; inside, the wounded lay or sat scattered about, in various states of distress. The odor of death, of exposed organs, hung in the 110-degree heat.
The men of Delta Company were relieved to see us, and we dispersed to dig new foxholes, reinforce their positions, and strengthen the perimeter. I was a forward observer, calling in artillery or air support to protect my company. Although I was only a private first class, specialized training as a Pathfinder and four years of college had qualified me for a job normally held by officers, and I was happy about getting it. The afternoon was quiet. Tony, my RTO (radiotelephone operator), and I settled ourselves at the “command post” inside the building. I began to think that maybe the enemy had gone.
The helicopter with Noonan on board approached. Then the explosion and crash. A patrol, formed to try to recover any survivors, got perhaps 60 feet beyond our perimeter into the jungle before it was pinned down by ferocious .51-caliber machine-gun fire. The truth dawned on me. The NVA had parted, allowed Charlie Company through, then closed behind us. Now we, too, were trapped.
The battle flared off and on all day. The enemy probed with ground troops all afternoon and periodically mortared us. We responded with artillery and called air strikes; the thunderous explosions close to our lines kept the enemy at bay. The power and precision of the strikes I summoned was exhilarating. Nightfall brought several major ground assaults, each repulsed after close fighting at the foxholes on the perimeter. The radios crackled with the excited voices of men telling us in the command post how near the enemy was.
On the hard dirt floor at the center of the building, I lay on my back, my right arm extended upward, pointing a strobe light toward the sky, my left hand clutching a radiophone to my ear. Overhead an Air Force AC-139 Spectre gunship, known affectionately by ground troops as Spooky, circled lazily, spewing withering gunfire around our perimeter. As I spoke by radio with Spooky’s crew, the wall of fire, illuminated by tracer rounds, undulated inward or outward, nearer or farther away, based on reports coming from our foxholes. Marking the center, for Spooky, was the sharp beam of my light.
I checked my watch; it was about five minutes until midnight when out of the corner of my eye I saw in the shadows an NVA soldier, the familiar outline of his pith helmet clearly visible. He had slipped through the perimeter and stood just inside the doorway, a launcher on his shoulder, taking aim at the light I held. I knew I could not react fast enough.
An enormous noise engulfed me. My body rose and flew through the air. My body spun slowly, gracefully it seemed, through a brilliant white light. I heard a noise like a giant spring unwinding. “So this is death,” I thought.
When I came to, the battle was in full fury, with enemy tracers zinging just over my head. The obliterating of my light had been the signal for a full-scale assault. I would learn later that the rocket grenade fired by the invader had wounded nine men. It had hit the ground several feet in front of me and sprayed shrapnel through the command post. A comrade had shot and killed the soldier who launched it.
I remember lying in a puddle and realizing that it must be my blood. I couldn’t move. My right arm was curled up at a bad angle, and I could not make it unbend. I could feel air at the top of my head and worried that my skull was fractured. But I felt no pain, and I realized I was in shock.
A medic crawled over to me.
“How bad is it?” I asked.
“You’ll be okay,” he said.
“Are my brains exposed?” My first question in a hierarchy of fears.
“No, it’s just a scalp wound.”
“Are my legs still there?” “Yes.”
“Is my arm broken?”
“Yes,” he said. “But you’re losing blood, and I’m out of bandages. I’ll be back.” He crawled away.
My glasses had been blown off and an eardrum shattered. Eyesight blurred and half-deaf, I lay immobile through an apocalypse: screams, explosions, and the arcs of tracer bullets all around me. For the first time I knew real fear, fear that another North Vietnamese soldier would get through and stand over me, and I would helplessly witness, by bullet or bayonet, my own execution.
Our guys held. Somebody else took over the strobe and kept Spooky on target. Five hours later the fighting subsided, and at dawn I was dragged on a poncho from the building and deposited on a secured slope of the hill.
Tony, my radiotelephone operator, was unhurt. Tenderly he held my hand. “You’re gonna make it home.” A Huey medevac choppered down to the field. Tony and others picked me up on the poncho, ran to the helicopter, and flung me in with both the living and dead. It didn’t matter. No time for protocol. NVA machine gunners opened up, trying to take out the chopper. It rose slowly and tilted when a round ripped through its upper fuselage. For a brief moment I was angry with God, that He would take me this far and then let me die in a helicopter crash. I wanted to go home.
