DONG HA, VIETNAM, 16 September 2001 -- We are in the Hieu Giang Hotel in Dong Ha, six miles from the former DMZ. I am in a deep and dreamless sleep, exhausted after a heavy hump up into the clouds enshrouding Hill 689. I am in Vietnam on a tour with a small group of Marines -- most served with Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines -- who are revisiting the sites, the scenes of their combat 34 years ago.
I am awakened from my slumber by a harsh and insistent banging on the door. It is the middle of the night. Everybody downstairs into the dining room, commands Bill Stilwagen, the tour director for Military Historical Tours. The World Trade Center has been destroyed. Thirty thousand are dead, he says. We are at war.
I stumble into pants and a shirt. We gather in the room next to mine, out attention riveted to the scene unfolding on the small Daewoo TV. What movie is this from, I wonder? It of course is no movie: the Twin Towers are . . . gone, pancaked into rubble. Thousands are dead. We sit on chairs and beds, numbed by the scenes of carnage.
In the morning we are again transfixed by the television as more details emerge. We feel impotent, useless. We are halfway around the world. Our options are limited. The tour will continue -- to Khe Sanh, Hue, DaNang. As we are on a voyage of rediscovery, exploring the scenes of our service in America’s longest and most division war, our country is on the cusp of the next war.
"Wouldn’t it have been terrific if we went into combat in Vietnam knowing we had the support of all the American people?" says Roy Moon. Doc, who is from Fort Gay, West Virginia,was Hotel Company’s corpsman. He slogged through the boonies in I Corps every day for a year in 1967-68, emerging without a scratch, saddened by the losses they took yet proud of what he and his comrades had done.
Over the next few days, we are approached by strangers expressing concern and offering condolences: a young waiter in a restaurant in Hue; a rotund Australian in a bar in DaNang; a Mexican national traveling with a French tour group, also in DaNang. Their sincerity, their expressions of sympathy are welcome.
Ed Henry, a vice president at Military Historical Tours who is accompanying our small band of brothers (and sisters: two wives are here with their husbands), had to escort one of the veterans up to Hanoi where he could obtain first-class treatment for what we suspect and later learn was a small stroke complicated by a blood clot on his brain.
Walking between hotel and hospital in Hanoi, which had been bombed by American planes relentlessly during the war, Ed is taken by the spontaneous display, illegal in Vietnam, of American flags. They are hanging in storefronts and in the windows of private residences. Young men and women are wearing t-shirts and bandanas decorated with the Stars and Stripes. No one will be arrested for this "offense."
One evening, Ed recounts, he is approached by an older Vietnamese man riding on his cycle. Are you American? he asks. Yes. He takes Ed’s hand in his. I am very sorry for what has happened to your country, he says. We know, because we have felt your bombs. Then he drives off.
And as I walk along the streets of the cities and villages in Vietnam, I feel totally safe. I never imagined I’d feel safer in Vietnam than in the streets of lower Manhattan.
Image Credit: https://americansecuritytoday.com/2nd-chance-vets-lost-way-seminar/