Growing up in Sacramento, California, Bob Peragallo always knew he wanted to be a soldier. When he was 17, he began to fulfil that ambition. He was oblivious to the adage, Be careful what you wish for, for you may actually get it.
His eighteenth birthday, in 1965, found him on a ship bound for Vietnam, a boy about to endure a 13-month baptism by fire on a tortuous path to becoming a man. His tour in Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines -- the "Walking Dead" -- became the crucible that has given definition and purpose to the rest of his life.
For Bob Peragallo, the defining time of his tour -- and of his life -- came on 12 May 1966, when his patrol was engaged by the R20 Doc Lap Viet Cong Battalion in the village of Hoa Tay. On a search-and-destroy mission, the patrol from Bravo Company walked into an ambush that began a battle that endured for three days, claiming early on the lives of 12 of the original 14-man patrol, along with several other Marines who were part of the reaction force.
Corporal Bob Peragallo was one of the two from what became known as the "Lost Patrol" who made it out alive.
"From that point on," he said during a telephone conversation from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, "I knew I was a survivor. Until then, I never thought I'd make it."
Before 12 May, though, the young corporal had come to realize that "sometimes in life you realize you can't get out of what you have to do. You can't bail. You have to do what you have to do." Which then meant: use your training and your instincts to keep alive, and keep your buddies alive.
The years after Vietnam were not easy for Bob. He was afflicted by survivor's guilt, which never quite went away, and was exacerbated by his next assignments.
"When I first got home, I was stationed at Treasure Island and an outpatient at the Oakland Naval Hospital. They put me on a burial detail. It fried my brain," he said. "It was more than I could bear, handing neatly folded flags to so many mothers whose sons had been killed. I was half-snookered most of the time. I needed a change."
The Corps accommodated him, assigning him to pick up deserters. Which was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. His unrequited anger boiled over more times than he's comfortable admitting to.
All the while, and for years afterward, he was having apocalyptic dreams about Vietnam. The dreams, the images, eventually faded, but the emotion always remained: the sweat, the gut-churning fear, a cloud of death permeated by the fear and adrenaline.
One time not too many years ago, he was asked by a reporter, When was the last time you were in Vietnam? "Last night," he replied.
In June 1972 he met a young lady. Linda Matthews became Bob's bride five months later. And changed his life.
They moved to northern Idaho, seeking solace and a modicum of peace. They had three daughters. He became an ordained minister. Intrigued by a street mission program in Vancouver, they moved there September 1988. Intending to stay for a few years, they've been there ever since.
It was in Vancouver that Bob found an outlet for personal healing.
In 1988, Bob and Bob Kimball, who had served as a mortarman with the 1st Cavalry Division, founded Vets With A Mission. The goal of this group of Vietnam veterans and non-veterans is altruistic: to bring healing, reconciliation, and renewal to the people of Vietnam, people with whom veterans have shared so much suffering. At the same time, while helping others, those who are doing the helping find healing as well.
Vets With A Mission has engaged in a variety of projects. Over the past 13 years, they have built 28 rural health stations in some of the poorest, most medically underserved areas of Vietnam. They have organized medical training programs that bring American physicians and surgeons to work with and train local doctors to help improve their level of education and skills. They have provided medical, dental, and orthopaedic equipment and pharmaceutical supplies -- 36 cargo containers' worth -- to support medical projects in Dong Ngai and Quang Nam provinces as well as in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang and the "Peace Village" rehabilitation center in Song Be.
While VWAM's building or funding projects currently are centered, for the most part, in what had been the I Corps area of South Vietnam, their initial project was in Phu Ngoc, about an hour southeast of Saigon. The group gave more than $40,000 towards the construction and operation of a major medical training facility, and funded the first two satellite health stations linked to the main health station. In 1993, Bob said, Hanoi officially designated the health station in Phu Ngoc as the model rural health care center for the entire country.
The group has been welcomed by the people and by the government. "They know we're there to help them," Bob said, "and we do. After we built a clinic in the Que Son valley, infant mortality, which had been at about 33 percent, dropped to 3 percent."
Current projects feature a major AIDS and HIV awareness program undertaken by the government, which for too long had denied any problem with AIDS, and the Health Education and Information Center in Danang, which helps villagers with sanitation issues.
A Clear Mission
"When we were first over in Vietnam, our mission was never clear, never defined," said Bob, who has been back to Vietnam 28 times in the past 14 years. "I went because I wanted to help the Vietnamese people; in my immature mind at the time, we were there to liberate the people.
"Now, our mission is clear, and defined: to heal and to reconcile. I've been able to go back and create new memories, good memories," he said. "For me, it's been a real healing experience."
As another adage goes, It is better to give than to receive. For Bob Peragallo, giving is receiving.
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