The chopper righted itself, and I passed out. When I regained consciousness, I was lying in a field hospital, a doctor tugging at shards of shrapnel in my chest. It hurt like hell.
Out of the 130 men of Charlie Company who had walked into the valley, only 25 had walked out.
After 30 years, the experts said, you will never find the exact spot where it happened. Your memory will play tricks. The place will be overgrown with jungle. Every fragment of the building will be gone, taken by poor, industrious people who let nothing go to waste.
Only in recent years had I begun to feel a desire to go back. I can’t say that I even knew why. I did know that Vietnam was always with me. In the hospital I had read accounts of the battle in Stars and Stripes and about the death of Oliver Noonan.
Noonan’s willingness to die while covering a story fascinated me. He risked, and gave, his life because he believed in the truth of his images and what they would tell people at home about the war. He became a hero to me. After a long recovery I attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. I joined the Philadelphia Inquirer , wrote about politics in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania capital, and won some awards. I became the press secretary for Gov. Dick Thornburgh just in time for the March 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident and continued as one of his top aides until 1985, when I joined the brokerage giant Merrill Lynch as head of its communications and public affairs group.
I have always been involved in veterans’ affairs. I took a special interest in the educational work of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and when the Wall’s indomitable founder, Jan Scruggs, invited me to join its corporate board, 1 jumped at the chance.
Despite those efforts, however, I never went back. In 1996 my wife, Patty, 10 years younger than I am and a half-generation removed from the pervasive effects of the Vietnam War, gave me a gift, a trip back “in country” whenever I wanted to go. I didn’t schedule it. Somehow there was always a work or family reason not to go.
Late in 1999 the corporate advisory board of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund decided to send a delegation to Vietnam for ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary—April 30, 2000—of the fall of Saigon. Two dozen U.S. veterans, all prominent business executives, would visit government, academic, and business leaders to promote reconciliation. Now there was not only a compelling reason to go; there was no excuse not to.
Working with Global Spectrum, a Washington-based travel agency that specializes in tours of Vietnam for American veterans, I began setting up my return visit with Dick Schonberger, himself a two-tour veteran. I sent Dick various documents I’d gathered over the years, including articles about the Battle of Hiep Due and Noonan’s death, an operations log detailing radio reports from the battlefield, and a map of the region encompassing Hiep Duc and the Que Son Valley. Each held clues. The articles gave a name, Hill 102, to the knoll where I had fought; at the time I had known it only by coordinates. They described Noonan’s helicopter as going down 1,600 or 3,200 feet from where our troops were engaged.
The ops log, a chronological, clinical listing of reports gathered by a rear-echelon Army clerk, had been given to me years earlier by my closest Army buddy, Francis Whitebird, who was Charlie Company’s medic; he’d gotten a copy at a reunion. The log is eerie. To see this complex story of combat, of life and death, redacted to one cold sentence: “C Co while in night lager received RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) rds (rounds), MC (machine-gun) fire and SA (small-arms) fire resulting in 1 US KIA (killed in action) and 13 WIA (wounded in action).” The report went on to list the victims; my name was among them. It was inadequate, annoying in its minimalization of what had happened that night. But it did offer clues, such as coordinates for artillery fire.
Schonberger put it all together. “I’m sending you a map that is marked. I think I’ve got it pinpointed where you were,” he told me over the phone. “It’s Hill 102, at the base of the mountain where Landing Zone West was located. LZ West has to be where your company helicoptered in, and from there you walked down into the Que Son Valley. Your description, the articles, the log, the map—all the pieces fit.”
“Do you think we can find the exact spot?” I asked, excited.
Dick said he would contact a Vietnamese tour guide in Hoi An and ask him to scout out the area before we arrived. When I looked at the map, with LZ West and Hill 102 circled in dark ink, I knew at that moment I wanted—no, needed—to go there again.
The anxiety was palpable among us when our Vietnam Airlines jet approached Hanoi Airport. The joking and small talk had stopped. As we landed, I noticed how lush and green the countryside was. When we disembarked, we were greeted with the first of several emotional segues—moments of transition—in my personal journey.
Two dozen young men and women formed a pathway as we walked to the terminal and, smiling, handed each of us a bouquet of flowers. Thirty years earlier, stepping off the plane at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon, I had been handed an M-16. The feeling then had been good—complete and utter awe that I was actually there and comfort in the power of the weapon in my arms to protect me. This time, flowers. A good feeling as well, but very different.
