Return to Vietnam
Fifty years ago I served as an Army nurse in Vietnam for 14 months from 1967 into 1968. More than 50% of the casualties of Vietnam occurred during this time frame. We saw the ravages of war as we cared for our servicemembers and occasionally civilian casualties and prisoners of war.
The emotional burden of that war included anger that our young soldiers were wounded and maimed for life, anger at the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese for resisting our attempts to help them achieve unification and peace. Anger at the protestors at home who blamed us for serving and believing in our government
My ignorance of the complications of that conflict was immense. It has taken those 50 years to help put the conflict into perspective. War never makes sense but sometimes looking back provides new insights. My feelings now are of rage that we were lied to about our mission in Vietnam, rage that thousands of Vietnamese were defending their own country against foreign invaders, US and we thought we were there to help set them free. I am outraged by the horrendous treatment by some of our soldiers on civilians, children and infants in the paranoia created assuming every VN was Viet Cong or NVA and must be killed.
The summer, Aug 2019, I returned to Vietnam for the first time with 12 other veterans, some from Vietnam, others from more recent conflicts. We went with PeaceTrees Vietnam, an organization helping with the de-mining efforts and building kindergartens and villages for those who continue to be injured by munitions left over from the war and poverty.
Our trip started in Hanoi, the resting place of Ho Chi Minh, but more importantly for us, where our POW had been imprisoned for up to seven years. Hanoi Hilton, as it was called, was every bit as bleak and threatening as one would imagine. Metal cots with shackles where men were fastened to their beds and tortured for days, months and years. Imagination, even seeing the facility, would never adequately describe their experiences. Portraits of selected POW’s were on display with their biographies on the walls and were being used as propaganda today. News pictures from 1960-1970’s of Vietnam war protests in the USA were on display at museums around the city. I felt like an invader on the one hand and outraged on the other of propaganda being used to humiliate Americans at home and abroad.
Throughout the Hanoi there was a curious chaos of people, bicycles, motorbikes and cars on the roads. Vehicles drove where-ever there was room regardless of which direction the traffic was supposed to flow. Pretty hectic and exhausting to do window shopping with all the traffic, people and the rain, heat and humidity.
As we traveled south towards the DMZ the crush of humanity and vehicles reduced so one could appreciate the landscape. It was jarring to see the land inundated with family shrines to respect the loss of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians. We also went to military cemeteries where as at our Washington National Cemetery, thousands of headstones depict the casualties of war. Thinking of how each shrine, each headstone reflects the loss to a mother, father, sibling and family it is heartbreaking to realize that this is really the cost of war. Somehow it struck me so poignantly while here in VN.
Crossing the bridge on the DMZ, painted in different colors to depict the historic demarcation between north and south Vietnam. The past 50 years was a time of reconciliation to unite the country. There were subtleties and comments by our guides indicating there was still a North and a South Vietnam with different cultures and values, Communism vs more democratic south, more freedom of thought and talk as we headed south also.
Going to the various museums I had a new appreciation of political propaganda used to explain history. It felt personal and biased as we saw pictures and captions of American GI’s described as “frightened and cowering servicemen being attacked by Vietnamese”. Where there was storage of American weapons, planes and vehicles they were labeled “captured in 1976”. We had of course left all the equipment behind for the taking.
As we headed further into central Vietnam we ended at the sanctuary and headquarters of PeaceTrees Vietnam. For 25 years PeaceTrees Vietnam has put money and resources into assisting with de-mining efforts. This was where I had the opportunity to dedicate my own song to this journey. I had brought my uke-guitar and on the while there sang a song I had written planning for this trip.
Peace Trees Song
We must learn our lessons from the past
Our losses and suffering felt en masse
Our resolve should be “lead in peace”
Reached through Vietnam Peace Trees
Vietnam was a place of such pain and loss
A time in my youth I still bear the cross
Memories still linger like it was today
Of lives lost when war took our loved one away
In time of turmoil, of fighting and death
A time remembered ‘til my last breath
We thought we were noble helping a cause
Then found we were lied to and led by flaws
Vietnam and its people were buried in tears
Aggressors invaded for so many years
From the south and the north the nation dug in
Awaiting departure of those who broke in
Now many years later the toll still remain
The land and the people de-mine their domain
We come back so humbly to help to rebuild
The land with the trust of the people fulfilled
We reach out our hands and our hearts as one
In part to repair the horror which was done
During our trip we were welcomed into the homes of Vietnamese families including sharing meals, singing traditional songs, visiting kindergartens, and villages built by PeaceTrees. We travelled on boats learning to cast fishing nets, dance, eat all sorts of traditional foods. It seemed surreal after having relived the remnants of war.
This trip back to Vietnam after 50 years did not bring peace for me. Preparing for the trip I had been reading much on our real involvement and the extent of our war atrocities and was shamed. In my eyes the United States was honorable, our purpose there was to give the Vietnamese people the opportunity for self-governance. That did not turn out to be how or why we were there. We were not honorable in terms of following the Geneva convention in treatment of civilians and POW.
It was difficulty to accept that we were being welcomed in 2019 to Vietnam after having been invaders taking over after the French defeat in 1954. The French Peoples War was replaced by the American Peoples War in 1954. American involvement started as American advisors and then escalated into combat troops being sent to fight in Vietnam in the 1960’s until the end in 1973. Looking back now it was sheer horror for the Vietnamese with continuous bombings as they tried to keep invaders from taking over the country. It was here as I began reflecting on World War II and my own parents’ involvement with the underground in Norway. Their resistance was like that of the Vietnamese wanting peace and foreigners out. My whole concept of the war I had been a part of began to change and my anger still seethes within me.
I feel a shame, that I had not experienced previously, at our involvement. That said I do not regret my time as an Army Nurse in Vietnam and do wear the uniform with pride representing the United States but I naively thought my Vietnam service was honorable.
COL (ret) Margarethe Cammermeyer USAR,
Bibliography of worth:
A Viet Cong Memoir. Truong Nhu Tang with avid Chanoff and Doan Van Toai, Vintage Books, 1985
Kill Anything That Moves: the Real American War in Vietnam. Nick Turse. Picador. 1985
The Hidden History of the Vietnam War. John Prados. Ivan R. Dee. 1995
The highlight of this trip for me was meeting a Viet Cong Nurse who had been working in the tunnels taking care of North Vietnamese casualties. She talked of caring for an American POW prior to him being sent north to the prison in Hanoi.
I asked if she was angry caring for him since he was taking time and resources she could have used for her own casualties. She was more compassionate than me. She was dedicated to caring for everyone regardless of affiliation.
Truth be known, I did not feel the same when the Viet Cong became our prisoner/patient. At the end of our time together she said, we should meet more often nurse to nurse to bridge the gap between former enemies to make friends.