April 30 is the anniversary of the 1975 United States withdrawal from VietNam after many years of involvement in that country’s war. That conflict remains a part of American history- and also a part of the personal history of the men and women and their families who served the military in any capacity during those years. Here I share a perspective on that history from my husband Raymond Oglesby.
The Way Back
By Raymond Oglesby
I didn’t want to ever go to Vietnam again when I came home in 1972 after a one-year tour of duty with the United States Army. I was stationed with the Americal Division, 3/18 Field Artillery Battalion near Tra Bong, a major village located about 25 miles west of Chu Lai, the headquarters of the Americal Division, on “China Beach” at the South China Sea.
Tra Bong was an artillery base and housed two 8 inch and two 175 self-propelled howitzers. Each gun was capable of launching a 90 to 100 pound projectile 20 to 30 miles. The “fire base” was home to about 120 soldiers. Day and night, we fired the guns.
The US Army trained enlisted men to use weapons to destroy the enemy. Our mission was to route the NVA (North Vietnam Army) and VC (Viet Cong) from South Vietnam. I served as team leader of Fire Direction Control (FDC). We were responsible for working up fire missions and passing them to the gun crews via radio.
Killing the enemy, Vietnamese soldiers, didn’t bother me then because I did not see them as human. They would intercept our radio transmissions and curse us in English. We called them Charlie, VC and gooks. Without real names, they did not exist. Despite our superior air, sea and land capabilities the United States military lost the war, the first war our country has ever lost.
When I came home, I did not talk about my involvement in the Vietnam War for over fifteen years. I only told two or three people what really happened. I thought only another Vietnam vet could understand.
After the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial was erected in Washington D.C. (1982), I began reading and watching videos about that time in our nation’s history. In Vietnam, we heard nothing about the anti-war demonstrations back in the States. Now I realized that our country’s involvement there had been a misguided effort. The more I learned, the more I wanted to go back to Vietnam, not to feel sorry for myself but to help the country I tried to destroy.
For Christmas, my wife gave me A Missing Peace, a book written by a Vietnam veteran, Robert Seiple. From it, I learned I was not the only veteran haunted by his war experience. Others sought healing from their shame and anger.
And I discovered how much the Vietnamese people had suffered and still did. Unlike other wars, no restitution was made to rebuild the nation so Vietnam steadily declined economically. He described efforts to help rebuild Vietnam and said anyone can make a difference. He issued a call to “reconciliation”, both within ourselves and between the two countries.
I decided to contact Vets with a Mission (VWAM), one of the agencies listed in the book. VWAM is a non-profit, non-political organization that works to bring healing and reconciliation between our countries. Since 1988, VWAM has taken teams of veterans and other volunteers into Vietnam. At their own expense they travel to Vietnam to build rural medical clinics, support orphanages, care for homeless children and work with hospitals.
I began planning a trip there myself, wondering what I would find and how I would feel. I did not understand why God was stirring my heart for the people of Vietnam. Was I a traitor for wanting to aid a former enemy? Some of my friends thought so, saying “Since you were dying to get out, why would you go back?”
In January 1994 I arrived in Vietnam for my first visit after twenty-two years. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. I ran whenever we stopped to visit a site, especially if I had been there during the war. I empathized with the Vietnamese who were still living in poverty. I no longer saw them as enemies but as fellow humans. They treated us kindly and welcomed us wherever we went.
At Tra Bong a crowd of people followed us around, since few Americans have been there since the war. For me the highlight of the trip was a visit to the site of the old firebase.
After walking around the now deserted site, I felt I should kneel to pray for the village people around me. They did not understand what I was doing or saying. Right then, my heart was broken for the Vietnamese people.
As we left, children from the nearby school mobbed our van. My eyes misted with tears as I felt the Lord drawing me back. “You must reach these people for my Kingdom.” I knew then I would go back.
I have served on several Vets with a Mission teams, teaching computer applications in schools and hospitals. I have made Vietnamese friends. Some people think I am a traitor by giving aid to a former enemy. I’m not offended or resentful toward them. I only know that God has given me a burden and compassion for the people of Vietnam.
In 1970, I went on a mission of destruction, now I go on a mission of reconstruction. We failed to win the minds of the Vietnamese by bullets, but we are touching their hearts through the love of God.
More about trips to VietNam at these links