The next day, our delegation went to the Vietnam National University in Hanoi to dedicate the new computer lab our fund had built. We were greeted by about 50 students in brilliant white silk uniforms. “Because of you, these students can now become citizens of the world,” said Dr. Truong Gia Binh, dean of the university’s business school. We chatted with the young people and even traded e-mail addresses. If the students knew about the war, it was not evident. They seemed warm, sincere, and without reproach, much like all the Vietnamese we had seen, even those old enough to have suffered from the war.
I was beginning to look at Vietnam in a different light. For 30 years it had existed as a strange, distant, and very hostile land. The sun was beginning to play on that dark corner of my mind. Could I shift the prism? Could I see Vietnam as a familiar and beautiful country where long ago something awful had happened?
I knew from news articles the name of the unit my company had engaged in the Que Son Valley, the 2d NVA Division. Jeff Kruger, the project director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund delegation, had reminded me that our group was to meet Vietnamese veterans in Hanoi. He had asked his contacts to try to find someone who had fought in that division. Anxious but curious, I arrived 15 minutes early at the offices of the Veterans Association of Vietnam, in a beautiful old French building painted light yellow and trimmed in white.
Jeff was waiting. “Paul, the 2d NVA is here!”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes. The division’s commander is inside!”
This would be a major step in my journey. I was thrilled and scared. Would he be hostile, wary, or friendly? Would we feel any connection at all? Was he the right man, in command of this unit in 1969? Would he remember the battle? Would we shake hands? The idea of meeting him brought a welling up of emotions. I felt my eyes filling.
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.
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.”
The dinner over, we spotted a sign outside the ballroom identifying the Associated Press offices. The room was locked. We returned the next afternoon and knocked on the door. Inside, five correspondents were working at their computers. We approached an older reporter, introduced ourselves, told him why we were in Vietnam, and asked if he had known Oliver Noonan. “Yes, I did, just a little,” he said, “but Horst Faas knew him the best. He’s out but should be back in an hour.”
I couldn’t believe our luck. Horst Faas, a legendary photojournalist, has covered many wars but is most famous for his 12 years of work in Vietnam. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, the first while serving as the AP’s chief photographer in Vietnam, and had just had published a handsome book, Requiem , which collected the best works of photographers from all nations who had been killed while covering the wars in Indochina.
Oliver Noonan was prominently featured in that book, and Faas had written the brief biography that accompanied Noonan’s work. I wanted to know more about Noonan, but I really was hoping Faas would be able to tell me about the battle and where the helicopter had gone down, about any landmark or detail that might help us find Hill 102.
We met Faas an hour later. He has a shock of white hair, a craggy visage, and a paunch. He is a presence, and he treated our questions with gravity. “Yeah, I knew Ollie very well,” he told us. “Let’s find a place to sit down.” He had flown out to the battlefield within a day or two of Noonan’s death, he said, had found himself pinned down with the GIs trying to reach the site, arranged for the remains to be flown home, and developed the photographer’s last rolls of film. “Ollie was a serious person. He didn’t drink. He wrote poetry. He was sensitive, exceptional at coming up with feature photos—families working the rice paddies, a silhouette of a water buffalo at sunset. How he got into this scrape, I don’t know.”
Noonan, who died two and a half months before his thirtieth birthday, had come from Boston, taking a leave of absence from the Globe to pay his own way to Vietnam. He had covered the civil rights movement in the American South and the 1963 March on Washington. The day he died, he got exclusive pictures of the fierce fighting in the Que Son Valley, then put aside his camera to help carry wounded men to safety. His last photos were of a fisherman on a beach and GIs in battle.
Horst told us he’d sent copies of Requiem to Ollie’s sisters but never heard back from them. He said it very sadly. This gruff, worldly man was tender about Ollie Noonan. As the AP’s chief in Saigon, it turned out, he’d been the one who sent Noonan on his final assignment. I asked if he remembered anything about where the helicopter had crashed, anything that might help us pinpoint the place where I was wounded.
“Hill 102?” he repeated dismissively. “You’re thinking of going to the site? Don’t bother. It’s been 30 years.” He told us about a recent trip he’d taken to Laos to find a helicopter crash site. “It was two or three feet underground. It took 70 Laotians digging for 15 days to find anything.”
Patty and I made one more try, asking him if he remembered anything at all about the spot. Yes, he said, almost offhandedly. When he and the soldiers had been pinned down near the site, the machine-gun fire had come from an outcropping of boulders just below the helicopter wreckage. There was a slope and there were some boulders. Was there a hill beyond the boulders? He couldn’t remember.
We walked him to his hotel room, and he said he had something for us. He sifted through files that he apparently took everywhere and pulled out a photo of a handsome, earnest, freckle-faced young man smoking a pipe and looking sideways at the camera.
“That’s Ollie,” he said. “I’ll give you Ollie.”
The next day, we left for Da Nang and were met at the airport by Luong Chinh, our tour guide. Mr. Chinh, 43, was sweet-tempered, talkative, and relentlessly solicitous, with a good command of English. It turned out we have daughters and sons the same ages. With us was Julie Schmit, the USA Today reporter. She was tall, pretty, square-shouldered, and understated, from a Wisconsin dairy-farm family, and I had come to trust her. When she asked to go with us to Hiep Duc, Patty and I agreed.
Mr. Chinh was waiting with his car, and I pulled out my maps and articles to review with him. For two hours our party of five drove into the mountains, stopping at former U.S bases along the way. Finally we arrived at a clutch of thatched buildings, from among which emerged a narrow dirt road, spilling onto the main road. A sign said: HIEP DUC, 7K [kilometers]. I got out to look around and saw a shape that felt, rather than looked, familiar. I asked Mr. Chinh where we were. An entrance to the Que Son Valley, he said, and the shape looming ahead was Le Kiem Mountain, on top of which had sat, during the war, LZ West.
Four young men astride Honda Super Cub 90 motorbikes were waiting to take us in. We climbed on the backs of the bikes and set off over the very rough path. Twenty minutes later we pulled up in front of a tin-and-thatch hooch. Mr. Chinh introduced us to a Mr. Hen, an elderly, leathery farmer. They clearly knew each other. Mr. Chinh had already scouted out the area.
We started up the mountain path, following Mr. Hen. A young man joined us. He was extremely well groomed, wearing aviator sunglasses and crisply pressed chinos.
Through Mr. Chinh I asked Mr. Hen if he’d been here in 1969 and remembered the big battle. He nodded. Yes, he remembered it well. I asked if he recalled a helicopter being shot down. Yes, he knew exactly where it had crashed. Would he show us? Yes.
We continued climbing. I was back in the boonies, in terraced rice paddies, “humping” the narrow paddy dikes, skirting sugar cane fields. It all was so familiar, right down to the 100-degree-plus heat. I wasn’t minding the heat one bit. We passed an uneven depression in the ground, an artillery crater. Excitedly I pointed it out and snapped a picture. The man in the chinos raised an apparent objection. Then I understood: This man was the “minder,” the local Communist party agent sent to watch and control us. Mr. Chinh, visibly afraid, said we would be allowed to take only a few photos. I resented the young man’s presence. What right had he to thwart my return? But I knew we were dependent on his whim.
As we climbed, an expanse of valley unfolded below. I recognized its shape and the contours of the mountains that formed its borders. I could never have described the Que Son Valley, but now I recognized it as if August 19, 1969, had been yesterday. It was smaller than I remembered, and it was very beautiful. Rather than feeling fear, I felt summoned.
We spotted a set of black boulders resting conspicuously midway down the spine of a hill not far away. “There,” said Mr. Hen, pointing. “There is where the helicopter went down.” What had happened to the wreckage? we asked. All taken away for salvage, he said. Was he sure this was the spot? He grinned. Of course he was sure. This was his neighborhood. It isn’t often a helicopter is shot down in one’s neighborhood, and people tend to remember such things. I asked if he recalled a French plantation building, or the ruins of such a building, down in the valley beyond the foot of the mountain. Gone, he said, also salvaged for reuse.
The landscape began to take on meaning. Those must be the boulders Horst Faas had spoken of. The helicopter had gone down just above them; afterward enemy machine guns among the rocks had kept the Americans pinned down. It made sense. My adrenaline racing, I visually “triangulated” downhill from the boulders; if our research and my memory were correct, the spot I sought would be 1,600 to 3,200 feet below them. There it was! Past the foot of the slope and beyond a ravine stood a larger hill amidst a cluster of smaller ones, Hill 102. I begin to take photos. Mr. Chinh came up and told me to stop. “Mr. Chinh,” I said, “I have to take some pictures. You must tell our friend that I have come a long way for this moment.”
Mr. Chinh spoke to the young man for a while, and the other Vietnamese wandered away, chattering. Their backs were to us. I snapped a few quick shots, not wanting to tempt fate.
Then I told Mr. Chinh that we must get to the hill. “I don’t think we can go there,” he said, adding that Hill 102 was in another jurisdiction. “It is restricted. I will have to make a phone call. We must get permission.”
As we descended, my heart sank. What if my journey ended here, close enough to see but unable to touch?
We waited outside Mr. Hen’s hooch while Mr. Chinh and the minder zipped away on motorbikes. When they returned, Mr. Chinh reported that we had permission to go on. We roared along the path, winding, climbing, dropping, and 30 minutes later emerged at the center of the valley, amid a sweeping patchwork of terraced rice paddies that gave way occasionally to fields of sugar cane. Only a quarter-mile or so away, there it was, the hill, rising like a top hat out of the fields, broad, round, jungle growth covering its southern edge, neat rows of sugar cane dressing up the middle, and scruffy foliage to the north. Behind it, Le Kiem Mountain. From this new perspective I recognized it clearly. I could even trace the route of Charlie Company’s descent from LZ West to the valley, across its northeastern floor, and up to the hill. Mr. Chinh and I examined the map; the topography matched perfectly. We had done it. We were within walking distance of Hill 102.
Meanwhile, a new minder had replaced the first. He was also young but rougher-looking and surlier. We walked north toward the hill. How high and steep it looked as we grew closer! I snapped two or three photos with my 35-millimeter Nikon, and the minder spoke sharply to Mr. Chinh. By the time we reached the foot of the hill, my heart was pounding. I told Mr. Chinh and Patty that I must go up the slope, I must see more. The minder said we could go up for only a few minutes, we couldn’t take the camera, and not everyone could go. Julie volunteered to stay behind. After our six-hour march through rice paddies, fields, and jungle terrain, her gesture was profoundly generous. I accepted it. She could protect the camera and its film, I hoped, and perhaps distract the minder on this last hour of my journey.
As I walked, I vowed to ignore the minder’s orders that we stop at the crest. I knew one thing: I had to keep going. Our narrow path winding upward, I spotted it: an artillery crater. I took out my little Elph pocket camera and snapped discreetly. Mr. Chinh looked back; the minder was asleep. We came to another crater, this one from a 500-pound bomb. Then another, filled with water. I pointed to the third crater. “These could have been made by the artillery and air strikes I called in.” Then it hit me. There was a pattern to the craters. They were part of a big circle, a ring. In the center of that ring might be what I had come to find.
“Just a little farther, please, Mr. Chinh. I have to keep going.” I saw that he was eager too. My quest had become his.
We followed the path upward along a sugar cane field on one side and thickets of bamboo on the other. Several hundred feet farther on, the thickets opened up. I paused and looked to the north. There was a clearing. The ground was perfectly flat, as if graded, and was planted with manioc, a kind of sweet potato. I saw the dropoff of a ravine at the far edge. I stepped into the space, and I knew instantly.
“This is it!” I yelled.
I was trembling. I realized I’d never known what it meant really to tremble, shaking uncontrollably as the memories flooded through all my senses. “Yes, this is it! I know it! I recognize it!”
Mr. Chinh was crying now. “You will bring your son here someday,” he said. “I will bring my son.”
“The building sat here,” I told him. “The NVA came up through that ravine and into the building. Past those trees up on the mountainside is where the helicopter went down, and down the hill over there is where they dragged us on our ponchos for the medevac to take us out.”
Now I knew why I’d needed to come back. For 31 years I had been trying to reconstruct that day, that evening, that moment. I had never realized how much of it I had carried with me through the decades. Veterans of combat often suppress the reality of what they have experienced. They can’t be sure of what really happened. Trauma plays long-term tricks on the memory. I had believed that I’d had a handle on it. But I had fooled myself.
The questions had roiled around endlessly in the recesses of my mind—self-doubts, many of them. Was it really the way I remembered it? Was I embellishing what had happened so I could be a hero? Was I understating it to diminish myself? Had it been necessary to hold the flashlight, or had it been stupid? Did I leave my fellow soldiers unprotected by getting wounded early in the battle? Could I have done something different, or smarter? Why had I been embarrassed that I had left Vietnam before my 12 months were up?
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.